The truth about war is that it is bound up in our lives. It is reflected in our books (War by Sebastian Junger for instance, is the first title that springs to mind), our films, our national identity, our sports, our politics, our family, and our religion. It affects all areas of our lives. What is more real to us than war? Each American generation has had their own war: the Revolution, War of 1812, Spanish-American War, Civil War, WWI, WWII, Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, war on drugs, Desert Storm, war on terror, Afghanistan, Iraq… who knows. I recently saw An Iliad, one man theatrical adaptation of Homer’s early Greek epic poem at New York Theatre Workshop. Denis O’Hare (known to my generation as Russell Edington from True Blood) narrated and performed the 90 minute re-telling of the battle for Troy, in which Hector is killed. In one moment, O’Hare, dressed pretty much like a hobo, stood up on a chair and began to recite every war in recorded human history. His rhythm, his cadence, his inflection, even his pauses during this simple speech were incredibly powerful. It was the best thing I have ever seen on stage. It wasn’t making a comment, and he wasn’t expressing any views: he simply listed. Every war. It was astonishing and heart-rending. War is so much a part of our history.
Previously, I wrote about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) as portrayed on film. I was astonished by the lack of films that discussed PTSD frankly, especially in my area of specialty, after WWII. I was also surprised by the popularity of the films that did discuss it. The Best Years of Our Lives won Best Picture! It’s frankness and the reception it received were heartening. There were so many other war films I wanted to discuss, but they didn’t seem to fit in with my study on the psychological impact on soldiers, and film’s portrayal of it. Recently I was watching Twelve o’Clock High, another Air Force picture about the first American day-precision bombing groups in Europe in WWII (an interesting reversal of Night Flight), starring Gregory Peck and Gary Merrill. The beginning titles rolled, then a nice dedication to servicemen who the story was based on, but then another title, declaring that all of the fight sequences were footage taken in actual combat. Many filmmakers were called into the Signal Corps during the war and made propaganda and/or documentary films about the war. John Huston and others even flew in the planes with the bombers to capture the action. This footage was used in newsreels and in propaganda films (Frank Capra’s Why We Fight being one series of propaganda films) to boost American morale and indoctrinate soldiers. Twelve o’Clock High was made in 1949 and utilized this footage. Knowing to look for it, I did detect some differences between the sequences on the ground, for instance in the CO’s quarters, vs. the long shots of plans taking off or engaged in fighting. The scenes in combat were much rougher, a bit grainier, and less sharp in contrast. Those title cards also reminded me of They Were Expendable, which starred Robert Montgomery and John Wayne as officers on PT boats. Montgomery actually was the commander of a PT boat squadron during the war. The Men, Marlon Brando’s first film role, starred men who were actually paralyzed in the war as the background players and it was filmed in their hospital quarters. These three films just clicked together in my mind because they all have strong elements of truth. Most war films have some truth, are based on actual characters or an actual battle, but are heavily dramatized, scripted, and acted. Adding an actor who has seen actual combat in the role he is now “playing” adds a level of veracity. John Wayne also starred in Operation Pacific, a WWII submarine picture, and never served in the war. I don’t think Operation Pacific is inferior because John Wayne never actually fought on a submarine during war (I think it is inferior for other reasons, but); I think films that make an effort to use real soldiers or actual combat footage are extremely valuable because they acknowledge the gravity of war and the impact portrayals of war in media can have. Veracity of war on film lets war seep into our lives and consciousness in a different way. Making war real to the masses who may never have seen combat brings it home.
After WWII, the American public wasn’t putting up with any more bull. They were tired, suspicious, scared, and seasoned. The 1930s were hard, lean years, and people went to the movies for escape. The elegance of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers and the fun of Carole Lombard’s screwball comedies were exactly what the country wanted. They wanted to laugh, look at beautiful women in pretty dresses, and have everything end happily ever after. Because it wasn’t happily ever after in reality; in reality employment was skyrocketing, banks were shutting down, farms could no longer produce, people were losing everything, and suicide was spiking. Escaping to the movies was cheap. Newsreels were unnecessary because to see the poverty, one had only to look around. When theUSentered WWII, morale rose. Isolationists, once opposed toAmericaentering what they saw asEurope’s war, now rallied behind the Allied cause. We were in the war, so we were going to win it. It’s an American thing. Films were uplifting and heroic. Newsreels and propaganda films ran before feature films in movie theaters, and people were cheered by good news from the fronts, even if it was spun a little bit. Women went to work. The country bonded together as never before. In 1945, it began to go downhill. While war news was going uphill, with V-E day in May, then V-J day in August, reality was creeping back in. Footage of soldiers liberating Nazi prison camps began to trickle back to American. FDR died. Truman dropped the bomb on Japanese people, killing and scarring hundreds of thousands. Soldiers missing in action did not return. Then, the Russian brand of communism suddenly seemed menacing. We had turned a blind eye on “Uncle Joe” because he was on our side during the war, but after the war, his nuclear threats, mass killings, and other form of totalitarianism became threatening. Americans were tired from the war effort, suspicious of old allies, scared of nuclear war, and seasoned in suffering. They were not going to accept Fred Astaire tapping to make them feel better. Cary Grant on a submarine was not going to inspire patriotism (if anything, it would inspire animosity, since Grant did not return to England to join the armed forces). Telling the truth about war and its psychological and physical effects was the only way Americans were going to accept it. They were ready, and Hollywood, fresh off their own war efforts including time in the service, Red Cross, Signal Corps, were ready to tell the truth.