Most countries in Europe suffered a lingering malaise after World War II that extended far beyond rebuilding physical, cultural, economic, and governmental structures. Most difficult to navigate was rebuilding trust and national unity. Human nature being what it is, feelings of loss, betrayal, and cruelty burn in the breast with something akin to an eternal flame if not confronted openly. In tiny Luxembourg, a landlocked country sandwiched between France and Germany that owes much of its national culture to both those neighbors, a return to normalcy often meant hiding from wartime crimes. In Tomorrow, After the War, director and coscreenwriter Christophe Wagner attempts to lance the wounds of the past.
A thin layer of snow covers the open fields through which newly freed Resistance fighter Jules Ternes (Luc Schlitz) trudges to his small village following the defeat of Germany and liberation of the lands they occupied, including Luxembourg. He tries the door of his family home, apparently as empty as the streets nearby. Suddenly, his sister Mathilde (Eugenie Anselin) comes around the corner and calls his name. They embrace, and she informs him that their father (Jean-Paul Maes) has not returned from the labor camp to which he was sent as punishment for Jules joining the Resistance. Jules gets more unwelcome news when Armand (Jules Werner), a shady functionary of the village government, comes in and kisses Mathilde, his fiancée.
Jules tries to pick up his life as it was before the war. When he learns his old boss, a Jew, was deported to a concentration camp, he hires on as an auxiliary police officer. He also resumes his romance with Léonie (Elsa Rauchs), who works for a German family who are running a successful farm confiscated during the war by the Nazis. She says they were not Nazis and lent money and protection when possible to locals in need. Of course, the family’s prosperity and nationality now mark them as targets by Luxembourgers wanting payback against Germans and collaborators. Jules, besotted with Léonie, is caught in the middle, a position that becomes even more uncomfortable when the family is found murdered. His probing into the crime, motivated by strong, personal feelings, turns up information that conflicts with the official story, jeopardizing futures throughout the village.
Tomorrow, After the War is fairly derivative of the better detective shows one might find on TV, with its accumulation of clues and lies to be uncovered, and a few sex scenes that no film seems able to do without these days. Nonetheless, Jules is no standard-issue moody detective. He was an ordinary man before the war who became a cop afterward—and not even a full-time cop at that—because there were no other jobs to be had and the chief of police (André Jung) put him on as a favor to Jules’ father, with whom he fought during World War I.
The very ordinariness of Jules gives the film a foundation to look realistically at the compromises that have to be made when life is not proceeding as usual, a lesson that should have ramifications for those of us who haven’t experienced a whole world in upheaval—yet. Almost all of the characters in this film bear some degree of guilt for their actions or complicity in the world order that overtook them during the war years. With one exception, none of them appear to be guilty of much more than wanting to live, however painful their circumstances have been, and none of them is headed for sainthood.
To underscore the real choices that have to be made in extremis, the film depicts violence quickly and effectively. For example, Jules’ comrade is shot in the head for refusing to give up the location of his Resistance cell to their Nazi captors, a graphic horror that terrorizes Jules. His father, semi-crippled in body and mind, is a verbally abusive drunk whose only “crime” was surviving the Battle of the Somme. The murder victims are shown in economical, but vivid detail with shotgun wounds and buzzing flies destroying the pastoral in which they lived.
The cinematography is exceptionally good, with breathtaking landscape shots that add to the moodiness of the story and fine attention to detail, for example, placing an abandoned German tank in exactly the same position as one shown in a still photo of the period. I liked how the opening scene in the snow seems to suggest a world purified after so much bloodshed, interrupted by the figure of a dead horse lying in the field as Jules passes by. As Jules seems to be putting his life back together, a lovely scene of him and Léonie cycling in a bath of sunlight offers them and us a reprieve from the background gloom in which their rekindled love began.
For me, the pièce de résistance is Mathilde and Armand’s wedding. All of the conspirators are gathered to celebrate a festive occasion at last, but Jules, too aware of the thin veneer of civilization all around him, has a final confrontation with his father. Heroism is the ideal, but neither his father nor Jules can live up to what the world expects of them. In the homely scene of a village wedding, we realize our real aspirations are none too lofty. In the end, if we grab for something more ambitious and ideological in dangerous times, we might very well end up paying the ultimate price.
Tomorrow, After the War screens Saturday, March 11 at 4 p.m. and Tuesday, March 14 at 7:45 p.m. at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.
My Name Is Emily: This film about a teenager coping with the death of her mother and separation from her mentally ill father manages to be both sincere and funny, as she sets off with a would-be boyfriend to spring her father from the asylum. (Ireland)
In a village in West Africa isolated at the bottom of a large, circular gorge, 12-year-old Adama (Azize Diabaté Abdoulaye) and his friends enjoy an afternoon swimming and diving into a water-filled depression far below a narrow path where some village elders and Adama’s brother Samba (Jack Amba) are standing. Although told to stay with them to prepare for his initiation the next day, Samba defies the elders and performs a perfect swan dive into the pool. His independent nature will prove a trial to the villagers, and especially Adama, when his initiation into manhood is interrupted by an evil omen that he is possessed—an albatross flying high above the village. When he is told he must live with the village shaman, who will try to cure his possession, Samba sets off in the night to join the people of the wind, the Nassaras, in the outside world who have tempted him with gold and adventure. Adama sets off to bring his brother home. Eventually, his travels land him in the middle of no man’s land during World War I’s Battle of Verdun, during which more than a quarter-million French and German soldiers perished.
In his debut feature film, French animator/director/screenwriter Simon Rouby has turned to France’s past to tell a fable of sorts with flourishes of magic realism abetted in this animated film by a combination of 3D laser-scanned characters and 2D scenery and decors. While France’s colonial past is alluded to, as Samba is enticed to fight for France, while men in the coastal village to which Adama makes his way are conscripted if they don’t volunteer, the film’s main focus is the fish out of water adventure of Adama and his single-minded quest to save his brother.
The look of this film is both beautiful and a bit disconcerting. The backgrounds in the African portions of the film are impressionistic, with all the beauty of a New Mexico desert. The high cliffs that surround Adama’s village are modeled on the landscape where the Dogon tribes live—North Mali, by the Bandiagara cliffs—though the actual location is left unspecified in the film. Ferrofluids (iron particles mixed with ink that can be manipulated with magnets) and a combination of live-action effects and paintings provide some stunning images, from ghostlike soldiers in gas masks to a sandstorm that pummels Adama on his trip to the coast. On the other hand, Adama and Samba, though designed by Rouby to look lifelike, look anything but. Perhaps in 3D, they accomplish his goal, but in the 2D I saw, they looked like rough CGI.
Appearances aside, the action and voice actors are compelling and affecting. When Djo (Oxmo Puccino), the strong African warrior who protected Adama while they were crossing to France, is shown in a vast hospital blinded by mustard gas, it is a shocking and terrible moment. His dismay at being sent to a fight an enemy he never got a chance to see shows the gaping distance between traditional wars fought face to face and the mechanized, impersonal death that has grown ever more sophisticated since the beginning of the 20th century. Adama’s naïve wonder at the world outside his village, from the spreading ocean to the truck tracks that seem to line every road, reveals his disoriented curiosity. When he falls in with a French thief who arranges for them both to get to Paris on a truck and then steals Adama’s money, Adama’s tears of loneliness, fear, and frustration in a back alley where he is forced to spend the night are all too real and pitiable.
Throughout the film, Adama is met with an effigy of a spirit or god that seems to keep him on his course to finding Samba. It appears that Abdu (Pascal N’Zonzi), a beggar Adama encountered in the seaside village who was forced to fight for France, is the embodiment of this spirit; Adama sees him on the Verdun battlefield cursing at the German planes that swoop down to strafe anything that moves. He provides Adama and Samba with the key to survival—to remember their roots—and finishes Samba’s initiation ceremony by making a small cut on each temple that symbolically opens his eyes to the world beyond childhood.
Adults watching this film will find the coming-of-age story familiar, but the context unfamiliar and sobering. Despite the resemblance of the village to the isolated utopia of Shangri-La, the villagers are real people, with strict rules and rebellious youths. The blood ritual is mild in comparison to other types of traditional initiation rites, but the connection to the out-of-control test of manhood that was The Great War should have audiences wondering which way of life is more civilized. This film may be too intense for younger children, but should resonate with young adults. One of Rouby’s stated goals of helping Europeans and others understand the experience of immigrants from Africa is noble, but the remoteness of a film set 100 years in the past with folkloric content may not be sufficient to open eyes and hearts. Nonetheless, this film may be just good enough to pull it off.
Adama screens Friday, October 23 at 5:45 p.m., Sunday, October 25 at 11:30 a.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:45 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)
Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) might have won the perhaps more elevated “Most Artistic Production” Oscar amongst the first year’s roll of award winners, but Wings, which took the award for “Best Production,” has been inscribed in posterity as the legendary precursor of every film to capture the Academy’s premier prize. Looked at as a monument to the craft and dynamism of Hollywood filmmaking at the cusp of that first great, wrenching change in the industry, the transition to sound, Wings is indeed a stirring, even staggering relic. Surely taking some courage from the colossal success of King Vidor’s The Big Parade two years earlier, Wings rode the wave of a new popularity for revisiting the dread and grandeur of the Great War. It also virtually invented a cinematic subgenre, the aerial war movie, with the likes of James Whale’s Journey’s End (1930), Howard Hughes’ and Whale’s Hell’s Angels and Howard Hawks’ The Dawn Patrol (both 1931), to follow in quick succession. The mythos of World War I’s flying aces remained so powerful that the 1960s and ’70s saw something of a revival, kicking off with The Blue Max (1966).
As a dramatic entity, Wings straddles fashions in moviemaking, mimicking the seriousness of its concurrent bunkmates in the profound statement on war business, like The Big Parade and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but also making a play for a big, broad audience, mixing genres and styles in an all-out quest for audience-grabbing entertainment. In short, it’s a blockbuster, 1920s style. Paramount Pictures bigwigs Jesse Lasky, Adolph Zukor, and B.P. Schulberg saw the cost of the film rise to more than $2 million, a serious chunk of change for the time, on a mammoth production leveraged with the participation of the War Department. At the eye of this storm was a young director who may well have felt fated to helm such a work: 30-year-old William A. Wellman.
During WWI, Wellman, who had briefly played professional ice hockey, had joined up at the age of 21 and flown in the Lafayette Air Corps. This made him the only director in Hollywood with combat air experience. Wellman, bullish, brazen, and all too happy to clash with his actors in the name of art to the point where he was later to be nicknamed “Wild Bill,” had dabbled with acting, which Douglas Fairbanks had suggested to him before the war, after returning home. Deciding acting was an unmanly business, Wellman moved into film production. He worked his way up quickly through crew ranks until he was acting as an uncredited codirector; he released his first two, credited features in 1923. Wings teamed him with two more men with wartime flying experience: actor Richard Arlen and story scribe John Monk Saunders, who would pen many aviator dramas and war films over the course of his Hollywood career and become the biographical subject of John Ford’s The Wings of Eagles (1957). Wings was not exactly to be a warts-and-all vehicle for Wellman to dramatise his youthful experiences. Wellman returned often to tales of war throughout his career, including some of the greatest films of the genre, including The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and Battleground (1949), as well as his very last feature film, the sadly low-budgeted and miscast Lafayette Escadrille (1959), where he at least pulled off the stroke of casting his son William Wellman Jr. as himself, a young flyer confronted by the grim truths of aerial combat. Wings, by contrast to the spacious, spare, often melancholy tone of his later war films, is a product of youth–the youth of both the director and the excitable industry in which he worked.
Wings aims directly at the youth audience of the late ’20s by suggesting their own way of life (and not bothering to be too exact about clothes and hairstyles)—that what would eventually become teen culture was already warming up just as the war beckoned. He introduces protagonist Jack Powell (Charles “Buddy” Rogers) and his neighbour Mary Preston (Clara Bow) as two all-American kids, proto-flapper and hot-rod-building adventurer. “Jack had once pulled Mary out of a bonfire – and sometimes he regretted it,” a title card informs, hilariously setting the scene for the duo’s oblique relationship, with Mary jumping in energetically to aid Jack in rebuilding his battered car, which, as another card explains, had already provided Jack with the experience of flight several times. Jack and Mary transform the car into a speed mobile, and Mary sets the seal on the creation by christening it the “Shooting Star,” complete with a hastily painted logo on the side. Jack, however, oblivious to Mary’s ardour, thanks her and zips away to take the object of his own desire for a drive: Sylvia Lewis (Jobyna Ralston), who has the advantage of being a girl from the big city.
Wellman’s introduction of Sylvia and her beau, David Armstrong (Arlen), is one of his cleverest and wittiest visual flourishes, with camera attached to the porch swing the pair are resting in, Sylvia plucking a lilting guitar in a picture of fulsome romanticism, only for Jack to appear in Shooting Star behind them. The motion of the swing lends a stroboscopic quality to Jack’s approach, until he arrests the swinging and drags Sylvia away for a jaunt in his jallopy. The old world of quiet days and gentle courting is giving way to the crash-bang pace of the 20th century even before war starts. Sylvia’s affection remains with David, who is the son of the town’s richest man. When war is declared and David and Jack join up, Sylvia humours Jack by giving him a locket photo of herself, but tells David he’s the one she loves.
The days of youth give way to war, and Jack and David’s march off to serve is repeated by thousands of others, including Mary, who is inspired to join the ambulance driving service, and Herman Schwimpf (El Brendel, patenting his squarehead act), a German-American who confronts folks who deride his patriotism by stripping down to shirtsleeves to show off the tattoo of Old Glory on his bicep. He stops this practice after a drill sergeant assumes he’s getting uppity and clobbers him. During training, Jack and David antagonise each other constantly in their ongoing competition for Sylvia’s affections, but after the sergeant makes them square off in boxing competition, they beat each other to a standstill and bond instead, becoming inseparable partners during subsequent flight training.
Gary Cooper pops up as a cadet named White who wakes from a snooze as the duo enter his tent upon their arrival at flight school, dismisses the usefulness of good luck charms, offers the arrivals a bit of his half-eaten candy bar, and then leaves behind what’s left to do more practice flying. White is immediately killed in an accident, leaving Jack and David with no illusions about the danger of the business they’re engaging in. Cooper’s brief appearance here sent him skyrocketing to stardom as thousands wrote to Paramount demanding to know all about him. It’s interesting to consider why: not as conventionally handsome as either Rogers or Arlen, nonetheless, his subtle expressivity, the contrast between the dark shrewdness of his eyes and the beaming smile he gives just before waving them farewell, has the force of someone born to be in front of a movie camera, his register immediately declaring itself both subtler and more complex than the other men. If the plot of Wings is often naïve and aspects of it remain rooted in its time, Cooper is the sudden, looming emblem of cinema growing up, as well as learning to talk.
Schwimpf flunks out as a trainee pilot but becomes David’s mechanic. David quickly declares a tiny toy bear that was a childhood keepsake his charm, whilst Jack puts his trust in Sylvia’s picture. Sent to the Western front, they debut together in battle, sent up with the Flying Circus of Captain Kellermann, this film’s addition to the many movieland avatars of Manfred von Richthofen, aka, the Red Baron. The two rookies prove themselves, though Jack is forced down and nearly killed, and they soon evolve into hardened warriors of the sky, with Jack an ace famed amongst servicemen as he paints his trademark Shooting Star logo on his plane. Wings followed The Big Parade and preceded Hell’s Angels, which was supposed to be a competing production but which would be delayed for years by Howard Hughes’ outsized ambitions. Wings isn’t as sophisticated as either film in contemplating the social breadth of the war’s impact nor as interested in context, happy to present its two young gallants as heroes and Schwimpf as comic relief rather than straining to observe the many types fed into the doughboy ranks, as Vidor did, or the whirl of shifting worldviews and systems, which fascinated as Hughes and Whale, recalling rather Rex Ingram’s Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1922) as a blend of vaguely poetic wartime tragedy and big, sexy melodrama. It could be argued, really, that Wings leans mostly closer to something like Top Gun (1986) than to any of these, at least until its last act. The storyline is simple and often more than a little archaic. But Wings is made with such epic élan that it stands tall on its own, mostly due to the richness of Wellman’s filmmaking.
Wings is alight with vigorous cinematic ideas almost to the point of being show-offy, riddled with dynamic tracking shots, geometric framings, or shots with actors lunging at the camera—anything to invigorate the visuals. Sometimes Wellman incorporates outright symbolic flourishes, like boiling the defeat of the German army down to an overhead shot of a dead young warrior lying on a Knight’s Cross painted in a parade ground, and a plane’s propeller winding down and stopping in front of a field of white crosses in the background, signifying the death of a pilot amongst the last to fall in the war. That jokey early shot of Jack racing up to Sylvia and David on the swing sets up a visual motif, as many of the battle sequences are filmed and framed the same way, except with the camera mounted on winged steeds with the looming figure behind an enemy plane lunging for the kill.
High-flying exploits were the drawing card for Wings, of course, and the action sequences are quite something thanks to the stunt flyers, many of whom came from the ranks of the U.S. Army Air Force. Impressive is the climax of Jack’s first-ever aerial battle, which finishes with Jack crash-landing and hanging upside from his plane as the enemy continues to rake the wreck from above, and then dashes after an English soldier off No Man’s Land and through narrow, shallow trenches as cannon shells burst around him. The physical staging of the earthbound battle sequences unfolds on that mindboggling scale of many silent films, as the planes dash over recreations of battle-scarred France that stretch far and wide, where whole towns were been erected to be convincingly decimated in bombardments. The painstaking aerial photography makes the most of it all.
The action in Wings has a thrilling, dashing force that for the most part nudges it closer to action-adventure than the grim exigencies of antiwar dramas, but Wellman’s understanding of what he was portraying constantly declares itself in the teeming physical detail and the sense of force and motion he builds into the aerial sequences. Wellman turns what could have been a very simple sequence, a German Gotha bomber being wheeled out of its hanger and sent up on a mission, into a symphony of shots from ground level to high overhead in the same way filmmakers of a later generation might linger over some colossal spaceship, and with a similar implied sense of awe for technology in beauty and menace. One particularly great sequence sees a small town through which soldiers are moving being attacked by the Gotha, with Mary caught out in the street and forced to shelter under her ambulance as the town is blown to smithereens about her. Soldiers hiding in basements have floors above collapse on their heads, and the town church’s steeple is flung like so much rubbish to land on Mary’s vehicle. Jack and David fly in to save the day, cheered on by Mary and the soldiers below.
Both flyers emerge victorious, and they’re decorated by a French general for their achievement, but both men, David particularly, are left tired and anguished by the experience. Given leave in Paris, Jack goes on a wild bender, losing himself in drink and hanging out with prostitutes vying for his attention. Wellman tests the limits of what he could get away with as he surveys the wild nightlife of the Folies Bergere, tossing in visual jokes like a kilted Scot warrior and his black-satin-hugged floozy both bending down daintily to help with one of her shoes buttons, and another hooker stealing Jack’s flyer pin to use as a slight restraint on her plunging neckline. One startling shot sees Wellman’s camera swoop across several tables, noting the types enjoying their boozy flings, including an older lady paying off a gigolo and a lesbian couple, before zeroing in on Jack as he enjoys his cups, illustrating both the motley gallery of Parisian nightlife at the height of war-stoked frenzy and conveying Jack’s giddy, frantic joy in his forgetful drunkenness.
Mary, cruising the streets in her ambulance, hears that all of the American soldiers are being recalled for a big push, and she sets out to track Jack down, following his trail of painted shooting stars to the Folies Bergere, and tries unsuccessfully to extricate him from the arms of his coterie of clinging demimondaines. David skips upstairs with one lady, but Mary, helped by a kind member of the staff, disguises herself as a floozy to win Jack away: Jack, hallucinating bubbles, visualised as tiny animated circles drifting up from his champagne, decides to go with whichever girl is giving off the best bubbles, and shakes them both. Mary wins, of course, but once she manages to stow him safely in a bed, she’s wounded to see Sylvia’s picture his locket, and then is caught changing back into her uniform by a pair of MPs rounding up flyers: they assume she’s been naughty and tell her this will be the end of her war.
This sequence shows off the blend of the corny and the bravura that distinguishes Wings overall, with Wellman’s risqué, authentic sense of the reality of the young servicemen living it up between duels with death blending with silly, crowd-pleasing touches like those animated bubbles, and the goofy cavorts of the storyline as the film finally brings Mary properly back into the movie only to then write her out through some tawdry morality that becomes all the more gaudily entertaining for the blend. Bow, who had risen to the peak of her stardom after It (1927) to become just about the biggest thing in Hollywood, was essentially shoehorned into the film to increase its marketability in a manner similar to her film debut, Down to the Sea in Ships (1922), where she likewise inserted herself into a macho milieu. Her presence in Wings, plying her ebullient, energetic, blithely sexy yet tomboyish persona, is both one of the film’s great pleasures and also one of its problematic elements, as it creates a more than slight dissonance. The subplot of Mary venturing out to war just like the boys has a feminist flavour that’s very apt for Bow’s persona and the moment of the film’s making, and which Wellman accepts casually, even gleefully. But her presence in the drama is readily dispensable, and Bow herself summarised correctly that she was just the “whipped cream on top of the pie.” Her game physical performing and big, bright acting style seem to belong to a different movie in places, and Wellman pushes the film to the limits of tonal elasticity. It doesn’t help that the way the story is structured keeps Jack and Mary away from any substantial romancing. In fact, Jack’s dedication to Sylvia isn’t dispelled even as David wavers on confronting him about it, almost leading to an ugly quarrel between the two men that is interrupted by a call to battle. David, who’s already been morbidly anticipating his demise, leaves behind his keepsake, and goes down in combat.
A German flyer risks a hot reception to drop off word that David has been killed. Jack goes on the warpath, launching back into battle with hysterical bloodlust, not knowing David managed to escape his crash and the attempts of some Germans to capture him, and is sneaking back across enemy territory. Wings’ climactic scenes go all out in display of production spectacle as it recreates the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, part of the great “100 Days” offensive that ended the war, with a rah-rah tone, as the Yankees set the Germans scurrying on the ground. But Wellman’s tart, forceful vignettes continue to flow: two German officers interrupted as they drink beer in an observation balloon and forced to leap clear; a young American serviceman killed by a shell splinter as he smokes a cigarette without anyone realising he’s dead at first; a tank rolling over the top of a machine gun nest as the age of mechanical war finally renders the trench war slaughter obsolete.
Wellman handed out cameras to cast and crew to grab action any way they could, capturing soldiers, tanks, and aircraft in sprawling images amidst well-coordinated battle footage that is spectacular, if a bit impersonal, a triumph of technical cinema that remains detached from the story at hand. Triumphalism is contrasted by an overt swing towards ironic tragedy in the air. David manages to steal a German fighter plane from the Flying Circus, decimates several aircraft on the ground, and wings his way back to his friends. Except that Jack, who’s been flying around mercilessly gunning soldiers on the ground and shooting down enemy planes in his hunger for revenge, zeroes in on David and, assuming he’s just another enemy, shoots him down, David’s pleas as he realises his friend is trying to kill him unnoticed. David’s plane crashes into a farmhouse near a French unit and a military graveyard, and Jack lands to claim a trophy only to realise his mistake.
Wellman stages a lush pieta complete with a French farmer’s wife and her daughter, whose prayers are interrupted by the crash of David’s plane, to bear witness as incidental Madonna and child, and David’s passing is envisioned as an airplane propeller slowing to a stop. Jack kisses David in his death throes, a brotherly gesture that nonetheless brings the overtone of homoeroticism that often percolates under the surface of their relationship to a boil (and which bobs up again in The Public Enemy, 1931), complete with acknowledgement that their “friendship” ultimately was more important than anything else. A farmer helps Jack bury his friend in the midst of fervently dreamlike images—hand-carved crucifixes, crumbling brick, blooming flowers, leafy woods—in an eruption of pre-Raphaelite romantic melancholy as Wellman stages a funeral not just for one sorry hero but for a generation, one he was lucky not to join. David is laid to rest and with him the war, leaving Jack to head home alone to be greeted festively as a hero, but facing up to the onerous task of visiting David’s parents whose stern mourning crumbles before Jack’s distress, the hair at his temples stained prematurely white. Of course, all ends happily as Jack heads home to embrace Mary, and the two are last seen sitting in Shooting Star and kissing under a real shooting star scoring the night sky.
Wellman went on to have a major career and stands as one of the great underappreciated filmmakers, providing something of a darker, diastolic contemplation of American landscape to John Ford’s in the length of his career, with films that responded to the shifts in the zeitgeist. After Wings, he moved on to contemplate the impact of the Depression and the allure of criminality with The Public Enemy and Wild Boys of the Road (1933), and wryly analyse the cults of Hollywood and mass media with A Star Is Born (1936) and Nothing Sacred (1937). In the 1940s, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman would get to make the kind of all-but-happenstance war narrative he touches on here, pruning away the box office pretensions and reducing the concerns of his cinema to the experience of men lost in the midst of tumult and agony. But Wings is an exemplar of late silent cinema in its force and visual daring, and still the entertainment machine it was made to be. It deserved, as much as any rival, to be the first Best Picture.
One of the best things about being a cinephile in Chicago is the wealth of informed, passionate fellow travelers who are in a position to bring the best from the world of cinema into our theaters week after week. I have mentioned the Northwest Chicago Film Society here before as one of the best of the programming outfits around town. The NCFS has had a rough time lately, first losing the theater that housed the 40-year-old classic film series they took over; then facing a battle with a Christian congregation that wanted to buy and convert their new home, the Portage Theater, into a church; and now with the theater’s current owner, who abruptly locked the doors of the Portage over a dispute regarding the theater’s liquor license.
Nonetheless, there’s nothing quite like the solidarity of the film community here, as two other movie palaces helped the show go on by lending their facilities to the NCFS to continue their summer schedule—and what a schedule it has been! With the addition of the estimable Kyle Westphal, late of George Eastman House, as a partner and programmer, NCFS has learned of and been able to secure prints of rare films and restorations that have flown under the radar of most other venues. I was fortunate to be part of a packed audience at the Patio Theater to see High Treason, an extremely rare British talkie made on the cusp of the conversion from silent to sound pictures, with both silent and sound versions created and released. The restoration of the spotty nitrate and badly damaged soundtrack was funded by the Library of Congress/National Film Preservation Foundation and The Film Foundation, but the new print has only been shown once before at the Library of Congress Packard Campus Theater. Thus, we were only the second American audience in more than 80 years to see the sound version of High Treason on the big screen.
High Treason, an ambitious production that clearly was influenced by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), is set in the future—1940!—when, after the horrible destruction of World War I, individual countries are now formed into federations throughout the world to work in harmony. A sustained period of peace, encouraged by a worldwide organization called the Peace League, has caused an economic downturn for those in the business of war. Thus, a cabal of monied industrialists plots to inflame passions and start the war machine rolling again. The peace is disturbed in Europe by a border incident instigated by the cabal in which a vacationing couple and a slew of border guards are gunned down. When this first incident isn’t enough to shake the peace, a train traveling through a tunnel beneath the English Channel from England to France is bombed, killing all aboard. When the decision to go to war is considered, President Stephen Deane (Basil Gill) breaks a tie vote and casts his lot for war. His soldier son Michael (Jameson Thomas) prepares to mobilize, while Evelyn Seymour (Benita Hume), Michael’s sweetheart and daughter of the leader of the Peace League, Dr. Seymour (Humberston Wright), tries to dissuade him and eventually breaks with him in bitter anger. As men and women all over are called up to fight, Dr. Seymour makes a last, desperate bid for peace.
What may strike you from this brief synopsis is how eerily accurate this film was in predicting the European Union and the Chunnel, and how the idea of a military-industrial complex, which was criticized by progressive movements during the 1960s, is presented here credibly, not as some delusional conspiracy theory that would be ridiculed today. High Treason, however, stays very much of its time in celebrating the Jazz Age. Michael takes Evelyn, in full flapper mode, out on the town for an extended and very enjoyable scene in a nightclub full of fashionable Gatsby-esque extras dancing and drinking the night away. The parallels to the nightclub scene in Metropolis are obvious, as the first vision from inside the club is of a gigantic nude statue of a woman overseeing the revelers. While there is no actual nudity in this or any other scene, as there is in Metropolis, there were enough long takes of women in their silk undies that the film was actually banned in New York.
Elvey produced another fine set-piece in the train sequence. A first train goes through the tunnel, and the conspirators on board drop a time bomb out the train window and onto the tracks. With the dread of the inevitable gripping the audience, he then offers a scene of high comedy, as the doomed second train teems with lively characters, particularly a rich, elderly woman doting on a small puppy, which she puts in her bag and hangs on a hook while she and her husband have their supper. The sweetness of the scene contrasts suddenly and violently with the explosion that upends the train and collapses the wall of the tunnel, sending cascades of water in to drown the passengers. Again, the parallel with the flood scene in Metropolis is hard to ignore, but the scene has a drama and integrity all its own.
The critique of the idle rich that was present in Metropolis is absent here, as the message of the film is not so much about class struggle as about maintaining a lasting peace in a world programmed for conflict. This perspective is another unique aspect of High Treason. The film takes its pacifism—itself a rarity in world cinema—to a logical, if extreme conclusion. Dr. Seymour is as influential a figure on the world scene as any warlike world leader might be today. President Deane allows him to make a statement before Deane announces over the radio that war has been declared; Seymour uses this time to kill Deane and announce that the nation will remain at peace, but he has destroyed another human life and refuses to defend his action as necessary for the greater good. Elvey frames Seymour as a Christlike figure, with a circular window in the background surrounding his head like a halo at his trial. However, Seymour is no martyr, simply a man who sees moral relativism as the greatest danger to the common good, to peace, by suggesting that one life is more important than another. This Eastern notion of the godhead in all of us put me in mind of another utopian vision put to film, Lost Horizon (1937).
Aside from its status as a rarity and important transitional film, High Treason has other qualities to recommend it. While the acting is generally overwrought, particularly from Thomas, the film perfectly exemplifies the transition of acting styles from the broad pantomime needed in the silent era to a more naturalistic rendering of dialogue and expression. The ramp-up to war that has young women lining up to work in an aerodrome factory, guarded by Deane and his troops, is offered in a high crane shot as a moving tableau not only of the legions of lives hanging in the balance, but also of how war reduces human beings to little more than identically uniformed ants marching in line. This impression, however, is mitigated by one woman who begs an intake worker not to accept her; the worker guesses that she has children at home and stamps her orders with an exemption, offering the possibility of mercy against the tidal wave of violence. In perhaps the most compelling scene in the film, the women, led by Evelyn, are prepared to defy Michael and his troops. Seeing the two sides square off in deadly earnest is a genuinely tense moment perfectly staged and paced by Elvey.
Gaumont British had high hopes for High Treason, a prestige export they hoped would put them on the map. Unfortunately, its lackluster box office and complete absence from New York doomed it, and High Treason vanished quickly from view. Thanks to the Library of Congress and The Film Foundation, High Treason is back. Urge an arthouse in your neighborhood to book it today!
Directors: Howard Hughes, James Whale, Edmund Goulding
By Roderick Heath
Few movie productions can be described as legendary events, but the making of Hell’s Angels has surely achieved that status. This mythologising reached its zenith with Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), which documented the extraordinary dash and cash expended on Howard Hughes’ would-be blockbuster. If one takes the modern concept of the blockbuster as a form that tries to dazzle an audience by constantly pushing its expectations for spectacle on screen, then Hell’s Angels is 1930’s equivalent of Star Wars (1977), Avatar (2009), and The Avengers (2012) wrapped up in one. Discounting early works like Intolerance (1916) where nobody really knew how much was spent on them, Hell’s Angels set a record for expense that took nearly 20 years to break, and it was released in the midst of the Great Depression, when Hollywood was starting to be more aware and wary of its profligate tendencies. Yet Hell’s Angels eventually piled up nearly $18 million at the box office and made Jean Harlow a movie star. All in all, not bad for an independent film. Hughes was, at the time, little more than a clever rich kid bedazzled by planes and movies, seeking to combine those two obsessions into one massive project. He poured his personal gusto and finances into a labour of love that took four years to complete, saw him wield the largest private air force in the world to make his vision come true, and resulted in the deaths of four airmen.
As that death toll alarmingly suggests, for anyone with admiration for the time when moviemaking meant really doing death-defying stuff, Hell’s Angels is still a rousing, hair-raising experience, yet the film itself has been largely neglected, even dismissed. Perhaps, such treatment suggests that’s one other thing it has in common with the modern blockbuster: grandiose spectacle allied to inconsequential drama. That’s not true, or at least not entirely. Yes, the basic plot of Hell’s Angels is pretty hackneyed: two brothers, one girl, war enough for all. As prejudicial as it sounds, Michael Bay’s awful Pearl Harbor (2001) can in some ways be described as its remake. But Hell’s Angels has, like many early talkies, an eccentric energy and an elastic and lawless sense of the new cinema on top of Hughes’ untrammelled creative vision that marks it as nearly sui generis, an exemplar from the time before Hollywood had firmly fashioned new templates and moulds for sound-era cinema.
The basic plot is just that, a framework around which the filmmakers weave a strangely antiheroic, erotically provocative, and morally open-ended drama, one that delves as insidiously and unremittingly into the notion of the Great War as a cultish auto-da-fé as many more self-consciously arty attempts. It definitely belongs in the front line, with The Big Parade (1926) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), of the era’s WWI dramas. Still, Hughes was no actor’s director, and to handle the dramatic portions of the film, he went through three directors, including two truly talented helmsmen on the rise in Hollywood. Edmund Goulding, who was to become MGM’s reputed lion tamer of star egos, moved in after Marshall Neilan took an early powder. When Hughes decided to reshoot most of the film as a talkie, and Goulding had moved on, he hired British war veteran James Whale, then still largely unknown except for having directed the stage play Journey’s End. Whale only finished up with a credit for having “staged” the dialogue by Joseph Moncure March, who retrofitted Harry Behn and Howard Estabrook’s original scenario. Whale’s touch is, however, apparent throughout Hell’s Angels, in the eccentric scene shaping, the increasingly neurotic mood that permeates the drama, a greater interest in character behaviour than dramatic beats, and an intuitively engaged attempt to reconcile the theatrical settings he was used to with new cinematic freedoms, an intuition that would reach florid heights in the likes of Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1932).
In the end, this was certainly Hughes’ baby, and it stands far above most of Hughes’ oeuvre: unlike The Outlaw (1943) and his big ’50s productions, Hell’s Angels isn’t chiefly a showman’s stunt, but a true attempt to make the biggest, boldest, and best movie he could. Scorsese wasn’t the only filmmaker impressed: Stanley Kubrick considered it one of his favourites, and elements of its ironic mix of antiwar saga and character drama with pervasive sexuality might have had an influence on Paths of Glory (1957) and Dr. Strangelove (1964), where, as in Hell’s Angels, that death-cult quality of war culminates in an act of self-sacrifice that result in mutual annihilation. The film also looks forward to attempts to paint war as a condition in which characters eddy in islets of frantic behaviour, like Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) or Phil Karlson’s Hell to Eternity(1960), in the face of impending death. Hughes’ film certainly displays a fascinating approach to the action-adventure tale that forms its heart in that he’s not out to simply wow the audience with bravura flimflam, but also to evoke a vision of warfare that is at once exhilarating and gruelling.
Hell’s Angels follows a familiar arc in tracing three young men, friends at Oxford, and their fates in the coming struggle. It opens in Germany just before the war, where German Karl Armstedt (John Darrow) is spending break with his English friends, brothers Monte (Ben Lyon) and Roy Rutledge (James Hall). Libidinous and variably honourable, the young men are up to the usual business of young men, and Monte passes on a German girl he’s picked up onto a bemused Karl so he can pursue classier game: Monte, the quintessential lover not a fighter, is caught in flagrante delicto with the Baroness Von Kranz (Jane Winton) by her husband the Baron (Lucien Prival), a peerless Prussian officer who, with coolly humorous dignity, presents Monte with his card to arrange the necessary satisfaction. Monte, having no intention of risking death in such a fashion, packs his bags and flees the country, but Roy, who trails clanging old-fashioned qualities like cans on string, poses as his brother for the Baron’s friends, fronts up to the dawn duel in a strikingly geometric, expressionistic scene, and cops a bullet in the arm. When the young trio are reunited at Oxford, news of the outbreak of the war on the continent sends Karl into an episode of anguish whilst Monte ignores it entirely. Karl leaves soon enough for his homeland. Roy quickly joins up, an act Monte, who maintains an ethical as well as personality-dictated pacifism, initially spurns. But he’s soon roped in by the promise of a kiss from a girl (rising starlet Marian Marsh) at a Royal Flying Corps recruiting station.
Undergraduate hijinks give way to the initially, collectively invigorating new reality, as Roy and Monte finish up as trainee pilots together, whilst society reorganises itself according to the new exigencies of war. Roy is head over heels in love with the upper-crust proto-flapper Helen (Harlow), the daughter of Lady Randolph (Evelyn Hall). Monte avoids meeting his brother’s object of fancy on the assumption she’ll be someone as drably upright as him. Roy is roped in to helping organise a ball Lady Randolph gives for departing servicemen and the girls, including Helen, who are joining the canteen service she’s sponsoring. The ball, filmed in a two-colour process, is an interlude of ebullient fin-de-siecle romanticism where Helen and her various boy-toys flit in and out of the shadowy garden like Shakespearean nymphs before a fall. Of course, the moment Monte claps eyes on Helen, sparks fly, to the point where they absent themselves from the party for a tryst in Helen’s apartment. Cue Harlow’s contribution to the language, “Would you be shocked if I put on something more comfortable?” as Monte is startled to find her someone who surpasses himself in libertine indulgence. An elided sex scene later, Monte is immediately stricken with self-disgust for betraying his brother, who idolises Helen: he sparks Helen’s catty wrath, and he tries to warn Roy that Helen isn’t the girl he’s romanticising, but Roy will need more direct evidence.
Helen embodies the shattering of apparent faiths that becomes the leitmotif of Hell’s Angels, as she refuses to play the beauteous embodiment of femininity to be defended, and rather treats the war as a smorgasbord of attractive masculinity just as the lads acted in peace time, an act that is consciously equated with the way the men use themselves up in the interests of systems that have no apparent interest in them. Early in the film, Monte watches as a radical preaches against the war, shouting “Down with capitalism! Down with war!”, only to be assaulted by the crowd; Monte’s bemused disquiet at the scene prefigures his own mounting misgivings about the great adventure. It’s fascinating to see Hughes, who finished up as the American Right’s ogrish caricature of its own paranoias, playing at radical chic in places throughout this film, which encompasses some of the popular anger of the postwar period against war profiteers and manipulative official rhetoric. Rather, war becomes a kind of heroic-sentimental religion of sacrifice, a note that reaches an apotheosis in one specific scene. Monte, as the only one who senses this and becomes almost schizoid in his simultaneous wish to prove his mettle whilst his good sense says run away, whittles him down, and he emerges a tragic antihero. Roy continues to live in a bubble of romantic certainties, whilst Monte, at once cynical and too aware of the underlying reality, is unable to maintain a stoic front and devolves into wild swings between tremulous anxiety and stony, maniacal bravado.
Made before the war film had become a programmatic genre, and indeed probably contributing many clichés-to-be to its lexicon, Hell’s Angels, like others from the spurt of WWI epics of its time, tries to encompass war as an entire social experience, not focusing merely on individuals in combat, but also on the jarring shift from civilian mores to military ones, and trying to summarise aspects of the milieu’s ethos and tragedy. To that end, Hughes and Whale offer a sprawl of discursive yet organic observation, in illustrative vignettes like the kiss that catches Monte in a moment of very Chaplinesque character comedy and the hectic group shots that punctuate it, from scenes of Germans eating and drinking and the giddy young Oxfordians, to the carousing soldiers that sprawl with Hogarthian humanity. Such shots, essayed with a technically impressive depth of field, try to give the film a constant, recurring contrast between the business of life in communities, endlessly rich, and the ruthlessness of the warfare.
There are almost essayistic excursions detailing the machinery of war—not just its technology, but its intricacies, from men receiving their uniforms to the arts of trying to catch zeppelins, parliamentarians announcing the war, power workers rushing to shut off the lights of London during a bombing raid, and shots exploring the workings of aircraft engines with a precise and fetishistic ebullience. Hughes’ obsessive-compulsive engineer’s sense of synergistic detail is here, albeit influenced thoroughly by the more sophisticated filmmakers of the ’20s, with hints of Vidor, Eisenstein, and Dziga Vertov evident. Hell’s Angels is technically superlative and brilliantly shot, the film’s one Oscar nomination having been for Tony Gaudio and Harry Perry’s cinematography and, as with many early sound films, the lack of nondiagetic music except at the credits is noticeable in the way one can sense the filmmakers not leaning on it to sustain and punctuate scenes. Instead, they unfold the story with a mixture of the theatrical and the naturalistic, which is perhaps one reason why I find a lot of movies from the period perversely more modern than much of what was made 10 or 20 years later. In a touch that notably captures the conventions of cinema changing from the silent to sound era, rather than subtitles or, as would usually be the practise until the ’70s, just having the German characters speak accented English to each other, silent-style title cards are used to translate their conversations. Hell’s Angels is also a quintessential pre-Code film, as good old-fashioned cursing and flickers of adult sexuality make it through where the later, much finer mesh of the Hays Office would have caught them—not that Hughes stopped trying to get one over on them.
Most importantly, it’s the lack of artifice Hughes wanted and achieved that makes Hell’s Angels a spellbinding show. Whilst one major set-piece involves model work, that work is remarkably good, the climax involves colossal acts of set destruction and dazzling aerial feats. Hughes shows his cast clearly braving the skies for stunts free of back projection and other tricks, heightening the sensation of real danger these sequences project. Whilst the drama of Hell’s Angels isn’t the peripheral distraction it’s often painted, this movie is, of course, chiefly an almighty action film, and it really catches fire in the first major set-piece action sequence, as a zeppelin mounts a bombing raid on London. Here, Hughes is attentive to a duel of war technique, as the airship lowers a man in a cockpit down through the clouds to spot where bombs should be dropped, whilst opponents on the ground listen with amplifying equipment for the sounds of the airship’s engines. Of course, the spotter for the zeppelin is Karl, turning his intimate knowledge of the city to use at the encouragement of the ship’s memorably intense, scar-faced Captain (Carl von Haartman), or at least he’s supposed to be. Queasy at the thought of bombing the city he loves, he instead misdirects the Captain to release his payload into a lake, the eruptions boiling and flashing under the water with a strange, alchemic beauty. News that an RFC squadron, including Roy and Monte, is chasing the zeppelin forces the Captain, in his need to gain altitude rapidly and desperation to keep the airship out of British hands, to lighten the ship by the most expeditious means available. His crew thus begin hurling themselves overboard in a consummation of perverse nationalistic liebestod. Not only that, but with Karl still dangling on his slowly lifting cockpit, the Captain orders the cable cut. The crewman who brings to bear a massive pair of chain cutters wimps out, so the Captain, declaring “Für Kaiser und Vaterland!”, does the job himself, and Karl plunges like a stone to his death. So much for him and the Fatherland.
As the RFC planes catch the zeppelin, Roy and Monte’s aircraft is damaged, forcing them to make a crash landing whilst the others continue the chase. The German gunners manage to beat off most of the attackers, the zeppelin’s titanic bulk gliding darkly through the eerily boiling nocturnal clouds, and the airplanes weave and dodge around it as they uselessly pepper it with bullets. But patriotic fanaticism meets its match as one of the British flyers, determined to bring the prey down, performs a suicidal dive from high above, and the exploding leviathan plunges to earth, nearly crushing Roy and Monte as they flee their plane’s wreckage. For most films, such a bravura sequence would be the climax, and the quality of special effects on display here is as high as anything Hollywood would see in the next 40 years. My earlier reference to Star Wars wasn’t entirely glib: it’s difficult to watch this scene and not recognise its conceptual influence, whether direct or as distant root, on the Death Star assault that climaxed Lucas’ film. Hell’s Angels shifts focus after an intermission to the Western Front, with the kind of stoic camaraderie that Hemingway was famous for projecting onto postwar civilian life, and which Whale’s stage work Journey’s End had also detailed is the norm. Monte, eaten up, unleashes his angry, sullen, hysterical feelings in a tirade against that code of grace under pressure, an explosion of rhetorical feeling that’s as excruciatingly exposed as a goldfish flapping on the carpet.
Harlow, still a teenager possessing a slightly baby-faced, but defined predatory power, became the star with her speciality for playing vixenish blondes, but she was obviously still learning, and some of the other performances, including the inert Darrow, are unspectacular. Lyons is very much the driving human element in a theatrical but often volubly urgent fashion: moving from the slightly flaky rake of the early scenes to his blistering tirade in the flyers’ mess, he pulls off the mad swings between cool determination, sozzled disinterest, and crumbling character. As stock as the situations are, Hughes and Whale let their actors play them out with a conscious resistance to melodramatic emphases: when Roy discovers that Helen isn’t the woman he thought she was, there’s no subsequent revelation why Monte already knew that. Monte simply drags his brother away and helps him drown his sorrows with clingy French courtesans.
Roy and Monte happen upon Helen making out with drunken abandon with a moustachioed officer in a moment of surprising carnality. When Monte subsequently wants to shirk their duty, his brother at first acquiesces, and finally drunkenly reminds Monte that they’ll be shot if they don’t turn up. They venture into battle sozzled and depressed, a vision of official heroism as adjunct to personal, existential crisis. The actual mission the brothers set off on is a virtual suicide jaunt to bomb a German arms depot as a prelude to a big push that might work with the ammunition supply suddenly curtailed. The duo are given a captured German Gotha bomber, with all the speed and manoeuvrability in the air of a flying whale, to penetrate enemy air space, and in an truly epic piece of bad luck, drop their bombs that destroy the enemy depot just as Von Richthofen (Wilhelm von Brincken) and his Flying Circus are flying by.
What follows is an amazing piece of cinema, both in concept and execution, as the German pilots circle the bomber tauntingly, a frantic Monte battling them off as Roy tries to drive the cumbersome machine toward their oncoming friends in their squadron: the fighters run interference as the bomber tries to make it to the end-zone, and Roy and Monte’s likably eccentric squadron pal Baldy Maloney (Roy Wilson) does desperate battle with a German lieutenant, Von Bruen (Frank Clarke), who fixes upon the bomber. When the two sides collide (some literally), all hell breaks loose in a sequence that resembles the eye-popping drive of modern special-effects cinema without special effects, but it still runs on the same sense of quicksilver, observant detail as other parts of the film: a pilot takes a quick nip of courage from a secreted bottle as he’s being chased down, another waves farewell to the man who just shot him, and shots that present with surgical detail bullets tearing motors and men apart. Hughes’ constant use of cameras mounted in the nose of the aircraft makes it a relentlessly experiential affair, as the dying pilots spit blood or cry in agony as their planes spiral madly to earth, sun and sky turning into abstract maelstroms. In cumulative effect, it’s less a standard action sequence than a scene squarely in a tradition of the opening of Saving Private Ryan (1998), trying to both thrill and horrify in accounting war as a fundamental process of intimate destruction. Hughes’ approach is made all the more intense by the lack of trick photography, and the obvious guts of the men doing this stuff. Pilots are riddled with bullets, roasted alive, and plunge pell-mell into the earth, including one jaw-dropping stunt Hughes finished up doing himself because none of the other pilots, many of whom were real veterans of the war’s aerial battles, would dare it; Hughes ended up crashing, receiving only minor injuries. Finally, Baldy manages to best the German pursuing his comrades, only for Von Richthofen, circling with Olympian interest in the contest, to swoop in and finish the bomber off.
The finale offers one of those wickedly intense moral quandaries that often arise in the war movie, as Roy and Monte, taken captive by the Germans, are faced with being shot quickly unless they spill the beans about where the upcoming attack will fall: for a final fateful joke, their interrogator proves to be Baron Von Kranz, who suggests the far less romanticised, more serpentine and aggressively purposeful twin to the humane Prussian Junker Erich Von Stroheim would later play in La Grande Illusion (1937). Monte, unable to cope with the fear of death, wants to spill the beans, so Roy cleverly manipulates Von Kranz into giving him a gun to kill Monte to cover up his own intended treachery. Considering how much of the film has equated war with sex and fidelity, both adventure and trial by combat, it finally segues into equating it with acts of familial loyalty. The story resolves in the gruesome spectacle of Roy shooting his brother in the back in what is finally more a mercy killing—Monte is happy he’s been saved from his own worst impulse—than fratricide, and the act of brotherly love is equated with what the two finally extract from their sacrifice, the chance for their brothers in arms to avoid being slaughtered. A final glimpse of victory partly mediates the bleakly deadpan shot of a depressed and sourly acquiescent Von Kranz, in his office, listening as Roy is marched out to meet his own deliverance, having proven that his own values were worth something, at the highest possible personal price. Over 80 years later, Hell’s Angels remains visceral, thrilling, and damn entertaining.
There’s something oddly enigmatic about Spielberg’s War Horse as a project—enigmatic because it seems so obvious. It’s a grandiose, epic weepie from Steven Spielberg, what needs explaining about that? Therein lies some of the confusion: hasn’t Spielberg spent much of the last decade or so running away from that big glutinous showman with a lethal grasp on storytelling and broadly appealing sentiment he used to be? Spielberg’s most striking recent films, like Saving Private Ryan (1998), AI: Artificial Intelligence (2000), Catch Me If You Can (2002), War of the Worlds and Munich (both 2005), have often displayed schizoid impulses, torn between cosy affirmation and near-nihilistic patches, usually purposefully fighting to a draw in conclusions that play like slow exhalations. The badly underrated, if spotty, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) was both a paean to, and example of, the problems of trying to recapture lost youth, whilst War Horse is Spielberg’s most fervent attempt to recreate an Old Hollywood aesthetic since the uneven and now near-forgotten Always (1989). The first 15 minutes of War Horse aren’t that promising either, unfolding a vision of rural Devon life in the early 20th century that seems like a broad fusion of the stylised mystique of Powell and Pressburger’s Gone to Earth (1950) with the twee picturesqueness of Babe (1995), complete with a nuisance goose terrorising visitors. You can practically hear the creaking of old machinery, as some antique canards and too-cute clichés are put into play, and stiff dialogue lays out the dramatic stakes.
War Horse, based on Michael Morpugo’s novel for younger readers, and the subsequent much-loved stage adaptation, is the sort of material a lot of filmmakers might feel obligated to tone down and render in muted tones to offset its essential improbability and abundant corn. It’s a tall tale in the old sense. Telling tall tales is something of a lost art: in Shakespeare’s time, pulling one off was considered a worthy challenge for any serious dramatist, and Shakespeare took it on a few times with the likes of Cymbeline, a play full of the same breathtaking conceits, roving characters, unlikely convergences, and gushing emotion as War Horse. War Horse is constructed less of realities of the past than the past’s idea of itself, leftover scraps of Victorian kitsch, Dickensian humanistic drama, loose pages out of old and mouldy rural romances and Boy’s Own magazines, and the silent cinema of D. W. Griffith, all hurled into the great, gruesome shredder of ideals that was the Great War. Spielberg, for his part, jumps in to the fray boots and all, and it’s this complete lack of embarrassment or anxious moderation on his part that makes War Horse both an inevitably divisive experience between those who will roll with the tale or resist it entirely. For me, the experience was a refreshing one: it’s the unabashed quality of War Horse, with its landscape of sneering squires, fair French farm girls, lovable grandfathers, hard-scrabble mothers, jolly momentary fellowships between soldiers of different sides, and a reunion between a blinded hero and a hobbled horse, blended with a peculiar faith in the intrinsic seriousness of the emotional underpinnings of it all and a gruelling sense of physical danger and horror implicit in war, that elevates War Horse from potential polite insipidness to something rich and compelling.
Spielberg’s film commences with Ted Narracott (Peter Mullan), an alcoholic Boer War veteran who’s taken to eking out a living on a rock farm he’s leasing from patronising landlord Lyons (David Thewlis). He purchases Joey, a young steed he helped raise, at an auction purely for the sake of winning a contest against Lyons and fuelled by a distinct note of class rage at the rich hoarding all the finer things in the world. The exorbitant 30-guinea price tag for this victory, however, endangers the Narracott’s capacity to make rent, much to the anger of Narracott’s wife Rose (Emily Watson): Narracott holds off Lyons with a promise he’ll make up the shortfall by ploughing a rocky unused field and plant turnips using Joey, in spite of the fact he’s still young, jumpy, and hardly a plough horse. But Ted’s son Albert, himself a new matured stripling, having trained Joey and formed an intimate bond with him, undertakes to put Joey under the yoke and get the field ploughed.
The very opening of War Horse strains to offer up as classically English a landscape as can be imagined, with roving landscape shots of muted sunsets over pastoral perfection and a John Williams score that clearly takes cues from that specific sonic poet of the British landscape, Ralph Vaughan Williams. There’s a moment about 15 minutes into War Horse where suddenly Spielberg’s sense of technique snaps into focus and with it, the film’s emotional urgency: Ted, infuriated by Lyons’ goading assurance and his own foolishness, goes to shoot Joey, and Rose and Albert give chase to dissuade him. Spielberg sets up a frame behind Ted where he aims the gun at the animal, and swings the camera with the rifle; Rose tries to grab Ted’s arm and draws it left, Ted shakes her off and swings right again, now with Albert standing firmly between the weapon and the animal. It’s the sort of simple yet almost physically affecting shot that Spielberg is a past master of, dramatizing Ted’s frantic dissolution, Rose’s place as counterbalance, and Albert’s resolution and blithely self-sacrificing concern.
Later, Spielberg attaches his camera to the plough as Albert finally gets Joey to draw the implement, a moment filled with an oddly titanic and apt import. Joey’s acceptance of labour is necessary to save the Narracotts’ lives, and the film’s stressing of the interrelationship between man and beast takes on practically ontological proportions. The film’s first “movement” on the Narracott’s farm betrays a long and sturdy prehistory in cinema, evoking to my mind most specifically the testing of the anthrax inoculation in William Dieterle’s The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) as people flock from far and wide to watch Albert defy logic and nature and the Narracotts try to ignore Lyons’ stream of patronisation, and the early scenes of Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York (1941), a powerful model for the film as a whole, in which the eponymous hero similarly laboured to nearly his failing breath to triumph against financial ruin by ploughing his fields, only to be cruelly undercut, as the Narracotts are. I’ve pointed out in my review of Amistad (1997) the specific imprint of Spielberg’s love of some of Old Hollywood’s esteemed masters, but in the case of War Horse, that esteem at last becomes akin to a dramatic companion piece for the free-ranging compendium of pulp tropes found in the Indiana Jones films.
War Horse’s narrative and stylistic lexicon incorporates shades of King Vidor and The Big Parade (1926), George Cukor, Mervyn Le Roy’s Random Harvest (1942), David Selznick, Lewis Milestone, William Wyler, Michael Curtiz, John Huston, Hawks, John Ford, and Dieterle—all those guys who used to create a kind of cinema that seemed at once dynamically mythic and highly stylised within the nominally realistic templates of mainstream cinema. Morpugo’s tale suggests an updated, more urgent transplanting of Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty, where the titular animal finished up in the Crimean War, into a war even more inimical to the natural and the individual. For Spielberg, it’s a film that stands at an interesting and ironic remove from both his adult films about such matters, like Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, and also from his iconic early films based in pure emotional longing, like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) and E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982). It stands instead with Empire of the Sun (1987) in a place where the boundaries are blurred, narrativewise, almost a portmanteau movie, with Joey’s progress through the landscape of fin de siècle/belle époque Europe and World War I bringing him into contact with characters from different nations who suggest unexpected similarities, as well as contrasts, between nominal enemies and the plain people caught between the nascent clash of civilisations.
After the rain destroys the turnip crop the Narracotts and their horse laboured so hard to plant, the announcement of war gives Ted a lucky escape clause, as he sells Joey to a young cavalry officer, Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), whose sensitive and artistic nature partly mollifies Albert’s fractured heart at being forced to give up his friend. Nicholls, riding Joey, can best his superior officer Maj. Stewart (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his mount, the great black charger Topthorn, during regimental drills that double as playful tests of mettle. But Nicholls is killed when Stewart leads a charge into a German encampment, which seems for a moment to be a coup of daring but proves instead a dreadful massacre. Joey and Topthorn are captured, and two pathetically young German soldiers, Michael (David Kross) and Gunther (Matt Milne), take the horses in an attempt to desert. They’re found and shot, leaving the horses to be discovered by frail, but determined French farm girl Emilie (Celine Buckens). She lives with her pacific, jam-making grandfather (Niels Arestrup), but the ever-hovering presence of larcenous, potentially dangerous soldiers around the farm soon sees Emilie robbed of her beloved animals. Finally, the horses come under the charge of a decent German horse lover, who is nonetheless saddled with the odious responsibility of feeding horses into the merciless and cumulatively fatal task of hauling ordnance around.
War Horse feels like a conscientious attempt by Spielberg both to return to his roots and hang being so sophisticated, apparent not only in its unapologetic yarn-spinning, but also in the physical production that largely eschews the now-common adornments of CGI, for which Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, in particular, was rejected by many fans. War Horse, with increasing confidence, flaunts its firm and retrograde stolidity. Spielberg’s sense of storytelling rhythm is crucial throughout to pulling off this sort of yarn, and whilst aspects of War Horse’s drama work in some hoary and obvious ways, it also contains a series of dramatic ellipses that tie together a sprawling tale. For instance, after the drama of the ploughing scenes, Albert and Joey are let off the leash as Albert rides his animal across the verdant hills, racing the motorcar of Lyons’ son David (Robert Emms) in a momentary spurt of glory that ends ignominiously when Joey won’t take a jump over a stone fence, spilling Albert and undercutting the sense of release. It’s a seemingly throwaway bit of slapstick humour that actually sets up a recurring story element—Joey’s need to overcome his aversion to jumping—and also stymieing the film’s sense of flyaway visual movement, not to be released again properly until Joey’s mad dash across no man’s land.
Basing a film around an animal protagonist is always a tall order, far easier on the page, a la Jack London’s Call of the Wild, than in movies, without overly literal or fantastic conceits, or making the animal in question a nonentity or an outright symbol. Joey clearly has a symbolic aspect to him, as throughout the film he adapts to become a maxim for everyone who encounters him. He’s a creature of selfless and noble labour for the farmers. He’s a thing of superlative beauty for Nicholls. He’s a vehicle of physical empowerment for Emilie. He’s a beset and tortured exemplar of a natural order at the mercy of a new age of technological monstrosities, and finally, in his epic flight across no man’s land that is the film’s singular set-piece, he embodies everything panicky, terrified, blind, outmatched, determined, and heart-rending in the spectacle of natural innocence entrapped by Conradian horror. He clearly resembles at such a moment the equally iconic horse in Picasso’s “Guernica.” Spielberg resists many of the usual tricks for anthropomorphising animals in movies, but Joey displays a constant human quality in far greater and consistent measure than many of the humans he encounters, a ready empathy for those he meets. He and Topthorn become, fittingly, the equine equivalent of one of those doomed buddy pairings in adventure dramas where one will finally collapse and beg the other to go on without him.
War Horse sustains, with surprising seriousness, the essential concept of Joey as an exemplar of something doomed to be tortured within an inch of extermination again and again by the cruelties of humans to each other, expressed first in economic terms in the struggle between Lyons and Ted, and then throughout the war, where the huge artillery pieces he and Topthorn haul invoke the similar horned juggernauts of extermination in Duel (1973), Saving Private Ryan, and War of the Worlds, whilst his encounter with a tank also invokes these (and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, 1989) as he’s nearly caught in a cul-de-sac and to save his life has to take an opportunity to jump onto the tank’s back and escape. Perhaps the film’s most powerful sequence comes when the two horses are joined to the hordes of animals arduously dragging the colossal war machines up a hill, the peak of which, when reached, in one of Spielberg’s most familiar, yet eternally effective visual motifs, reveals an epic vista being pulverised into nothingness. Joey is constantly in danger in the meantime of being shot simply to get him out of the way either before he can be a nuisance or after he’s served his purpose. It’s not the first time Spielberg’s essayed this sort of “shadow of the gun” motif—it powers, after all, both Schindler’s List (1993) and Saving Private Ryan, and to a certain extent Munich too, if with a reversed focus. Whilst it’s not the most intricate variation, it’s the most unremitting in refusing to balance with any real heroism, befitting a war where the objectives are near intangible and the cost too hideous to bear. Suddenly, the felicity of building a war epic out of a horse’s experience takes on a new singularity in having so clearly detailed the end of the era in which horses are the prized, almost worshipped companions and props for heroes and the backbone of a rural, agricultural society, now only fodder from dragging around cannons, organisms in slavery to machines.
Around Joey swirl vignettes of great and terrible import: the massacre of the cavalry unit is carefully shot and edited so that the cost of the foolish charge isn’t revealed until Spielberg manages a crane shot of a field studded with corpses. The two innocent German brothers who joined up because their father marched them to the enlistment station even though they were far too young, are equally meek and accepting of the blind, cold judgment of an authoritarian, patriarchal society—they let themselves be taken, lined up, and shot, viewed from a distance through a windmill’s sails that pass like a fleeting, thankful veil over the grim moment between life and peaceful death. The film’s one standard warfare sequence comes when Albert and his pal Andrew (Matt Milne), both serving under David Lyons, are part of a bloodcurdling charge across no man’s land in a sequence that clearly channels the similar head-long hells of The Big Parade, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), and Doctor Zhivago (1965). Andrew is left behind with orders to shoot any men who come back, but he can’t do that, so he instead runs after his friends, who make it into the deserted, carnage-clogged German trenches, only for both lads to be engulfed in a gas attack: Andrew dies and Albert comes out temporarily blinded. The irony of a film that expresses a deep humanism by concentrating on an animal culminates in a scene that plays as both a variation on All Quiet’s famous shell hole scene and also as a meta-commentary on that narrative conceit: Joey’s flight finishes up with him entwined in barbed wire like some metallic ivy, his agonised state creating a momentary bridge for the opposing camps of soldiers to express their care and distress over physical suffering and innocence, an expression that can only be given to an animal.
There’s something strangely apt about Spielberg’s War Horse and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo being released in near-tandem and both largely getting passed over and patronised during the recent Academy Awards. Both films are near-great, deliberately backward-looking works that reveal how the two directors often mirror each other’s lacks and talents. Where Scorsese’s cinematic lexicon of a film finally remains something of a glorious pile of parts for a mechanism that doesn’t entirely snap into full working order on a plot and emotional level, by inflating an essentially modest tale to gargantuan scale, Spielberg grasps the emotive heart of his epic story and rides it for all it’s worth, at the expense of subtlety and thinking of new twists on his deliberately hoary tale. He doesn’t entirely escape the diffuseness that often marks portmanteau films, and the film’s curious blend of the artificial and romantic and the bitterly realistic doesn’t entirely conceal it. Empire of the Sun (1987) pulled that mixture off, finally, with more indelible results, partly because of a more controlled viewpoint: that was the horrors of war, as seen and transformed by a boy’s perspective. War Horse, to its credit, doesn’t shy away from some of the cruellest aspects of its drama, like the shooting of the young Germans and the massacres of the war, but it does get frustratingly coy when the subplot of the Grandfather’s determination to buy Joey as a memorial to the now deceased Emilie after war’s end: what happened to Emilie is something the film should state but doesn’t. Given that it’s hard to get away from the sensation that Emilie was doomed to be raped and murdered at some point, it’s not surprising that would be elided, but it does point to a basic lack of a Lillian Gish-sized central tragic figure and scene to tether the film together, as the innocent nature boy Albert is offscreen too much.
Still, the climactic moment of sustained suspense as an overburdened army doctor (Liam Cunningham) prepares to have Joey shot after he’s saved from the wire, sets up with gleeful lack of shame the most cornball of gimmicks, where Joey will respond to Albert’s Indian bird call and no one else, is marked by a depth of staging that imbues the scene with an aura of the near-otherworldly. Muddy, bewildered soldiers look on with fascination at the animal that provokes near-depleted emotions in them as Albert, gas-seared eyes wrapped in bandages and evoking Tom Courtenay in King & Country (1964), pleads for his animal’s life, hovering between the firelight of camp and the bleak blues and greys of a stormy war-torn night, that’s not entirely unworthy of Frank Borzage or William Dieterle at their best. In its way, it seems like a picture postcard ripped out of a race memory. It’s interesting to note that coscreenwriter Richard Curtis had a hand in penning Blackadder Goes Forth (1989), a blend of absurdist comedy tropes with one of the most acutely internalised depictions of the Great War ever, as a war not just between sides but between individuals and societies, propaganda and private cynicism, harsh reality and romanticisation. At first glance, that scabrous TV show and War Horse’s earnestness have little in common, but it comes out in how both capture the way the epoch’s blend of bludgeoning sentimentalities and underlying reality as an atrocious, aggrieving bloodbath finally fight each other to a draw: one is necessary to comprehend and survive the other. Albert and Joey’s final homecoming is played out not in a golden halo, but in a blood-red twilight, evoking John Wayne’s graveside scenes of John Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), lending the upbeat conclusion an overtone of dark reckonings only temporarily staved off.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, a major tonal shift manifested in cinematic approaches to tales of conflict and warfare. This is especially discernable in those films made in Britain, where the film industry had been sustained through much of the ’50s by high-flying entertainments celebrating the victories of World War II in fairly unequivocal terms. Even the likes of Charles Frend’s severe The Cruel Sea (1953) and Guy Green’s existential Sea of Sand (1958) hardly argued with the moral exigencies of “the bloody war,” only the pains of waging it. Two films of 1957, David Lean’s The Bridge on the River Kwai and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, initiated a distinct new phase in war movies. My father, then ten years old, saw River Kwai with his own ex-professional soldier father, who had seen and done some stuff that would stand your hair on end in places like Palestine, Burma, Libya and Crete, on a trip to London: my grandfather still had the shrapnel of mortar bombs in his flesh to the end of his days. They also happened to witness Bertrand Russell’s famous ban-the-bomb march on the very same weekend, and the coincidence of protest and art revealed the curdling attitude of the post-war community which had been living with not only the social fallout of the war but the threat of more literal fallout ever since.
By the early ’60s, dark antiwar fables and bleak satires on militarism were increasingly common on screen. Joseph Losey, the expatriate American director, had already contributed one such fable with his impressive scifi chiller The Damned (1962), and, with the unexpected success of the class satire The Servant (1963), had been elevated to a new level of importance as an art film director. His immediate follow-up, King & Country, was something of the solemn antithesis to Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove of the same year, as well as echoing Paths of Glory (1957) in portraying a lowly serviceman’s politically dictated execution for cowardice. King & Country, was adapted by Evan Jones from the play by John Wilson, which itself was adapted from a story by James Lansdale Hodson. Indeed, several British films of the ’60s with acerbic things to say about the war came out of the Angry Young Man-inflected stage, including Leslie Norman’s The Long and the Short and the Tall (1961), Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965), and Richard Attenborough’s version of Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War (1969). Such works offered an antiwar sentiment through the relatively tangential revival of the WWI-era genre that, before WWII, had been a vehicle for similar sentiments regarding that remarkably pointless calamity.
King & Country, unlike many of those other films, spurns an urgent, innately hysterical note, but is instead a resolutely sober, low-key chamber piece. Most immediately striking is Losey’s unflinching evocation of the physical environs of the trenches of the Passchendaele campaign, utilising real-life photographs of the devastated landscape and rotting corpses to flesh out the otherwise tight focus on a particular army company over the course of 24 hours. It’s a world of wet, rot, rats, and constant cannon fire in the distance: dead horses and dead men riddled with vermin lie around barely noticed. Young Private Hamp (Tom Courtenay, British cinema’s anointed victim-hero before John Hurt supplanted him) has been apprehended by a patrol close to Calais after having strolled out of the lines wearing his battle kit in an apparent attempt to walk home. Capt. Hargreaves (Dirk Bogarde) is his assigned defence in the court martial, so hastily arranged the company’s Colonel (Peter Copley), the convening officer, also has to serve as the president of the court.
Hargreaves, a conscientious but firmly upper-class type, is initially wary of his task and dismissive of his prospective client. When he listens to Hamp’s story and absorbs his demeanour, and in spite of his misgivings, Hargreaves believes the young man guileless. Hamp is the only survivor of his entire original unit, recently received a Dear John letter from his wife, and seems to have experienced a spell of dissociation before which he was an effective soldier without a blemish on his character. In the trial proceedings held in a ramshackle dugout, Hargreaves attempts to make a case for Hamp’s suffering from incipient shell shock brought about when a mate was blown up next to him and when he himself almost drowned in a shell crater. Hargreaves takes on the blustering, contemptuous, but anxious unit doctor, Capt. O’Sullivan (Leo McKern), who holds firm to his opinion the Hamp was only suffering cold feet, and examines Hamp’s sympathetic immediate superior, Lt. Webb (Barry Foster). Meanwhile, Hamp’s unit buddies enact a mockery of the proceedings when one of them, Pvt. Sparrow (Jeremy Spencer), is bitten by a rat, prompting him and his fellows to go out, catch any old rat, and put it on trial. Hargreaves can’t mount an entirely effective defence, and the court decides to declare Hamp guilty with a recommendation for clemency. The recommendation is, however, rejected by HQ, and Hamp is sentenced to die in the morning.
Jones’ script does little to open up the play, but Losey still stages some effective cinema in his intimate recording of the scenes. Losey begins with his camera prowling about the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, with the agony of the Great War embodied in neatly stylised forms and quotes from Shakespeare. As Hamp recounts his story to Hargreaves, Losey superimposes images of blasted landscapes and the sound of omnipresent rain to inform us that the men are united by their common, despairing sense of the world just above the relatively sane, safe confines of the trenches. Later, when Hargreaves confronts the Colonel about the decision to execute a man because he “went for a walk,” Losey has the Colonel holding the centre of the room and looming large in the frame, seated and becalmed, whilst Hargreaves skirts the peripheral shadows, ducking under beams and glancing into mirrors, eyes burning accusatory as he revolves around his superior. The most strikingly visualised sequence sees Hamp’s fellow soldiers sneak into his cell. Sparrow embraces the increasingly catatonic Hamp and reassures him in fatherly fashion that there’s no shame in his upcoming fate, one most of them will certainly soon share, and then, in a moment of drunken play, the men flock around Hamp in a teasing game whilst he stumbles around with a blindfold on, evoking the icon of blind justice embodied in its most pathetic and degraded state.
The dominant mood of the film is one of deflated necessity, infused with suppressed despair, particularly welling from Hargreaves: it’s only subtly, allusively noted that another similarity between him and Hamp is that he, too, is the only man left from an original corps of 1914 volunteers. When he grills his Colonel, accusing them all of being complicit in murder, the superior only tiredly, glibly explains the politics behind the verdict, suggesting that any such moral precepts have nothing to do with what they’re there for: nobody’s going home soon, and that point has to be unstintingly recapitulated to all and sundry. Hamp’s execution, rather than a term of imprisonment or detailing to a punishment duty, is necessitated by the fact that the unit will be returning to the front the following day, and all reluctance must be forcefully dispelled. The word “duty” is constantly spoken without any true definition, except in terms of the mutual reliance of the men. No one man can excuse himself if the others remain, and the others remain because no one man can excuse himself. The firm delineations of social power are kept well in place, for Hargreaves is, at least theoretically, friends with both the snotty prosecuting lawyer, Capt. Midgley (James Villiers), Webb, and the Colonel. And yet the film portrays the moment of psychic disintegration of such certainties: after the war, one senses, there will be no reason for any of these people to look each other in the eye again.
The blasted mood is coolly sustained by a Larry Adler harmonica score, and the visuals beautifully captured by Denys Coop. With their aid, Losey’s maintenance of a frayed, ambivalent, unfussy tone imbues the film with a gravity and convincing rigour it wouldn’t otherwise possess. If King & Country, much lauded at the time of release, is a touch less than overwhelming now, it’s because the novelty of this type of drama has long since worn off. Looking past the fine work of the director and the actors, the material isn’t all that substantial, and finally, the underlying script is merely solid, dark dramaturgy. There’s not much layering or irony to its political cynicism, and even if free of big Stanley Kramer-esque speeches, the points are still communicated through obvious characterisations. Hamp, the garrulous, clueless victim, is too uncomplicatedly and manipulatively offered as a sympathetic sacrificial lamb, whilst his other working-class fellows are barely sketched, Brechtian shit kickers whose elemental mix of casual compassion and thoughtless cruelty is a too-convenient a way of affirming the base duality of humanity and the stalwart status of the common man. Hargreaves is a sensitive bourgeois disappointed by everyone who can’t live up to his standards (he still makes sure to berate both his Colonel and Hamp for such failures), but he’s still the automatic hero of the piece; other characters, like Webb, Midgley, and O’Sullivan, are pretty broad. Very little of substance is said or revealed about any of these people.
Losey also had a fondness for sloppy symbolism that has also dated badly: the meaning of the mock rat trial is more than a bit hackneyed and only reiterates the obvious animalism underlying the procedural structure, and combined with the later scene when they play with Hamp, comes close to confirming accidentally the officers’ dismissal of their men as coarse, lesser beings requiring severe treatment. In many ways, the drama is rather broader and less affecting than the generic but altogether stranger The Damned, and Losey’s gift for communicating dread through elision more fully realised in the subsequent Accident (1967). The inevitable Christ imagery that collects around Hamp as he takes communion prior to being pumped full of morphine by Webb is equally one-dimensional. The desperate humanity of the soldiers, finally, feels a bit contrived.
The film, in essence, belongs to Courtenay and Bogarde, particularly the latter: if Hamp’s a slightly too passive and muted a character for an actor of Courtenay’s innate intelligence to really wrap himself around, Bogarde is in his element as Hargreaves—haunted, angry, but dutiful and disciplined beyond a doubt. The final scene is horridly memorable as the stupefied Hamp, not finished off by the firing squad composed of his friends, who all aim away from him, topples into the mud, and Hargreaves takes on the job of delivering the final bullet, cradling the soldier like a baby and shooting him in the mouth, as if fulfilling a contract of care between the two men. Who’s getting off lightest here becomes, at last, a rather moot point. l
King Vidor deserves to be held high in the pantheon of American directors, and yet he’s never quite gained the stature he deserved in comparison with the likes of Ford, Hawks, and Wyler. Perhaps this is because his best work was more intermittent and mainly done as a young man, during the silent era. He spent much of the late 1940s and ’50s taking shoddy work for hire, ending his feature film career with his uneven adaptation of Tolstoy’s War and Peace (1956) and the truly awful Solomon and Sheba (1959).
The colossal project that was The Big Parade reputedly sprang from Vidor and his desire to create movies with a longer life span than the almost instantly disposable general cinema product. His idea was shepherded to realisation by Irving Thalberg at a time when films about the Great War were largely considered box office poison. The risk paid off: The Big Parade was an event movies of the 1920s, and is still officially recorded as the highest grossing silent film ever made, making more than $22 million in its worldwide release, a colossal sum for the time. The Big Parade holds up mightily, obviously superior in terms of cinematic construction and dexterity of expression, and a testament to silent-era Hollywood’s sweeping force and openness to innovation in style and story. The film could well have helped invent the basic structure of the modern war movie, and tonal disparities aside, echoes can be seen even in a film like Full Metal Jacket (1987), particularly in the finale in which a wounded soldiers’ buddies are driven to irrational actions in the face of an unseen threat.
Vidor’s inventive filmmaking is evident from the get-go, depicting various strata of American life called to action by cutting between construction riveter Slim (Karl Dane), bartender Bull O’Brien (Tom O’Brien), and rich layabout James Apperson (John Gilbert) at the fateful moment the U.S. declared war, announced by hooting sirens and marching revellers. Even Gilbert falls for the hypnotic spell of patriotism, which, as a title card puts it, can awaken in a heart in which it has never stirred, and joins several of his pals in the march to the recruiting office. Gilbert returns home to his plutocrat father (Hobart Bosworth), loving mother (Claire McDowell), and ludicrous brother Harry (Robert Ober). Mr. Apperson is proud of Harry, who’s putting his shoulder to the wheel by organising double shifts at their factory, and demands of his other shiftless son that he either pledge some effort to the war or get out of his house. Jim sarcastically asks if he can stay the night before clearing out. But his girlfriend Justyn (Claire Adams) excitedly lets slip the news, which he wants to keep from his worried mother, that he’s already joined up. In basic training, he’s thrust into a unit that includes Slim and Bull, and learns the ropes of soldiering alongside them.
The first half of The Big Parade is generally played as a romantic comedy laced with serviceman humour, predicting the likes of MASH in the sardonic contrast of dutiful patriotism and filthy reality. It observes the tawdry and amusing proliferation of petty irritants, deprivations, and perils of military service, and the awakened native guile of the khaki-clad wayfarers in coping with the alienation of distance, language, and an unfamiliar and dangerous situation. Thalberg’s original hope had been to film What Price Glory?, the hit Broadway comedy-drama by Maxwell Anderson and military veteran Laurence Stallings, but the rights to that had already been purchased. Thalberg had Stallings write a new scenario for The Big Parade that has a strong resemblance to Glory. Vidor brilliantly employs Irving Berlin’s sarcastic anthem “You’re in the Army Now” as a motif for tying the early segments together; it becomes an integral part of building their esprit de corps as the recruits sing it when they march, and then its lyrics are quoted repeatedly as the company contends with a filthy bivouac in France that lacks showers and other conveniences.
Jim soon devises a way to wash—converting an empty wine barrel into a showerhead suspended in a treetop, with the unexpected result of drawing mademoiselle Melisande (Renée Adorée), whom Apperson ran into when transporting the barrel, to entertain herself with the sight of their naked backsides. Soon, Jim’s efforts to strike up a relationship with Melisande—assigning himself to “skirt detail” as the title cards put it—draw him into her farming family’s circle of friends who gather to read letters from relations at the front. In a comic piece, Slim and Bull raid the wine cellar while Jim sits with Melisande and her friends, causing a ruckus that nearly gets Jim arrested by some MPs. Recognising that they got him into trouble they save his hide been starting an even bigger ruckus. Such hijinks could have been buffoonish if not for the intricately observed, nuanced behaviour that is one of the great pleasures of silent films, building hilarious bits of business: for example, Jim’s efforts to break apart a rock-hard cake Justyn has sent him so he can share it with his fellows or introducing Melisande to the pleasures of chewing gum.
Moreover, The Big Parade is cunningly structured. Except for the bookend scenes stateside, the bulk of the film takes place in the course of two or three days, and the comedy and romance gives way soon enough to the grimmer tasks at hand. The film was reportedly expanded after test audiences responded enthusiastically to its fresh, romantic, antiheroic style, but no seams are apparent. The sequence in which the troops are ordered to the front, setting off a storm of frantic activity in the eye of which Jim and Melisande make their despairing goodbyes, was so instantaneously iconic that Vidor lampooned it four years later in his comedy Show People. It’s both vintage Hollywood schmaltz and a startling piece of filmmaking, alive with motion and drama in the smallest details, leaving Melisande finally alone on a desolate road, the big parade having surely gone by. Jim, Bull, and Slim ride off amongst an armada of trucks and tanks to meet their baptism of fire, first in a sniper-riddled forest, and then in a crater-riddled wasteland.
The way the sequences build is all the more extraordinary for possessing both spectacle and gut-grabbing mystery and threat, in a vividly coherent vision of men in the midst of war. After the grandiose vision of the “big parade” itself, they march first into teeming, shadowy threat in the forest, and then into the midst of a colossal campaign, and finally, finish up lost, alone, isolated, surrounded by darkness, as if they’ve stepped off the end of the earth and ended up in hell. If Stendhal’s vision of Waterloo in The Charterhouse of Parma has a clear cinematic counterpoint in a movie, it’s here. Pinned down by machine gunners, Slim, Bull, and Jim to draw lots to see who will go out and try to knock out one of the enemy emplacements. Slim “wins,” ventures out, and succeeds, but is riddled with bullets on his return and is left to die without a rescue attempt. Jim explodes in outrage when he and Bull are ordered to stay put, demanding “Who’s fighting this war, men or orders?” He goes to find Slim, and Bull pursues. Bull is quickly killed. Jim is wounded in the leg when he finds Slim, also already dead. Jim, flushed with hysteria and adrenalin, takes out another machine gun nest on his own, allowing the rest of the unit to spring from their foxholes and advance.
Jim awakens in hospital and hearing that Melisande’s farmhouse has been the centre of fighting, rises from his bed, sneaks out the window, dragging his crippled leg in search of her. But she’s already been shipped out with her family and other refugees, and all Jim accomplishes—revealed when he returns home—is having his leg amputated. This shocks his mother, and Vidor evokes the sprawl of her thoughts with a montage of her memories of him from infancy to manhood. This brilliant flourish underlines Vidor’s recurring fascination for cycles of mortality and internal struggles between transcendence and nihilism, essayed in works like The Crowd (1928) and Hallelujah! (1929). Vidor could also make a film as idealistic as The Citadel (1938) and as ornery as Beyond the Forest (1949) fit into this fascination, swinging from poles of mystically charged births to ignominious deaths.
In the end, Jim’ larger quandary at home is that he’s still in love with and haunted by Melisande. But his mother knows that Justyn has fallen in love with Harry, and soon enough Jim is free to return to France and track down Melisande, who is labouring in the fields.
The storyline no longer has any glint of originality, but The Big Parade retains force and vivacity for a great many reasons, not the least because of its uncluttered simplicity, eye-level humanism, likeable characters, and an unruly mix of then-fresh elements makes it more ambiguous in tone and meaning and less ponderously grave than All Quiet on the Western Front (1930). This contrast is acute in a scene very similar to the one in which All Quiet’s hero was stranded in a foxhole with a dying enemy soldier: where the later film goes all out to establish the common humanity, The Big Parade evokes the idea without declaration, and with a dark sense of the unimportance of that humanity in such a ferocious situation.
Gilbert, who had been a top matinee star already for several years but for whom this was surely the peak of his career, is a poised and restrained screen presence whose charisma is nonetheless effortless (although he does give into that worst habit of silent actors, waving his arms around in declarative fashion in his climactic foxhole speech). The fate of The Big Parade’s heroes reflects the connivance of classic Hollywood’s bosses, as MGM’s conniving executives went on to help wreck Gilbert’s career and cheat Vidor out of the small fortune that would have come his way—having as he did a percentage of the profits in his contract—by talking him into taking a smaller compensation. As Vidor himself put it, “I thus spared myself from becoming a millionaire instead of a struggling young director trying to do something interesting and better with a camera.” C’est la guerre. l
In 1939, successful screenwriter Dalton Trumbo published a strongly antiwar novel called Johnny Got His Gun. Its central character, Joe Bonham, an 18-year-old volunteer in World War I, has been the victim of a horrible mortar attack that blew off his limbs and his face, but somehow, left his torso and brain intact. The doctors at the field hospital to which he is taken believe he is, basically, a breathing tree stump, with no feelings or thoughts. They transfer him to a permanent hospital where he is expected to offer researchers information that may help them treat patients in the future. But Joe can think and feel. So there he languishes in his body-prison year after year, remembering his past, trying to discover where he is in the present, and hoping against hope that he will be able to make contact with the outside world.
Trumbo was one of the Hollywood 10 who refused to testify in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, was held in contempt of Congress and eventually jailed, and most cruel of all, blacklisted in Hollywood. He continued to write, his scripts submitted for production through a “front”. One such front, Robert Rich, won an Oscar for best screenplay for 1956’s The Brave One; he did not appear to collect “his” Oscar because he was actually the child of an acquaintance of Trumbo’s. Eventually, Trumbo beat the ban and began working under his own name. During the height of the Vietnam War, he decided to adapt his pacifist book for the screen. He ended up making it his first and, as it turns out, only directorial effort.
This year, Shout! Films issued Johnny Got His Gun on DVD; I was lucky enough to be contacted by the film’s cinematographer Jules Brenner, now a film critic, and offered a review copy.
The film’s opening credits show stills from WWI, from rank-and-file soldiers marching in formation, to enthusiastic civilians cheering them on, to the old men in command, and of course, the casualties on the fields and in the trenches. We immediately are taken into Joe’s situation, a flurry of Army doctors and nurses attending to his immediate needs and talking about his future. Joe (Timothy Bottoms) eventually awakens and wonders why it is so dark. Since he can’t see or hear anything, he becomes attuned to the vibrations of people coming in and out of his room, the routine of the nurses who clean his airway, connect his feeding tube, and check his vitals. He can tell by the touch of a hand whether the person is a man or a woman. He can also tell that a pricking sensation at his shoulder is stitches being removed from his body. But they’re too far up. Oh no, they’ve taken his arm! His horror only increases when he realizes that all of his limbs are gone. The film unfolds his reality in the hospital, his memories, and his hallucinations and dreams.
“I remember the real things, Mother, even before we left Colorado and moved to Los Angeles. I remember everything.” A memory of his mother (blacklisted actress Marsha Hunt) examining his dirty, bare feet; his menagerie of pets; bathing in a washtub; running through snow to use the outhouse–all comforting memories scored by composer Jerry Fielding with nostalgically wistful music. I was quite reminded through the images and music of another period piece that shares a lot in common with this film–Death of a Salesman, particularly the production staged and later filmed by Volker Schlöndorff. Certainly, cannon fodder Joe Bonham is a comrade of chewed up and spit out Willy Loman.
I found several memories quite touching, as when his girl’s father catches Joe and Kareen (Kathy Fields) necking on the couch on his last night as a civilian, berates them for acting like they’re in the backseat of a flivver, and then orders them both to Kareen’s bedroom. Or when on a camping trip, Joe, with his back to his father (Jason Robards) on the floor of their tent, confesses that he lost the prize fishing pole his father had lent him reluctantly and his father simply turns over and hugs Joe. Others seem like a cardboard cutout spouting Trumbo’s views, for example, when a young Joe asks his father what democracy is, and his father says it’s about governments sending people to kill each other.
In drug-influenced dreams and hallucinations, he imagines seeing Jesus (Donald Sutherland) preparing to take soldiers on a train for their date with death. He sees himself as a freak in a sideshow run by his father and mother. He hears an oration on progress from a man played by Trumbo himself. He sees Kareen in a garden strewn with Greek sculptures telling him she had to marry someone else when he didn’t return from the front. These hallucinations seem dated now, a product of 60s and 70s pseudo-psychedelia. However, if the film had been made by Luis Buñuel, a friend of Trumbo’s who had originally been slated to direct it, imagine the possibilities of these sequences. It’s tantalizing to think what he might have done with it, how he might have ratcheted up the political perversity, how he would have handled the sexual elements, whether Joe would have gotten one of the maestro’s fetishized artificial limbs. We do know how he would have handled Jesus, as one of his shots, of Donald Sutherland piloting a train at night, a gauzy scarf blowing in the wind, made it into the film. (“The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind?”)
The extended sequence in Joe’s reality when he makes contact with a new nurse (Diane Varsi) is suspenseful. She traces “Merry Christmas,” a letter at a time, on his chest, and he responds later by tapping out Morse code with his head. Will something good finally break for this poor wretch? What do you think. Nonetheless, the voiceover narration by Bottoms that carries this story along communicates his excitement in a way that got me excited, too.
If the characters had been more well fleshed, less symbolic, I think the film would have been more affecting. Trumbo’s writing comes from another era, one in which poetic polemics were popular and accepted. Today’s audiences have been so marketed to that even messages with which we are sympathetic may not move us. In 1971, Trumbo could expect viewers to bring their own experiences of war loss to the movie theatre. In 2009, we are far too remote from war to be as deeply touched.
What moved me the most about this film, actually a partial memoir of Trumbo’s own childhood (for example, the death of Joe’s father was shot in the very house, the very room, and on the very bed where Trumbo’s father actually died), was that it seemed to address his experiences with the blacklist. He was a living, thinking man who was silenced by politicians fighting a principle that was supposed to “make the world safe for democracy,” as Joe’s father says to him. This painful period underscored so many scenes in this film that it felt more like an autobiography than a film about war.
The DVD extras, including a documentary about Trumbo and the making of Johnny Got His Gun and the radio play starring James Cagney as Joe, are superb. While the film didn’t pack the punch I thought it would, I’m glad I saw this very personal work brought to life by the man who conceived it so many years before. l
My mother thanks you, my father thanks you, my sister thanks you, and I thank you.
So ended the popular vaudeville act of The Four Cohans, who entertained audiences across the country with their singing, dancing, and clowning around in the late 1800s. So, too, did those words burn into my impressionable adolescent brain and remain with me to this day as perhaps the most memorable line of that traditional 4th of July movie, Yankee Doodle Dandy. It’s not Independence Day yet, and Yankee Doodle Dandy is now only a traditional offering on Turner Classic Movies, but I’d like to put this movie out there for consideration by a new generation of film buffs, particularly those who might like to get a handle on films of the 40s, a rich and often misunderstood era.
James Cagney won his only Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of showbiz phenomenon George M. Cohan. Did he deserve it? Compared with the other nominees (Ronald Colman in Random Harvest, Gary Cooper in Pride of the Yankees, Walter Pidgeon in Mrs. Miniver, and Monty Woolley in The Pied Piper), I’d say that he probably did. Cornball and boisterous he was indeed, but that is exactly how Cohan was always described. Cagney was also charged with that special something he always got when he had the rare opportunity to perform in his favorite kind of film—a musical. Here was the intensity he brought to his gangsters—Tom Powers, Cody Garrett, Martin Snyder—in service of a tour de force performance of pure joy. His singing (not so hot, but expressive), his dancing (eccentric and strange to modern eyes, but masterfully entertaining and done in Cohan’s style), and, of course, his acting, which could turn from bravado to playful to soulful in just the right measure, all came together like a force of nature to tell perhaps the ultimate showbiz story.
The film opens in 1940, recounting the historic awarding of the Congressional Medal of Honor to Cohan for writing the patriotic song “Over There,” an unofficial fight song for military men who fought in World War I and then in World War II. Cohan, the ultimate flag waver, is intimidated as he follows the Negro footman (the frequently working but often uncredited Clinton Rosemund) up a winding staircase to meet President Roosevelt (voice of Art Gilmore). In broad tones, with his back to the camera, Roosevelt reminisces about The Four Cohans, and Cohan launches into a full-blown flashback, with voiceovers from time to time to connect the scenes.
We go all the way back to George’s father, Jerry (Walter Huston), on stage and waiting to hear word about his wife Nellie (Rosemary DeCamp), who is in labor. When the baby who would grow up to be George M. arrives, Jerry rushes through a 4th of July parade to Nellie’s bedside. Jerry suggests they name him George Washington, but must settle for George Michael. An unironic shot of baby George shows him with an American flag in his tiny fist.
We move swiftly through the birth of George’s sister Josie, who, grown-up, is played by Cagney’s real sister, Jeanne Cagney; stints on the vaudeville stage; and on to a production of “Peck’s Bad Boy,” with young George (Henry Blair) as star. George’s ego gets the better of him backstage when the Cohans get word that an important scout for a top vaudeville circuit wants to speak with them. He offers them a contract, but George fouls up the deal. He receives a spanking (“here’s a part without any talent”) after Nellie warns Jerry not to hit him in the mouth (“he has to sing”) or the hands (“he has to play the violin”).
The Cohans appear in a regional play, with George in white beard and wig playing his mother’s father. An 18-year-old girl named Mary (Joan Leslie) comes backstage to ask the advice of the wizened professional. She thinks she has talent and demonstrates her dancing abilities to George, who playfully gives her contradictory advice about her dancing style and then assures a beautiful chorine who sticks her head into his dressing room that their date for the evening is on. Mary, confused, asks if she’s his granddaughter. George replies, “Well, I do have to make up older than I really am,” and starts peeling off his whiskers and erasing his greasepaint wrinkles. When he pulls off his wig, Mary screams. He drops the wig to the floor, stomps on it, and says, “Got it.” Mary becomes part of the Cohan troupe.
George has begun writing plays. Our introduction to Cohan’s long-time partner Sam Harris (Richard Whorf) is a humorous meeting in the offices of theatrical agents Dietz & Goff (George Tobias and Chester Chute). Harris is trying to sell them a melodrama with Indians and flames and stampeding horses. George is pitching “Fifty Miles from Boston,” with Mary along to sing “Harrigan.” Dietz & Goff don’t like either of them. Both budding playwrights go separately to a tavern to drown their sorrows. Harris tries another pitch to German theatre angel Schwab (S.Z. Sakall). Schwab says he wants pretty dancing girls. George, overhearing their conversation, pretends that Harris is his partner and tells him Dietz & Goff may be interested in his musical. Schwab, disconcerted that Harris has been sitting on a musical, asks, “Why is Dietz’s wife’s money better than my wife’s money?” With a covert introduction and a handshake, Cohan & Harris is born, with one hit after another backed by the creative team. This scene is pure hokum and very far from the truth about the formation of the team, but it is extremely well-written and performed with the razor-sharp comic timing Cagney perfected with Pat O’Brien in Boy Meets Girl (1938) and Joan Blondell in Footlight Parade (1933).
Cohan moves on to court Broadway star Fay Templeton (the marvelous Irene Manning) to headline his new musical. Templeton’s agent is urging her to hitch her wagon to the hottest thing on Broadway, but Templeton finds Cohan too vulgar for her refined image. When Cohan comes to call on her, she openly scorns him, but is won over by a song he wrote while she was on stage, “Forty-Five Minutes from Broadway,” which becomes the name of the show. She debuts the song “Mary, It’s a Grand Old Name,” in the show, while the real Mary, now Cohan’s wife and for whom the song supposedly was written, watches adoringly from her theatre box.
In 1904, Cohan opens the musical “Little Johnny Jones.” I think it’s interesting what a critic of the time says of this musical:
At the Providence Opera House last evening George M. Cohan, one of “the Four,” with a good-sized company, began a week’s engagement in his latest musical offense, “Little Johnny Jones.” The production still has “four Cohans,” although Josephine has deserted the fold. Father and mother are still with the show and so is Ethel Levey, who is Mrs. George M. in private life. The combination shows its familiar styles of varied talents neither better or worse than when last seen in this city and the entertainment is about of the usual Cohan standard, although there are features in this offering that have never been seen on any stage before. The extremely large audience present left no doubt as to its hearty approval of the whole affair. The applause was frequent and there were curtain calls and a speech by the “author actor.” All of which was in sad contrast to the comparatively slim and indifferent greeting extended to Miss Eleanor Robson, week before last, as well as to many of the previous attractions of marked artistic merit.
Now take a look at the Warner Bros version of this musical offense.
Certainly, we can see the cornball to which the reviewer objected, but this is a magnificent entertainment made even moreso by Cagney’s cocksure charisma.
The dramatic moments in the film are generally fine, though Leslie and Cagney generate all the fire of a wet match. Even a wholesome musical ought to make marriage look like a pleasure, not something you retire to. Some moments, however, are quite poignant. For example, Josie and George talk at the family farm, and Josie tells him she is getting married and retiring. This scene actually took place between Jeanne and James, who were a vaudeville team, and thus, there is a personal note that I find moving. In another scene, George, walking alongside some soldiers getting ready to ship out during World War II, is chided for not singing their marching song: “Don’t you remember it?” “Seems to me I do,” he answers, and joins in singing “Over There.” Most moving of all is when George rushes to his father’s death bed. His father is delirious, talking about the early days of the act, and George plays along. When Jerry finally expires, George tries to say the act’s closing line, “My mother thanks you…” but breaks down into tears. He’s the only one of the Four Cohans left.
The flag waving goes into overdrive for the final musical number that ends the film, “You’re a Grand Old Flag,” from “George Washington, Jr.,” ensuring the kind of show-stopping pleasure Cohan always loved to give the crowds. I’m a pretty well-developed cynic when it comes to patriotism, but the dedicated craft of all of those involved in creating Yankee Doodle Dandy never fails to put a smile on my face. I’m sure that in an America embroiled in war, this film, like so many others made at this time, helped ease the pain of parted loved ones, wartime rationing, and social uncertainty. James Cagney holds nothing back in portraying an American patriot who wasn’t afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve. Give it a try. You just might feel a little bit better about America afterward.
It is my considered opinion that the collaboration between Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger was the greatest of its kind in the history of entertainment. How many directors could claim such genuine masterpieces as I Know Where I’m Going!, Black Narcissus, A Matter of Life and Death, The Red Shoes, One of Our Aircraft Is Missing, and of course, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp—Pressburger’s favorite film—and serve as writers and producers for many of their films? I could have chosen any of these films, which I view regularly, to write about, but Colonel Blimp is so decidedly British that I think of it as an ideal introduction to this decidedly British team. (Never mind that Pressburger was Hungarian. He was a fervent Anglophile most of his life.)
Colonel Blimp is an early entry in the Powell/Pressburger canon, but it already has a consistent point of view that would be a hallmark of the team. It also includes a number of their informal stock company—Roger Livesey, previously seen in I Know Where I’m Going!; Anton Walbrook, cast later in The Red Shoes; Deborah Kerr, later the star of Black Narcissus; John Laurie, also from I Know Where I’m Going!; and second-unit cameraman Jack Cardiff, whose distinguished career as a cinematographer would include several Powell/Pressburger films, most notably Black Narcissus.
A Powell/Pressburger film always seems wistful, watching its characters balance between tradition, honor, and simplicity and a magnetic modern world. Interestingly, Powell/Pressburger women generally are very strong-minded and ambitious, a focal point for the tension between modernity and tradition in most of the team’s films. Colonel Blimp, therefore, is a bit of an anomaly by placing General Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey) at the center of the vortex, a career soldier whose fair-fight ethos slams up against the ruthlessness of 20th century warfare. Nonetheless, the three women in Wynne-Candy’s life during the 40-year span of the film—all played by Deborah Kerr—become the embodiment for him of the ideal, the never-changing aspects of his world view.
The film begins in the present, with a messenger speeding on a motorbike to deliver a message to a young British officer awaiting orders about a military exercise, the very picture of the revved-up modern world. “War starts at midnight. Make it real,” the message says. The officer decides to make it very real by launching a sneak attack before midnight. He surprises Wynne-Candy, the head of the Home Guard, in his club’s Turkish bath and declares him and every other sweating body in view prisoners of war. Wynne-Candy protests that the war doesn’t start until midnight, to which the brash officer replies that by launching a surprise attack, he was making it “real.” He adds insult to injury by declaring that he will never become as complacent as the fat, moustachioed Wynne-Candy. This remark enrages the general, and he dunks the officer in the bath while upbraiding him that he has no idea how Wynne-Candy came to have his belly and his moustache. Since we in the audience don’t know either, Powell and Pressburger oblige us with the rest of the movie, a flashback begining in the Turkish bath wherein lingers a young Clive Candy just back from the Boer War, humming an opera tune, “Je suis Titania,” from Ambroise Thomas’ Mignon that will create an incident later in the film.
Candy has written about his experiences in South Africa for a London newspaper, and a letter from an English tutor in Germany, Edith Hunter (Kerr), finds its way to him. The letter urges him to come to Berlin and stop horrible rumors of torture and other atrocities being spread about the British forces in South Africa. Against his CO’s directive, Candy travels to Berlin, where he meets Miss Hunter. She takes him to a cafe frequented by the rumor monger Kaunitz (David Ward) where Candy can confront him. Kaunitz’s crowd and Candy alternately bribe the cafe band to play their respective songs (“Je suis Titania” in Candy’s case), and Kaunitz at last becomes enraged by Candy’s interference. The two men trade insults until Kaunitz spits in Candy’s face, and Candy punches him. The incident results in a formal challenge to a duel.
The rituals attendant to the duel are laid out very carefully and in great detail. The courtesies observed for this barbaric feud-settler give the viewer a very clear idea of how seriously the phrase “officer and gentleman” was taken when Candy cut his teeth. Because Candy’s insult was to the entire German army, any of its officers can duel with him. The task falls to a reluctant Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook), whom Candy has never met.
The audience is treated to only the opening parries of the duel as the camera dollies up and out a high window of the gymnasium where it is taking place. The directors let a nurse relate the results. Candy has nearly had his upper lip cut off. This injury is the reason behind Candy’s moustache. Edith attends him and Theo, who is recuperating from a slashed forehead at the same nursing home. Candy and Theo become fast friends who share the same sense of duty while recognizing that they never had a real quarrel. When at last Candy and Edith are able to return to England, Theo sheepishly confesses that he and Edith have fallen in love. Candy enthusiastically congratulates Theo, but when Edith gives him a kiss good-bye, Candy realizes that he has fallen in love with her.
The second act takes us to World War I, and Candy is on the move in France. Unable to reach his destination, he finds food and shelter at a French convent, where he spies a nurse, Barbara Wynne (Kerr), who bears a striking resemblance to Edith. He ascertains some particulars about her which he will use to track her down at home. Soon, he receives the news that the Armistice has been negotiated, and Candy is delighted that victory was won without resort to dirty pool.
His sportsmanlike regard for the Germans seems naive and even moreso when he meets up with Theo in a POW camp some months later, after he has wooed and won Barbara. Theo snubs him, but later phones before he is shipped back to Germany to apologize. Wynne-Candy invites him over to dine with some distinguished gentlemen. All express supreme confidence that England will bail Germany out of its difficulties. Theo sneers at this assembly when he is with his fellow officers on the train, calling them children. Theo recognizes that the rules of the game are changed, and were changing as early as Theo and Clive’s first meeting when vicious slurs were being used in Germany to discredit the English.
Act III is, of course, set during World War II. The home Clive and Barbara inherited from Clive’s beloved Aunt Margaret (Muriel Aked) is bombed. No longer able to fight in combat, Wynne-Candy becomes head of the Home Guards. He encounters Theo yet again as he is trying to enter England as a refugee. Edith has died and their two sons have become Nazis. He says he grew “homesick” for England, pure and simple, the home of his beloved wife. Clive pulls some strings to see that he is granted asylum but fails to grasp the evil and lawlessness of Nazism that Theo begs him to see. Clive still believes that a war fought fairly is a winning strategy and the only honorable conduct for military men. When their evening together has passed, Wynne-Candy asks his driver Angela “Johnny” Cannon (Kerr) to take Theo to his hotel. Theo is struck by Johnny’s resemblance to Edith and realizes that what Clive told him is true—Clive never got over his love for Edith. The closing scene has Clive standing near the site of his bombed house, which is now a water reservoir. He is reminded of a promise he made Barbara on the steps of that house, and announces his compliance: “I still haven’t changed.”
I realize I may have tried your patience with this lengthy synopsis, but I didn’t convey even the half of it. This is a rich and intricate look at 40 years in the life of a career soldier from England’s upper class, but curiously titled. During the period in which Clive Wynne-Candy lived, a cartoon character named Colonel Blimp was created by David Low. Blimp was a snobbish, reactionary buffoon whose preposterous statements were barbs aimed directly at the anti-democratic policies of the British government. It’s hard to reconcile the cartoon Colonel Blimp with the honorable and lovable Wynne-Candy. They live as one in one respect—a blindness to change and a stubborn belief in the rightness of their own convictions. I surmise, therefore, that the title refers to the life and death of an ideal as the ritualistic honor of the career soldier gave way to a people’s army and the brutality of modern warfare. In this respect, Colonel Blimp is a much more realistic and unblinking look at the passing of a modern age of chivalry than the similarly themed Grand Illusion.
The performances are uniformly outstanding. Indeed, Kerr was never better, creating three distinct women that Clive never really sees for what they are. The look of this film is lush on the homefront and gritty on the field of battle. A fine example of the film’s exquisite economy of storytelling is the sequence in which we see Aunt Margaret’s blank study walls fill up, scattershot, with the heads of wild animals Candy bagged during peacetime to keep himself occupied. This sequence, shot by Jack Cardiff, sealed his fate alongside Powell and Pressburger making several movie masterpieces. An extra on the DVD of the film mentions that Winston Churchill tried to suppress the movie for its sympathetic and nuanced portrayal of a German and because Churchill wanted to dispel the notion that Colonel Blimps still had a place in the modern British army. Actor/director Stephen Fry, who was filmed for this extra, mused that, in fact, Churchill himself was Blimp. Whatever you may think of that assessment, there can be no doubt that the “Blimp” of this extraordinary film is anything but a blustering windbag. He does the British Army and his creators, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, proud. l