July 3, 2012
As we celebrate this Independence Day, some might wonder why the Revolutionary War has been shortchanged by filmmakers. Other countries have made an industry out of their past. Shakespeare’s historical plays are filmed repeatedly in Great Britain, where filmmakers can borrow from old English epics like Beowulf and contemporary plays like A Man for All Seasons. Even potboilers like the Shakespeare conspiracy theory Anonymous, or The Libertine, with Johnny Depp as the second Earl of Rochester, are awash in details—costumes, weaponry, architecture—that bring their times to life.
Films like Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai or Kagemusha do the same for earlier Japanese culture. The Hong Kong film industry would not exist without its films and television shows set in the past, and mainland Chinese filmmakers often use period films to skirt present-day censorship restrictions.
In the golden age of the studio system, Western films provided more income and profit than many A-budget titles. And the Civil War has been the backdrop of some of the industry’s biggest films, like The Birth of a Nation and Gone With the Wind. But successful American films set in the Revolutionary period are hard to find. You’d think that filmmakers would jump at the chance to recreate our country’s origins.
Part of the problem is due to our general ignorance of the times. D.W. Griffith released The Birth of the Nation on the 50th anniversary of the end of the Civil War. Some moviegoers could remember the fighting, and many of the props in the film were still in general use. When Westerns first became popular, they were considered contemporary films because they took place in an identifiable present. Many of Gene Autry’s movies are set in a West that features cars and telephones.
Westerns were so popular that an infrastructure grew up around them, from horse wranglers to blacksmiths. Studios hoarded wagons, costumes, guns. Extras who could ride got a reliable income from B-movies.
That never happened for films set in the Revolutionary period. Designers had little experience with costumes and sets from eighteenth century America, and few collections to draw from. Screenwriters had trouble grappling with events and themes of the Revolution. A few incidents stood out: the Boston Tea Party, Paul Revere’s midnight ride, the Minutemen. But how do you condense the Constitutional Congress to a feature-film format?
Still, some filmmakers tried, as you can see below:
America (1924)—The Birth of a Nation made D.W. Griffith one of the world’s most famous filmmakers, but it also put him in the position of trying to top himself. After directing movies big and small, Griffith found himself in financial trouble in the 1920s. When a project with Al Jolson about a mystery writer who dons blackface to solve a crime fell apart, the director turned to America. According to biographer Richard Schickel, the idea for the film came from the Daughters of the American Revolution via Will Hays, a former postmaster and censor for the film industry.
Griffith optioned The Reckoning, a novel by Robert W. Chambers about Indian raids in upstate New York. With the author he concocted a story that included Revere, the Minutemen, Washington at Valley Forge, and a last-minute rescue of the heroine and her father from an Indian attack. When he was finished, America was his longest film, although when the reviews came in Griffith quickly started cutting it down. Critics compared it unfavorably not only to The Birth of a Nation, but to work from a new generation of filmmakers like Douglas Fairbanks, Ernst Lubitsch, and James Cruze.
1776 (1972)—Turning the second Continental Congress into a Broadway musical may not seem like much of a money-making plan, but songwriter Sherman (“See You in September”) Edwards and librettist Peter Stone managed to parlay this idea into a Tony-winning hit that ran for three years before going on the road.
Edwards and Stone teamed for the film adaptation, directed in 1972 by Peter H. Hunt, who also directed the stage show. Many of the actors repeated their roles on screen, including William Daniels, Ken Howard, John Cullum and Howard Da Silva. The film received generally poor reviews. Vincent Canby at the New York Times complained about the “resolutely unmemorable” music, while Roger Ebert at the Chicago Sun-Times said the movie was an “insult.”
What strikes me, apart from the garish lighting scheme and phony settings, is its relentlessly optimistic, upbeat tone, even when delegates are arguing over slavery and other demanding issues. When the play opened many liberals thought it was commenting indirectly but favorably on the Vietnam War. On the advice of President Richard Nixon, producer Jack Warner had the song “Cool, Cool Considerate Men” cut from the film because it presented the delegates as elitists trying to protect their wealth.
Revolution (1985)—Not to be confused with the 1968 hippie epic with music by Mother Earth and the Steve Miller Band, this 1985 film starred Al Pacino as a New Yorker drawn unwillingly into fighting the British in order to protect his son. Blasted by critics on its release, the $28 million film reportedly earned less than $360,000 in the US.
This was the debut feature for director Hugh Hudson, who went on to helm the international smash Chariots of Fire. For the recent DVD and Blu-ray release, Hudson complained that the film was rushed into release before he could finish it. His new director’s cut adds a voice-over from Al Pacino that helps hide some of the production’s bigger flaws, like an inert performance from Nastassja Kinski and a laughable one from Annie Lennox, as well as a plethora of dubious accents.
In “Is Hugh Hudson’s Revolution a neglected masterpiece?” Telegraph writer Tim Robey is willing to give the film a second chance, commenting on Bernard Lutic’s gritty, handheld camerawork and the squalor on display in Assheton Gorton’s production design. But Revolution was so ill-conceived, so poorly written, and so indifferently acted that no amount of tinkering can rescue it. It remains in the words of Time Out London “an inconceivable disaster,” one that nearly destroyed Pacino’s movie career.
The Patriot (2000)—Mel Gibson has made a career out of his persecution complex, playing a martyr in everything from Mad Max to Braveheart. The success of Braveheart, which won a Best Picture Oscar, may have encouraged Gibson to make The Patriot, essentially the same plot with a Revolutionary setting. (With variations, that story engine also drives We Were Soldiers, The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto, even his remake of Edge of Darkness.)
The Patriot was a big-budget film, with a cast that included rising star Heath Ledger, cinematography by Caleb Deschanel, and careful treatment from the directing and producing team of Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin (Independence Day). Devlin even credited the Smithsonian for adding to the picture’s historical accuracy.
But the script reduced the Revolutionary War to a grudge match between Gibson’s plantation owner and a callous, cruel British colonel played by Jason Isaacs. Of course if the British murdered your son and burned down a church with the congregation inside you’d want to hack them to pieces with a tomahawk.
Northwest Passage (1940)—Yes, it’s the wrong war and the wrong enemy, and King Vidor’s film drops half of Kenneth Roberts’ best-selling novel set in the French and Indian War. But this account of Major Robert Rogers and his rangers is one of Hollywood’s better adventures. MGM spent three years on the project, going through over a dozen writers and a number of directors. Location filming in Idaho involved over 300 Indians from the Nez Perce reservation. By the time it was released in 1940, its budget had doubled.
Most of the action involves a trek by Rogers and his men up Lake George and Lake Champlain, ostensibly to rescue hostages but in reality to massacre an Indian encampment. Vidor and his crew capture the excruciating physical demands of dragging longboats over a mountain range and marching through miles of swamp, and also show the graphic effects of starvation. Spencer Tracy gives a bravura performance as Rogers, and he receives excellent support from Robert Young and Walter Brennan.
May 25, 2012
Suppressed for over thirty years, Let There Be Light has never received the attention it deserves as one of the most moving and honest of wartime documentaries. A new restoration undertaken by the National Archives and Records Administration and hosted on the National Film Preservation Foundation’s website may help bring this John Huston film to a wider audience. With help from Fandor.com, the NFPF is making this restoration available online from now until August 31, 2012.
I’ve written about Let There Be Light before, on this blog and in my book about the National Film Registry. I also contributed to Sara Fishko’s recent piece about the film for WNYC radio. I relied on the available prints: scratched, dupey 16mm copies with muffled soundtracks and frequent splices. The restored version makes it clear that Huston was among the best documentarians of his time.
Huston was an established screenwriter (Jezebel, Juarez) and a promising young director (The Maltese Falcon) when World War II broke out. Like many of his colleagues, he volunteered for the U.S. Army Signal Corps, which made instructional films for members of the armed forces, as well as propaganda for more general audiences.
Huston worked on several Signal Corps films, but devoted his full energies to a trilogy of documentaries: the Oscar-nominated Report from the Aleutians (1943), about the building of an airstrip in Adak; The Battle of San Pietro (1946), about a small Italian town recovering from an extended fight with the Nazis; and Let There Be Light (1946). The films form an incisive portrait of three phases of war: preparation, fighting, and its aftermath.
Rey Scott, a cameraman on San Pietro, suffered what was called shell shock after the bombardment of Caserta during the Italian campaign. He was treated at the Army’s Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island. When Huston, who was working in Signal Corps studios in nearby Astoria, visited Scott, he became intrigued about how soldiers with psychological injuries were being treated.
In the spring of 1945, the Army asked Huston to make a film about the “Nervously Wounded.” (The film’s original title was The Returning Psychoneurotics.) Officers wanted Huston to reassure viewers that there were very few psychoneurotics in the armed services, and that their symptoms had been exaggerated in the press. Most important, Huston’s film would show that someone classified as psychoneurotic in the Army could still be a “success” as a civilian.
Huston began filming without a finished script, but with a good idea of what he wanted to cover. Much as cinema verite directors would do some twenty years later, the director tried to capture the day-to-day routine at Mason General in unstaged, unscripted scenes. He set up cameras in receiving rooms, classrooms and offices, covering both individual and group sessions. The patients were told they were being filmed for a documentary, and in his autobiography An Open Book, Huston wrote that the presence of the cameras had a positive effect on the soldiers. He claimed they became more responsive and recovered more quickly when they were being filmed.
According to film historian Scott Simmon, Huston’s cameramen shot 375,000 feet of film—almost 70 hours—which was edited down to an hour. These interviews—raw, painful, hopeless—form the core of Let There Be Light. They have an immediacy and honesty missing from most films of the time. What haunts me about them is the inability of many soldiers to articulate their problems and needs.
By letting the soldiers and doctors speak for themselves, Huston could build a subtle case about war and its impact without stating it directly. Let There Be Light exposed the racism and class divisions that were a part of the armed services. More troubling was the director’s suggestion that the issues the soldiers faced extended beyond the war itself. Drugs or hypnotherapy were not going to cure problems like unemployment. “Every man has his breaking point,” as Walter Huston warns in a voice-over.
Unfortunately, the Army wanted a film that blamed shell shock on actual shells, not intractable social problems. Although some Army officers and a few civilian critics saw the film when it was finished, Let There Be Light was shelved. Huston left the armed services soon after to work on The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
That might have been the end of the story, but as Scott Simmon points out, the Army did end up releasing a film about shell shock (in today’s terms, post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD). Shades of Gray, directed by Joseph Henabery, was released in January 1948. It essentially remade Let There Be Light, but with an almost all-white cast of actors—not soldiers—and with strikingly different conclusions. (You can see Shades of Gray online at the Internet Archive.)
Let There Be Light didn’t surface again until 1980, when producer Ray Stark, motion picture lobbyist Jack Valenti and Vice President Walter Mondale campaigned for its release. (Stark was producing Huston’s adaptation of Annie.) Viewers who saw it then were underwhelmed, perhaps expecting an expose of horrid conditions instead of a sober, quiet examination of how war cripples soldiers emotionally as well as physically.
Since then, Let There Be Light has circulated in poor quality 16mm prints and even worse videocassettes and DVDs. But soundtrack on the NFPF version, restored by Chace Audio by Deluxe, makes audible several passages that had been close to unintelligible. For the picture, the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) created a new negative from an acetate fine grain master, the best surviving source. NARA is still in the process of preparing a 2K scan of the film in order to make high resolution copies.
Was Huston fair in his portrayal of Mason General? Should the Army have censored his film? The best way to decide is to watch it yourself.
Read new Reel Culture postings every Wednesday and Friday. And you can follow me on Twitter @Film_Legacy.
February 8, 2012
February 24 marks the release of Relativity Media’s Act of Valor, “a film like no other in Hollywood’s history,” as its publicity materials trumpet. The reality is Act of Valor is only the latest in a long line of movies that received help from the military, stretching back to the very beginnings of cinema.
As John Jurgensen noted in his Wall Street Journal article “Hollywood Tries a New Battle Plan,” the project started as a recruiting effort for the U.S. Navy, whose Navy Special Warfare division solicited proposals for a film that would “bolster recruiting efforts, honor fallen team members and offer a corrective to misleading fare such as Navy SEALs,” a pretty silly action movie starring Charlie Sheen.
Bandito Brothers, a Los Angeles production company run by former stuntmen Mike “Mouse” McCoy and Scott Waugh, won the bid, which gained them access to active duty SEALs as well as to military assets. They filmed what amounted to a SEAL training exercise simulating an assault on a yacht. (According to Jurgensen, the Navy ends up with “blanket footage of the exercise for use in future training.”) The Bandito Brothers team used this sequence to obtain funding for a feature which would feature active duty SEALs in seven of the lead roles. McCoy and Waugh hired screenwriter Kurt Johnstad (300) to come up with a story about a terrorist plot to smuggle suicide bombers into the U.S.
After filming ended in March, 2011, military officials screened the footage to remove potentially “sensitive tactics.” Two months later, SEALs led the strike that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. About a month after that, Relativity Media purchased distribution rights for Act of Valor.
Act of Valor is being marketed on several keys points: the participation of real-life soldiers; the presence of military “assets” like helicopters and armored vehicles; and the depiction of approved operating procedures, like how to attack a terrorist compound in the jungle. In other words, the same key elements found in The Green Berets, a 1968 war movie directed by John Wayne. Most of The Green Berets was shot at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the Army provided helicopters, transports, and uniforms, as well as extras. (The Army would later use left-over sets for training exercises.)
An even better example is Top Gun, the Tom Cruise blockbuster that is scheduled for a 3-D upgrade sometime this year. The Navy gave filmmakers access to several F-14A Tomcats from the VF-51 Screaming Eagles fighter squadron, as well as to the aircraft carriers USS Enterprise and USS Ranger, and allowed filming during missile launch training exercises. According to this Duncan Campbell article, the Navy set up recruiting booths in the lobbies of theaters playing the movie. Paramount even offered to show an ad for the Navy before Top Gun screenings. David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, quotes an internal Pentagon memo as saying, “to add a recruiting commercial onto the head of what is already a two-hour recruiting commercial is redundant.”
To find the real roots of government cooperation with movies, we should go back to 1898, when the industry faced severe financial difficulties. After the USS Maine blew up in Havana that February, filmmakers rushed to capitalize on what soon became the Spanish-American War, faking battle footage and retitling old movies to draw in viewers.
Biograph sent cameramen to Cuba, where they were allowed to film divers working on the wreck of the Maine. They also shot in the navy yard at Newport News, Virginia, and filmed Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt outside the White House. These war films were extremely popular at theaters during a time when customers had seemed to lose patience with movies as a whole.
The cooperation between armed forces, and the government as a whole, and the film industry grew as movies matured. In 1903, Biograph made a series of 60 films for the Navy, according to film historian Charles Musser, “showing recruitment, training, the administration of first aid, and the auctioning of personal property left behind by deserters.” They were shown at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, among other venues.
During World War I, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels commissioned a feature-length documentary “to convince isolationists of the importance of building a strong American navy,” according to the National Film Preservation Foundation. Produced by Lyman H. Howe Company, the complete film is lost, but you can still see an intriguing fragment of the U.S. Navy of 1915.
William Wellman, a veteran of the previous war, directed Story of G.I. Joe, which was adapted from articles by war correspondent Ernie Pyle. (Wellman actually joined the project months after filming started, because producer Lester Cowan had halted production to revise the script.) Burgess Meredith was cast as Pyle; at that point a Captain in the Army, he was placed on inactive duty. Also in the cast: some 150 real-life soldiers, most of them veterans of the Italian campaign. They stayed at Camp Baldwin in Los Angeles for the six weeks of shooting before being deployed to the South Pacific. As Wellman wrote in his autobiography, “None of them came home.”
Of course films receive cooperation from the military all of the time, many of them not specifically related to the armed services. Blockbusters like Armageddon and Transformers and also-rans like Battle: Los Angeles got help from the military with weapons, transportation, uniforms and extras. But the military can choose not to help as well. When Stanley Kubrick filmed an attack on an Army base in Dr. Strangelove, he had to rent weapons and armor for the scene. And for Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola turned to the Filipino army for help with helicopters and weaponry.
December 9, 2011
It’s been a busy year for Steven Spielberg. Witness The Adventures of Tintin, opening in the United States on December 21, and War Horse, opening four days later. Few directors manage to get two films out at once, but in addition to his directing chores, Spielberg received an executive producer credit on 11 film and television projects this past year, including Super 8, Real Steel and Transformers: Dark of the Moon. (He also found time to criticize the last 20 years of filmmaking, saying there are “not a lot of movies” that he would watch, while still putting a plug in for The X Factor.)
Spielberg’s sudden increase in output—he directed only seven other features since 2000—prompted me to think about whether quantity helps or hurts a filmmaker. Mumblecore pro Joe Swanberg has released six feature films over the past year: Art History, Autoerotic, Caitlin Plays Herself, Silver Bullets, Uncle Kent, and The Zone, displaying an admiral work ethic despite increasingly scathing reviews. Swanberg generally produces, writes, directs, and edits his films, which makes his output even more impressive. Some directors spend years on a single project, and several have spoken of their regret over not accomplishing more.
But Swanberg doesn’t come close to the medium’s more prolific directors. Take Takashi Miike, born in Osaka in 1960. After graduating from the Yokohama Vocational School of Broadcast and Film, he released his first feature in 1991. Since then he has completed over seventy productions in theater, film, and television. In 2001 and 2002, he received credit on fifteen features. Some of his films were direct-to-video releases, and not many have opened in the United States. Miike has worked in all genres, from family films to period adventures, but built his reputation on films like Audition (1999), a horror film based on the novel by Ryi Murakami. Its torture scenes unsettled even seasoned directors like John Landis and Eli Roth.
Although his recent 3D action film Hari Kiri: Death of a Samurai showed at Cannes, Miike seems to thrive on the controversy his movies elicit for their sex and violence. Rainer Werner Fassbinder provoked controversy of a different sort. Before he died at the age of 37 from a drug overdose, the German director made 40 feature films and two television series, as well as acting in dozens of films and plays and directing dozens of stage pieces. At various times he was also a cinematographer, editor, composer, and theater manager.
Influenced by Bertolt Brecht and by the French New Wave, Fassbinder cranked out film after film, relying on a troupe of actors that included the wonderful Hanna Schygulla. Films like The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) and Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (1974) won Fassbinder world-wide acclaim and the ability to make films like Despair (1978), adapted from the Vladimir Nabokov novel by Tom Stoppard, and The Marriage of Maria Braun (1978), perhaps his most popular work. Two years later made the television Berlin Alexanderplatz, based on the novel by Alfred Döblin and released as a 15-hour movie in the US.
Fassbinder’s personal life was a stew of largely failed relationships compromised by his self-destructive tendencies. In public he was the subject of frequently bitter personal attacks from gays and conservatives, as well as mere critics. How he managed to complete 40 films in fifteen years is a mystery.
Then there are the real workhorses of the industry, the B-movie directors who flourished in the 1930s and 1940s. Joseph Santley directed over ninety features, including films with The Marx Brothers and Gene Autry. (Autry had his own punishing schedule: as well as making six to eight features a year, he hosted a weekly radio show, had frequent recording sessions, and sponsored a rodeo that toured the country annually.) William Witney, cited by Quentin Tarantino for his expertise, started directing low-budget serials when he was twenty-one. He is credited with more than 60 feature films, as well as hundreds of episodes of TV series.
It would be hard to top the output by William Beaudine, who started out in the industry as an actor for Biograph in 1909. After assisting D.W. Griffith on The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, he directed shorts and then features for everybody from Samuel Goldwyn in the 1920s to Embassy Pictures in the 1960s. Beaudine worked with Mary Pickford, W.C. Fields, Will Hay, and Bela Lugosi. He also directed one of the most successful exploitation films of all time, Mom and Dad (1945). Accounts vary widely as to how many movies he actually directed, but sticking to only theatrically released features, he made more than 175.
Some records will never be broken, in part because the rules have changed. Buck Freeman, who played first base and right field for teams in Washington and Boston, was credited with two strikeouts in over 4000 at bats. A modern-day player could only strike out once in his career to top that record. Unfortunately, strike-outs weren’t an official statistic for most of Freeman’s career, so his record can hardly be considered valid. (On the other hand, it’s unlikely that anyone will top Cy Young’s 511 wins—or his 316 losses, for that matter.)
Similarly, it’s hardly fair to count the films D.W. Griffith made at the start of his career, since they were only one- or two-reels long up until the four-reel Judith of Bethulia in 1913. But they were still marketed as individual titles to be sold and later rented to theaters. Griffith made 141 in 1909 alone, including such groundbreaking titles as A Fool’s Revenge (a condensed version of Rigoletto), Those Awful Hats (about screening conditions in movie theaters), The Cricket on the Hearth (from the Dickens story), Resurrection (from the Tolstoy novel), A Fair Exchange (from Silas Marner), Pippa Passes (the first film reviewed in The New York Times), and The Lonely Villa (a thriller starring Mary Pickford).
Griffith and his crew were essentially making a film every three days, a burst of white-hot creativity that in my opinion will never be equaled. What’s even more remarkable was that he was simultaneously inventing narrative cinema as we know it today. Griffith may not be the world’s most prolific filmmaker, but he is certainly one of its most important.
November 11, 2011
This Veterans Day I’d like to single out some of the movies that concern members of our armed services. Not war films per se, but stories that deal with what happens to soldiers after the fighting is over.
As might be expected, the industry has taken a generally respectful attitude toward the men and women who have fought for their country. Filmmakers began turning to the Civil War as a subject when its 50th anniversary approached. Searching copyright records, film historian Eileen Bowser found 23 Civil War films in 1909; 74 in 1911; and 98 in 1913. Most of these focused on the moral choices the war demanded. For example, in The Honor of the Family, a Biograph film from 1910, a father shoots his own son to hide his cowardice on the battlefield.
Identifying performers in film as veterans became a narrative short-cut, a quick way to establish their integrity. Often veterans have been portrayed as stereotypes or caricatures, as stand-ins for filmmakers who want to address a different agenda. Actor Henry B. Walthall played Ben Cameron, “The Little Colonel,” a Civil War veteran, in D.W. Griffith’s monumental The Birth of a Nation (1915). Unfortunately, Griffith turned Walthall’s character into a racist vigilante who forms a Ku Klux Klan-like mob to attack African-Americans during the Reconstruction.
During the Depression, veterans could be seen as down-on-their-luck victims, as in Heroes for Sale (1933), where the noble Tom Holmes (played by Richard Barthelmess) suffers drug addiction and imprisonment after he is wounded in World War I. In The Lost Squadron (1932), destitute former aviators are reduced to flying dangerous stunts for an evil Hollywood director (played by Erich von Stroheim). But in The Public Enemy (1931), a gangster played by James Cagney berates his sanctimonious veteran brother, reminding him, “You didn’t get those medals by holding hands with the Germans.”
The most lauded film to examine veterans is The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), directed by William Wyler, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, written by Robert Sherwood, and starring Fredric March, Dana Andrews, and Harold Russell as three soldiers who face differing fates when they return home. While its plot can be overly schematic, the film has an honesty and courage unusual for its time—perhaps because Wyler was a veteran who experienced bombing runs while making the war documentary Memphis Belle. Russell, whose hands were amputated after a training accident, won a special Oscar for his performance.
Not all post-World War II films treated veterans so kindly. The Blue Dahlia, for example, a mystery thriller written by Raymond Chandler. In it, Navy aviator Alan Ladd returns home to an unfaithful wife who killed their son in a drunk driving accident. “A hero can get away with anything,” his wife sneers after he knocks her around. Ladd’s pal William Bendix, a brain-damaged vet with a steel plate in his head, flies into violent rages when drinking. Worried about the film’s negative portrayal of soldiers, censors forced Chandler to come up with an ending that exonerated the obvious killer. Veterans as villains show up in Crossfire (1947), a drama that also tackled anti-Semitism, and in Home of the Brave (1949), which dealt with racial issues.
More inspirational were films like Pride of the Marines (1945) and Bright Victory (1952). The former was based on the real-life Al Schmid, a Marine who was blinded at Guadalcanal, with John Garfield delivering an impassioned performance as someone unable to come to grips with his infirmity. In the latter, Arthur Kennedy plays another soldier blinded in battle. Kennedy’s vet is flawed, with bigoted racial attitudes and uncontrolled hostility towards those trying to help him. Quietly yet convincingly, the film builds considerable power as Kennedy learns to accept his limitations. Marlon Brando made his film debut as a World War II lieutenant who becomes a paraplegic after being wounded in battle in The Men (1950), directed by Fred Zinnemann and written by the soon-to-be-blacklisted Carl Foreman. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) developed an intricate conspiracy plot around Korean War veterans who were brainwashed while prisoners.
I don’t have time or space here to discuss the more recent conflicts in Vietnam and Iraq. Their films range from sentimental (Coming Home) to morbid (The Deer Hunter), with the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker managing to hit both extremes. Not to mention the industry’s most profitable film veteran, John Rambo, played by Sylvester Stallone in four films between 1982 and 2008. All deserve further discussion in another posting.
But I would like to bring up two documentaries that have been selected to the National Film Registry. Heroes All (1919), a fundraising film for the Red Cross, was set in the newly opened Walter Reed Hospital (the renamed Walter Reed National Military Medical Center shut down at this location and moved to Bethesda, Maryland in August). It detailed efforts to rehabilitate wounded veterans through surgery and physical therapy, but also through vocational classes and recreation. Heroes All had to balance the soldiers’ pessimistic past with an optimistic future, as well as detail both a need and a solution—a reason to give money and proof that the money would help. Its narrative structure and choice of shots became models for later documentaries.
Like Let There Be Light, completed in 1946 and directed by John Huston. It was shot at the Army’s Mason General Hospital in Brentwood, Long Island, where soldiers received treatment for psychological problems. A member of the Army at the time, Huston was given specific instructions about what he was calling The Returning Psychoneurotics. Huston was to show that there were few psychoneurotics in the armed services; that their symptoms weren’t as exaggerated as had been reported; and that someone might be considered psychoneurotic in the Army, but a “success” as a civilian.
Instead, the director provided a very detailed look at how Army doctors treated soldiers with psychological issues. Like Heroes All, Huston showed private and group therapy sessions, vocational classes, and recreation. He also filmed doctors treating patients through sodium amytol injections and hypnosis. (Huston found electroshock treatments too troubling to work into the movie.) When the War Department saw the completed film, it refused to allow its release. It took until 1981 before the public was allowed to see Let There Be Light. Despite its flaws, it remains one of the most sympathetic films to deal with veterans.
November 4, 2011
The lag between current events and their appearance in films is hard to explain at times. It’s been almost three years since Bernard Madoff was arrested, for example, and Hollywood is just getting around to criticizing him in the amiable but toothless Tower Heist. Movies that dealt with the 2008 economic collapse—like Company Men and the more recent Margin Call—felt outdated when they were released, no matter how good their intentions.
The film industry isn’t opposed to tackling social issues as long as a consensus has formed around them. Movies have always defended orphans, for example, and can be counted upon to condemn crimes like murder and theft. (In fact, a Production Code put into effect in the late 1920s ordered filmmakers to do so.) From the early days of cinema, the rich have always been a reliable target, even though the message within individual titles might be mixed. Filmmakers like Cecil B. DeMille and studios like MGM loved detailing how luxuriously the wealthy lived before showing that they were just as unhappy as the poor. And in some films, like Erich von Stroheim’s Greed (1924), the poor were vicious and cruel.
Like Greed, D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) was adapted from works by Frank Norris, a San Francisco-based writer who died before completing a trilogy of novels about American business. A Corner in Wheat attempted to show how a greedy businessman inflicted starvation on the poor, but worked better as sort of moving picture version of a political cartoon. Other filmmakers followed Griffith’s example with more insight but largely the same message. As the Depression took hold, features like Wild Boys of the Road, Heroes for Sale (both 1933) and Little Man, What Now? (1934) portrayed the country’s economic downturn as the result of mysterious, even unknowable forces.
Comedians actually did a better job depicting economic conditions than did more serious directors, perhaps because many screen clowns positioned themselves as outsiders. In shorts like Easy Street and The Immigrant, Charlie Chaplin took poverty as a given, and immersed viewers into the lives of the poor. The jokes in his feature Modern Times had serious things to say about the impact of assembly lines and surveillance monitors on workers. It also aligned Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” screen persona firmly with the left when he picks up a red construction flag and inadvertently finds himself leading a Communist march.
Buster Keaton made an even more daring connection in his short Cops, filmed not that long after anarchists exploded a bomb on Wall Street. Riding a horse-drawn wagon through a parade of policemen, Keaton’s character uses a terrorist’s bomb to light a cigarette. It’s a stark, blackly humorous moment that must have rattled viewers at the time.
Today’s Occupy Wall Street protests are reminiscent of the tent cities and shanty towns that sprung up across the United States during the Depression. Sometimes called “Hoovervilles,” they were the focal points of often violent clashes between the homeless and authorities. My Man Godfrey (1936) opens in a shanty town and landfill on Manhattan’s East Side, and details with cool, precise humor the gulf between the rich and the poor. Unusually for the time, director Gregory La Cava offered a cure of sorts to unemployment by getting the rich to build a night club where the shanty town stood. In It’s a Gift, one of the best comedies of the decade, W.C. Fields treats a migrant camp as a simple adjunct to his story, an exotic backdrop where he spends a night during his trip to California. It’s a brave gesture for a character who could have been swamped in despair.
Fields’ journey to a West Coast promised land evokes the Dust Bowl migration documented by John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath. When adapting the film version, director John Ford sent camera crews into actual labor camps to document conditions accurately. With its uncompromising screenplay and superb acting, The Grapes of Wrath (1940) stands as one of the finest films to address economic inequality.
Released the following year, Sullivan’s Travels, a comedy written and directed by Preston Sturges, included a sobering, seven-minute montage of soup kitchens, breadlines, flop houses, and missions. The film’s main character, a pampered director of lamebrained comedies like Hay Hay in the Hayloft, sets out to find the “real” America by disguising himself as a hobo. The lessons he learns are as provocative today as when the film was originally released.
World War II changed the focus of Hollywood features. Training barracks and battlefields replaced slums and tent cities as the film industry embraced the war effort. Social problems still existed after the war, of course, but in message dramas like The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), filmmakers tried to offer solutions—to unemployment among veterans, for example. In the 1950s, movies zeroed in on individuals and their neuroses rather than on a collective society. A Place in the Sun (1951) stripped away most of the social commentary from the original Theodore Dreiser novel An American Tragedy to concentrate on the dreamy romance between stars Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor. Elia Kazan’s On the Waterfront (1954) was more about a former boxer’s crisis of conscience than it was about a system than exploited dockworkers. Rebel Without a Cause (1955) reduced juvenile delinquency to a teen’s romantic and familial problems.
In the 1960s, Hollywood began to lose its taste for social dramas, preferring to target films to a younger audience. Message films are still released, of course: Norma Rae, Silkwood, The Blind Side, Courageous. But more often than not the message in today’s films is hidden in the nooks and crannies of plots. Is Battle: Los Angeles about our military preparedness? What does Cars 2 say about our dependence on foreign oil? Filmmakers seem to have taken to heart the old line attributed to Samuel Goldwyn. “If you want to send a message,” the producer said, “call Western Union.”
October 24, 2011
In “The Sniping of Partisans, This Time on Screen,” New York Times entertainment reporter Michael Cieply pointed out the political implications of releasing a film like Lincoln, Steven Spielberg’s biopic of the assassinated President, before or after the 2012 Presidential election.
Cieply went on to cite several films, including the upcoming Butter from the Weinstein Company, that he felt might “play a role in voters’ choice for the White House.” Cieply’s opinion, buttressed by quotes from the likes of Harvey Weinstein, is that we have reached the point where movies and politics have converged. Actually, that point arrived a long time ago.
Examples of advocacy filmmaking stretch back to the beginnings of cinema. I am simultaneously appalled and charmed by films made about the Spanish-American war, in particular Battle of Manila Bay (1898), a short that helped make the reputations of J. Stuart Blackton and his partner Albert E. Smith. Working with boat models in a bathtub, Blackton reenacted Admiral George Dewey’s naval victory for the camera. When his footage reached vaudeville houses a couple of weeks later, it was a tremendous hit, causing a succession of imitators to try their hands at faking war footage. Edward Atmet used miniatures to make Bombardment of Matanzas, Firing Broadside at Cabanas and other films. Film historian Charles Musser believes that The Edison Company shot fake battle movies like Cuban Ambush in New Jersey. To cash in on the war craze, the Biograph company simply retitled its film Battleships “Iowa” and “Massachusetts” to Battleships “Maine” and “Iowa.” Musser cites one newspaper article that reported “fifteen minutes of terrific shouting” at its showing.
World War I unleashed a tidal wave of anti-German propaganda from US filmmakers. Perhaps no one capitalized on the mood of the country better than Erich von Stroheim, who played villainous Huns so effectively that he became “The Man You Love to Hate.” Liberty Bond rallies featuring stars like Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks drew hundreds of thousands of spectators; Chaplin even made a short, The Bond, to help sales. It was one of at least thirty bond fundraising films released by the industry.
Some of the industry’s dirtiest political tricks took place in California in 1934. As detailed in Greg Mitchell’s book The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor (Random House), media moguls like William Randolph Hearst and the Chandler family (of The Los Angeles Times) made a concerted effort to defeat Sinclair, whose End Poverty in California (EPIC) program was gathering significant grass-roots support. Joining in the attack: MGM, which under the direction of studio head Louis B. Mayer and producer Irving Thalberg filmed two newsreels that presented Sinclair in the worst possible light. Actors playing toothless immigrants swore their devotion to the candidate, while “hoboes” gathered at the California border, waiting for Sinclair’s election so they could take advantage of his socialist policies.
Newsreels have long since been supplanted by television news, but filmmakers never stopped making advocacy pieces. When director Frank Capra saw Leni Riefenstahl’s notorious pro-Nazi documentary Triumph of the Will, he wrote, “Satan himself couldn’t have devised a more blood-chilling super-spectacle.” Capra responded with Why We Fight, a seven-part, Oscar-winning documentary that put the government’s objectives into terms moviegoers could understand.
When William Wyler set out to direct Mrs. Miniver for MGM, he admitted, “I was a warmonger. I was concerned about Americans being isolationist.” The story of how an upper-class British family reacts to German attacks, the film made joining the war effort seem like common decency. Mrs. Miniver not only won six Oscars, it became a prime propaganda tool. President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked that the movie’s closing sermon be broadcast over the Voice of America and distributed as leaflets throughout Europe. Winston Churchill was quoted as saying that the film’s impact on “public sentiment in the USA was worth a whole regiment.” Wyler received a telegram from Lord Halifax saying that Mrs. Miniver “cannot fail to move all that see it. I hope that this picture will bring home to the American public that the average Englishman is a good partner to have in time of trouble.” (Years later, Wyler admitted that his movie “only scratched the surface of the war. I don’t mean it was wrong. It was incomplete.”)
Some may find the idea that movies can directly influence political discourse hard to swallow. Sure, movies like Outfoxed or The Undefeated make strong arguments. But aren’t they just preaching to their followers? Can they really change the minds of their opponents?
To some extent all films are political, because all films have a point of view. Movies that deal with perceived injustices—in Spielberg’s case, The Sugarland Express and Amistad—are on some level criticizing a system that allows them to occur. Even Spielberg’s mass-oriented adventures, like the Indiana Jones series, express a points-of-view: Jones, on the surface apolitical, is drawn into battling tyrannical regimes that threaten the American way of life.
On the other hand, setting out with the goal of making political points through film almost never succeeds, as the graveyard of recent Iraq war-related movies shows. A film has to capture the zeitgeist, it has to deliver a message that moviegoers are ready to accept, in order to have an impact of the culture. When it works, as in the phenomenal box-office results for titles as disparate as Iron Man and Avatar, it doesn’t even matter whether the films have artistic merit.
October 14, 2011
The 49th New York Film Festival draws to a close this weekend with a screening of Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. Critical response to the festival has been somewhat muted, perhaps because, as A.O. Scott pointed out in his New York Times summary, so many of the scheduled films will receive theatrical releases in the future.
One of the high points of the Festival was the appearance of the West Memphis Three for a screening of Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory (see my earlier posting). Interviewed on WNYC’s The Leonard Lopate Show, co-director Joe Berlinger described how moved he was to see the Three’s reactions as they watched a sunset from a Manhattan rooftop, free after 18 years in prison. (Disclaimer: my wife is the executive producer of the Leonard Lopate Show.) Paradise Lost 3 is a remarkable film, one that deserves to be seen by everyone who is interested in justice.
A festival coup was a sneak preview of director Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, adapted by John Logan from Brian Selznick’s children’s novel Hugo Cabret. Billed a “work in progress” at the screening, the completed Hugo will be released by Paramount on November 23. (Watch the trailer.) Disney employed a similar stunt during 1991′s Festival when it screened a rough draft of Beauty and the Beast. Scorsese also showed his documentary George Harrison: Living in the Material World prior to its broadcast on HBO.
Scorsese is making an appearance at a different New York festival that opens today at the Museum of Modern Art. To Save and Project: The Ninth MoMA International Festival of Film Preservation highlights 35 films from 14 countries, as well as a retrospective tribute to filmmaker Jack Smith. On November 7, Scorsese and his longtime editor Thelma Schoonmaker will be introducing the uncut, 163-minute version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. It was directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, the team behind such classics as I Know Where I’m Going and Black Narcissus. (Schoonmaker is Powell’s widow.)
Blimp is not too difficult to see, and in fact Criterion offers a well-regarded home video version. The same can’t be said for many of the other films in To Save and Project. Director Joe Dante opens the festival with The Movie Orgy (1968), a unique assemblage of trailers, commercials, training films, and newscasts that he and Jon Davidson screened at colleges 40 years ago. On Saturday, Dante will introduce his segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), “It’s a Good Life,” along with Roger Corman’s The Intruder (1962), an early anti-discrimination film starring William Shatner.
Due to rights complications, The Movie Orgy will most likely never be available to the home market. Many other restored films languish in a limbo of restricted access. It’s been over 20 years since I attended a screening of Under a Texas Moon (1930), the first sound Western shot in Technicolor and an early screen credit for Myrna Loy. Film buffs grumble about being unable to see the restored versions of The Big Parade (1925), King Vidor’s World War I epic, or Wings (1927), the only Best-Picture-winner not legally available on home video. Rights can be a huge stumbling block to museums and archives, making it difficult or impossible for fans to see their favorite movies.
And then some of the films in To Save and Project are just too obscure to warrant distributing to the home market. How about a series of five ethnographic shorts that noted documentarian Jean Rouch made in West Africa in the late 1940s? Or Robinzon Kruzo (1947), considered the first 3d feature-length film? To Save and Project devotes a segment to comedies from distributor Jean Desmet, to film and dance performances by Elaine Summers, and to five CinemaScope and widescreen films from Twentieth Century Fox.
Some of these titles will eventually trickle out to Turner Classic Movies and the home market, like Barbara Loden’s Wanda (1970), showcased in last year’s festival. But I am eagerly anticipating the chance to see hard-to-find titles like Afraid to Talk, a 1933 Universal melodrama about political corruption; Hoop-La (1933), a romantic comedy that was Clara Bow’s last screen role; and Les Halles centrales (1927), a documentary of a market in Paris by Boris Kaufman, later a noted cinematographer and the younger brother of Russian director Dziga Vertov. I also plan to attend The Driver (1978), Walter Hill’s existential film noir about getaway expert Ryan O’Neal, to see how it compares to Nicolas Winging Refn’s wildly overhyped new release Drive.