Il Generale Della Rovere (1959)

It occurs to me, like with Jean-Pierre Melville (and so many others), that the landscape and context of the war years left such a lasting impact on Robert Rossellini, and they are made manifest in his films. Although it’s shot over a decade later, there’s still a lived-in quality, committed to a kind of authenticity.

Whereas others, namely Americans, experienced the war and then returned home (albeit with PTSD), for these men war was a stipulation of everyday life. It was the water they drank and the bread they ate, suffusing into all aspects of society.

Vittorio De Sica is called upon to play a far different kind of gambler than he was in The Gold of Naples. His blustering lunatic is displaced by a miserable loser stumbling and bumbling his way through a mediocre existence.

Emmanuele Bardone, like everyone else, is getting trampled on by this war, just trying to survive. His debts pile up, no thanks to his rampant gambling habits. He pleads with his girlfriend, a fair-weather beauty (Sandra Milo), who has had just about enough of the meager life he can offer her on his half-baked promises. It’s to no avail. She’s not intent on bailing him out again.

Thus, he must find other means to scrounge up the funds to pay off a German Sergeant Major. They’re buddy-buddy — gambling acquaintances — but it doesn’t keep them from attempting to stab each other in the back. It’s one of those uneasy partnerships engendered by the war. Because Bardone is such a man: feckless, unctuous, self-serving. He’s always looking to get ahead, whether by courting Nazis or fellow Italians frantic to track down missing relatives at any cost…specifically well-off Italians.

Physically, Vittorio De Sica strikes me as a man whose stature and features are impressive, quite effortlessly handsome. Yet, he’s capable of bringing something out of them, wringing the comedy and the tragedy with the body God has given him.

I don’t know why exactly, but I want to compare him to Cary Grant — a man who doesn’t take himself too seriously — so whether debonair or a bit of a cad, we still find it within our hearts to root for him.

He vows to help a rich widow and her daughter-in-law in what feels like just another confidence game preying on their desperation. His gambling gets interrupted by air raids, and he crawls back into the life of one of his other girlfriends (Giovanna Ralli).

Something else happens that he knows absolutely nothing about, but it changes the course of the entire picture. A famed dissident is accidentally shot dead at a roadblock, but a cover-up ensues. The capture of Generale Della Rovere is spread around town despite a botched assignment within the Nazi ranks. Now they must find a man to fill his place: Bardone is fingered for it, and he has no bargaining power in this economy.

We’re privy to the Nazi’s intricate filing systems and notecard records helping to mechanize their ruthless war machine, but they’re also more than prepared to play spy and counterspy with a sorry drifter’s carcass.

Narrative-wise it feels like the story can easily be split into two distinct segments. Because it takes a good hour before De Sica is actually cast as the Generale and suddenly the stakes of his new life are raised.

This film was one of Rossellini’s more profitable efforts and with it came an actual high-concept idea. But this never feels like what the director is truly interested in. He skirts around the “plot” as much as possible to make this story about a character and a world.

When he is finally in prison, all the rebels and convicted patriots pledge their services through cell windows and the surrounding walls. They believe him to be who he says he is…meanwhile, Bardone maintains his pact with Colonel Muller to coax out the Generale’s contact on the inside. He’s met with a crisis calling for some self-examination.

Aside from De Sica, Hannes Messemer has to be the other obvious standout as the German SS man. He’s hard and difficult to like, especially when wearing a Nazi uniform in wartime. However, he’s not a cartoon and even momentarily there are these ever so faint flashes of nobility. He cannot be pinned down; his duty as a military officer trumps everything, and yet the contours of his person make us grapple with more than we are used to in a Nazi.

Because as much as we don’t want to admit it, every Nazi was a human being. He is another soldier, driven by duty, perhaps an ideology, and yet still complicit in these grievous sins against humanity.

There’s also what feels like a level of moralizing to the picture. Because we have this space created. It is now the 1950s. Suddenly Rossellini is out from under the complete specter of the war, and he’s able to make his hapless vagabond into an unsolicited hero. A cynic could brand it as little better than a post-war potboiler.

And yet as he tramps out into the snowy prison yard, there’s a steely conviction about him for the first time in the movie. It takes the obvious arc of this character and imbues it with something fleetingly profound. Surely this is the sensibility of Rossellini.

I recall Lino Ventura in Army of Shadows, Marlene Dietrich in Dishonored, and now  Vittorio De Sica. They all share something in common. They were valiant heroes to the end and sometimes their heroism is unwonted. It doesn’t matter so much the road you’ve taken as long as you make it there in the end. There was never any doubt.

4/5 Stars

Paisan (1946)

“Paisan” feels like a ubiquitous term. At the very least, it seems to have entered into a shared vernacular most Americans understand. And of course, this is part of the reason Roberto Rosselini’s follow-up to Rome Open City employs the word.

His newfound audience would be able to appreciate its very simple meaning with some amount of recognition. But it hardly seems like a ploy because it illustrates the core themes of the picture. And this is not done through an epic narrative stretched out over a couple hours time. It is built out of these mini-scenarios coming to represent a breadth of WWII experience between Italians and Americans.

We open in 1943 in Sicily with a group of American soldiers making their way through the villages for recon. As has a habit of happening in these cross-cultural pictures, the English language sounds like tin to the ear, but when they meet our first Italian characters and the dialogue is interspersed, we immediately get something richer and more intriguing because we have both languages dancing off one another and fighting for some primacy over the scenes.

Much of the movie is negotiated in these spaces in-between what is understood and what must be inferred and left only to the imagination. The benefit of subtitles gives us a privileged position, but not all of these characters have the same luxury.

Even when one soldier is called upon to keep watch over their guide in the caves — a young Italian girl looking for her family — we settle on something so basic. It’s their lack of communication and it can invoke fear and conflict, but it can also remind us of our most basic commonalities.

Conversation about cows and milk progress as the soldier reminisces about his family back home in photos. This pleasant interchange is really only a momentary flame, quickly snuffed out. Because we are reminded there is a war at hand and conflict comes from the outside and kills their moment together.

Before we are left to dwell too much on the present, we march ever onward toward Naples. Here is a tale we might see from De Sica and later in Germany Year Zero. It’s a story of youthful vagrants — one named Pasquale — who lives on the streets buzzing around G.I.s like a misquito looking to suck them dry out of pure necessity. It’s an extraordinary scene to watch the young boy latch onto a drunken black MP (Dots Johnson).

Their saga drags them all across town and, again, they hold two-sided conversations that are totally at odds with one another. As they sit on a pile of rumble together, it strikes me how this little boy sees the man for what he has. Yes, he’s black, but he’s American, and what a privilege that is. He runs off with his boots with a kind of fatalistic inevitability and that could be the end of it.

Instead, they meet again in another chance encounter. The soldier seeks restitution and yet Joe’s attempt to get back his stolen property feels almost inconsequential when he recognizes the desolation around him. This disparity is especially complicated when you put it next to the hypocrisy of racial discrimination back home.

He represents wealth and prosperity and still must feel some relegation to second-class citizenship in his own right. In 1946 Harry Truman had yet to integrate the military and, at best, even this felt like a symbolic victory at best.

The way Paisan links together these individual studies in character and relationship means the movie offers up this extraordinary breadth while still maintaining a hypersensitive level of intimacy. Because it takes a single interaction between disparate people and allows them to play out in such a way they come to represent something so much broader.

Later, it’s June, 1944. There’s a voice in the darkness shouting about American cigarettes ready to smoke. Glen Miller’s “In The Mood” is instant shorthand, and it coincides with a dance hall packed with folks. This is a new Rome from the one in Rosselini’s original film, until the military police soon shake up the joint and send the locals into a tizzy.

A fugitive in furs (Maria Michi) evades the authorities and picks up a soldier boy (Gar Moore) on the street over cigarettes. Remember, this is the era of Now Voyager and Bogey and Bacall. They are the cultural tastemakers. It’s a portrait of how even a short span of time — 6 months — can change people drastically, where the hopeful optimism and jubilation of the liberation can quickly be displaced with rowdy opportunism and disillusionment. And with it, a final reunion is precluded in a turn of events that might as well be anticipating the wistful fates of Jacques Demy over 15 years later.

The movie continues in Florence along the Arno River. Here a young Allied nurse (Harriet Medin), who knows the area intimately from time abroad, sets off on a singular mission to find an artisan friend, who is currently in the midst of the local skirmishes. The streets are full of firefights playing out in unsentimental terms.

In one way it feels ludicrous watching this woman and a fellow searcher streaking through the treacherous zones of no-man’s-land, and yet we cannot turn away. In a Hitchcock movie, we might term the arbitrary goal they are pursuing the Macguffin. It makes no difference.

I’ve come to realize that Italian Neorealism has come to signify a kind of emotional truth paired with authentic visuals. It’s not documentary, but it takes the layers and contours of the real world to tell what feels like mini tragedies wrapped up in these individual segments.

Paisan keeps on offering up these nuggets that intrigue me. I think of the next story, which feels like a more peaceful, mundane tale about three American chaplains who rest at the local monastery. There’s so much benevolence even as we are reminded the vocation they follow is unified the world over.

One of the visitors tells his peer, “I think one can really be at peace with the Lord without removing themselves from the world. After all, it was created for us. The world is our parish.” These words feel like they come straight from Martin Luther, a man who looked to democratize the Christian faith and break any vocational dichotomies.

Sure enough, he’s a Protestant and another man is a Jew. This revelation causes a wave of worry to come over the local Holy Men. Surely these guests are lost. They have not found the path because their beliefs are marred by inaccuracies and flaws (possibly even heresy). Rather than digging into this spiritual discourse, it settles for a kind of moral stability, not quite an inclusive gospel but certainly a call for tolerance and appreciation across the religious ranks.

In the final chapter, Italian Partisans and American OSS fight a desperate guerilla war against the impending Germans. It’s not a chapter of history we consider in detail, but we are placed in the moment so we forcibly comprehend the exhausting futility of their tactical battles. They live day to day constantly striving to stay out of reach of a tireless enemy. The only thing keeping them alive is their fierce camaraderie. They fight for something larger than themselves.

The ending of Paisan is matter-of-fact even as the imagery is bleak, and it feels like a callback to the opening story. We are reminded of the utter inhumanity of war, but Paisan was obviously meant to be used as a tool of mutual healing between the U.S. and Italy. Because it’s the humanity bleeding out of the movie coming to the fore, more than any amount of tragedy.

4.5/5 Stars

Broken Lullaby (1931) and The 5th Commandment

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It intrigues me that this fascinating outlier in Ernst Lubitsch oveure, once upon a time was released as The Fifth Commandment. For those keeping count, it’s the one in the Catholic faith that says thou shall not kill or rather thou shall not murder. But already you might see the semantic ambiguities at play in the translation. In modern English, murder and killing can maintain different definitions. Often you only need to look at a human conscience to deduct the difference. This is integral to the movie’s core dramatic question.

However, we must first unveil the scene, introduced as only Lubitsch could envision it. It’s now the first anniversary of armistice: November 11, 1919. It becomes a montage of perceptive comic juxtapositions — with small-town jingoism in full-force — parades, bells ringing, and cannon shots booming right outside a hospital. No one seems to heed the sign calling for silence while the shellshocked vets remain terrified by the living nightmare.

Then, inside a grand cathedral, the minister extolls peace in the wake of such carnage. Thinking better of it, Lubitsch focuses on the sabers of all the military men as they sit listening in the pews, weighed down by their many war medals — no doubt won in battles. The camera focuses on the crucifix hanging on the wall as “bombs burst in air.” These are all incongruous pictures if we want to make any sense of war.

With the stirring homily done, the pews clear out in a flurry and only one man is left prostrate in the pew. He comes up to the religious man seeking absolution. In a former life, he was a first violinist, now he wishes to confess to a “murder.” It registers a response of repugnance until the minster finds out it was out on the battlefield. He is freed from any crime having done nothing but his duty.

For this man, Paul Renard (Phillips Holmes), it’s some small recompense for the tribulation of his soul moaning out on his behalf — on behalf of the man he killed — because surely this is not the way men were supposed to live with one another.

In all earnestness he yells out, “I came to find peace and you haven’t given it to me.” He gets chastised, has his absolution read, and feels little better for it. Again, his heart still aches with guilt. His head goes aloft to the portrait of the Pietta — she lost her son — and she forgave the murderers…

It’s the germination of an idea: a mission of mercy and a personal pilgrimage. Paul must go to the homeland of the man he murdered and see his parents — to call upon their mercies — and assuage his wounded conscience. Holmes is a bit of an exaggerated talent but his zombie-like despondency allows him to function rather well in the shell-shocked part.

It’s apparent from the opening interludes a kind of pre-world war II chivalry and romanticism still exists between the Teutonic and Gallic traditions because they have yet to experience the full thrust of the radicalized regime of Hitler.

This doesn’t mean war is logical and totally naive. Far from it. There’s a prescience in the following line from Raphaelson’s script: “9 million people got slaughtered and they’re already talking about another war and the next there will be 19 million and the world calls that sane.”

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Broken Lullaby simultaneously becomes an impeccable exercise in how Lubitsch is able to take the material from Samson Raphaelson — their first of many collaborations together — and in some integral way, shape it to his will. Continually the dramatic irony can be cut with a knife, and so in specific scenes, you don’t need much more aside from the knowledge. Lubitsch does the rest and uses that to benefit his audience.

Because Renard makes his journey — dutifully visits the grave of the man he killed. War mothers often come to visit and on this day the dead man’s fiancee: Elsa (Nancy Carroll). He flees the scene like a frightened deer, but his mission is clear. He visits Dr. H. Holderein (Lionel Barrymore); he is the father who lost his boy in the war. We know what must come next.

Lubitsch doesn’t make it easy — it detonates in our faces — wrenches the knife into our emotional hearts and forces us to continue on the dramatic arc. Even as Paul is eventually brought into the Holderin family, he grasps at illusions to make them happy — in an attempt to not totally trample the fond memories of their son from when he was alive. Because he only knew the man in the pitiful trenches of war on the edge of death. It’s not a nice type of place to keep people within your memories.

Likewise, the town is a textbook Lubitschian environ of Europe through the lens of Hollywoodland. It’s the old world spritzed with the touches of the movies. It’s a magical land where the discrepancy of language and culture fall to the wayside in deference to emotional truth and visual elegance. Where Zasu Pitts showing up as a housemaid hardly feels anachronistic or out of the ordinary.

It also plays like a precursor to To Be or Not to Be‘s lucid commentary overlapping with the quaint familiarity of The Shop Around the Corner. There are many such establishments in a place like this. Perfect for blissful love to come into bloom. Because it’s true Paul and Elsa take a shine to one another — they share a naive benevolence as they try and pick up the pieces in the shadow of war.

They also turn all the heads and ring all the bells in the town as they walk by together arm-in-arm. In this regard, any sense of realism or authenticity is made superfluous. This is a film made out of its emotional impressions more than anything else.

Meanwhile, Elsa’s scorned suitor drums up conspiracy about the foreigner with his brood of beer drinkers at the local Hofbrau. A newfound absurdity is born as they secretly contest the content of his locked violin case. Surely, it holds something far more nefarious than a musical instrument.

Finally, the good doctor is shocked out of any former strains of narrow-mindedness. He sees it spewed back at him, and it repulses his sensibilities. Barrymore stares down the gauntlet at all the men affronted by his house guest, and he lets them know promptly his wife likes him, Elsa likes him, and he loves him. It’s such a courageous pronouncement in such company.

He says, “No one can tell me the meaning of death or the meaning of hatred. I’ve drunk deep of both of them.” In some form, he’s beginning to understand the world anew much like Paul before him. Fathers drinks to the death of sons (on the other side). Some drink beer and others wine. It’s no different, and they all propagate the system of patriotic butchering. It’s insanity.

Broken Lullaby does what a majority of movies try to accomplish with any amount of dialogue and plot points. Lubitsch doesn’t need them. Instead, we get an impression. Paul is able to take up his original calling once more — that of a violinist — and he is joined on piano by Elsa. The parents look on in a contented reverie. Before us is the reconciliation of residual hurt leftover from an entire war allayed by two melodies joined together in perfect harmony.

We must stand corrected. The Broken Lullaby is the right title for the picture. It might be difficult to categorize for movie pundits, but this is of negligible importance here. What remains are the reactions. In turns, it’s moving and it’s excruciating. I was made totally distraught, and yet the salve is finer still.

Life, even today, is won in no man’s land where no one wants to go. Still, I am reminded of even a monumental moment of harmony like the famed Christmas day ceasefire in 1914. I’d like to believe restoration is possible. Lubitsch seems to suggest as much and he does so quite elegantly. I’d expect nothing less.

4/5 Stars

Pilgrimage (1933): A Mother’s Journey of Reconciliation

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It’s a private fascination of mine to consider the sanctity and sheer awesomeness of human life in a very particular context. How parents pass on their genes — a package of habits and physical phenotypes to their kids — that we can then witness before our very eyes. And this is even true of those who are dead and gone. Their children remain as a testament to who they were and still remain in our hearts and minds. By no means a carbon copy, but you can look into their eyes or see a photo and observe a brief glimpse of the person you knew before who is there no longer.

In some circuitous way, Pilgrimage becomes a story partially about this type of lingering memory. It is a journey and it involves certain people, but it evolves into something quite different than what I was expecting and this is to its credit. Allow me to explain.

It’s one of those rural tales set in Three Cedars, Arkansas on the farmland of Hannah Jessop (Henrietta Crosman). The dynamic is simple. She’s a hard-bitten mother who’s lived a rugged life running her farm. Her son (Norman Foster) is a strapping, fresh-faced man in love with the girl (Marian Nixon) down the road and remains discontented with a life in the fields. There’s a chafing between mother and son.

She’s not going to let him marry a “harlot,” though there’s a distinct possibility she would never agree to any girl he chose to marry. Furthermore, she can’t understand how her boy can be so ungrateful and would willfully defy her. It’s a generational divide opening between them.

Watching a Ford picture, you’re waiting for those individual moments you can take with you. I’m thinking of Henry Fonda leaning up against the post in My Darling Clementine. John Wayne trotting off into the foreground at the end of The Searchers. In Pilgrimage, I’m reminded of a man sitting on his bed as he plays around with his dog — playfighting and having the animal crawl through his open arms.

It’s actually a mechanism for biding time because he waits for his mother to fall asleep so he can drop out of his second-story window and race off to be with his love. Earlier, during their first official meeting in the movie, there are a pair of memorable subjective camera shots when the two lovers come upon one another with a pond between them.

I’m adding my own emphasis, but it’s as if to say this is supernal love — love supreme — and its not meant to be torn asunder. It has some of the poeticism of Sunrise and the pastoral imagery of The Southerner.

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Still, ornery Mrs. Jessop vows to get in the middle of their marriage, and she does it quite handily. She signs her boy up for war — not out of any sacrificial heart and love of country — but purely out of selfish indignation. This act seems so egregious and totally indicative of her character.

What’s curious is how it is not so much dwelled upon as it becomes a reality in front of us. Perhaps her boy really wanted to go off to war and serve his country. We have some indication of that even as he only has a couple minutes with his betrothed before he ships out. It’s the first inclination that this is not about the lovers at all. Who does this event affect the most but Hannah herself?

It provides the needle in Hannah’s heart, and she has to live with her decision now for a lifetime. One of the film’s finest transitions comes with shots of enemy artillery caving in the trenches only to cut to a ferocious downpour at the Jessop farm. It’s two forms of chaos, one man-made and the other natural, but equally thunderous. In fact, the soundtrack is the same. They bleed into one another seamlessly.

Now the man we thought was one of our central characters is gone. It’s 10 years later and his mother is still there holding down her home. This might be when the lightbulb goes off. This was her story all along.

Soon a woman from the war department or some such organization shows up on her porch with the mayor to coax her to follow all the other Gold Star Mothers over to France bidding their sons one final tearful adieu. She surmises, “How reconciling it would be to stand beside the grave of one’s heroic death.” Of course, she’s doesn’t understand Hannah. It’s the bitterness and buried guilt still gnawing at her. She’s a proud woman, after all, and she’s adamant about not going. She very nearly doesn’t. However, if she never boarded that ship there would be no final act.

pilgrimage shooting gallery

Ford’s sense of war is exhibited in how he’s able to cast it as both this swelling, deeply patriotic thing and still something troubling. He is aware of the dissonance of the horrors of war. The most touching sense of it all comes with a procession around a grave inlaid in the ground and the ladies all lay their flowers down on the grave, even Hannah.

True, they do the tour of the whole place and build a kind of maternalistic camaraderie touring around the Bastille, and Hannah and one of her newfound companions (Lucille La Verne) even tear up a local shooting gallery for kicks. It’s a sign of Ford’s penchant for broad humor, and he can never totally mask it.

But the subject feels different. For one thing, Henrietta Crossman’s performance feels like one for the ages and deeply impactful even today in a medium where stories of the elderly often feel dismissed or invalidated. In her time, she was a giant talent on the stage and you cannot watch the picture without gaining an appreciation for her.

Because this is about her evolution more than anything else — this is her story — and she carries it with the kind of aplomb that’s capable of moving mountains. By that, I mean the audience’s heart. We eye her watchfully for the majority of the film, and she’s righteously stubborn and outright vindictive in her jealous affections. Although it takes time, she melts, and this progression is key. It becomes evident within her very being.

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The mode isn’t altogether subtle. She meets a boy on a bridge. Thoughts of suicide or something else might be swirling around in his half-drunken mind. She grabs him by the arm and by some force of compulsion takes charge of him. She feels a need to take care of him rather like with her own boy.

It’s true it’s a different actor and a different girl, but it becomes clear enough that they (Maurice Murphy and Heather Angel) are little different than her own boy and his girl a generation before. What has changed is her outlook. She sees their warmth, their fears, the hopelessly passionate affection they have for one another, and she sympathizes. Did she stop being a parent? Certainly not. Rather, her eyes have been opened just as she has been filled up with a far more benevolent spirit.

Finally, she comes to terms with being cruel. Finally, she realizes she had a convenient name for her attitude as “a God-fearing, hardworking, decent woman.” She talks some sense into another mother (Hedda Hopper of all people) in the straightforward manner she wished someone would have talked to her. It bears an incisive truth that’s hardly unloving. And it’s as if this is her slice of redemption because it is something we can see; Hannah sutures the wounds so they can heal. Both of another mother and her own.

She goes out to the Argonne somewhere and kneels before the grave of her son falling prostrate on it. For the first time, it feels she is actually able to grieve. It’s a cathartic release for a woman who has guarded her heart and buried her feelings and failures for years. What a glorious outpouring it is. All I could think of was that Pilgrimage has a sense of death Saving Private Ryan can never quite understand. The pain and relief of seeing this gravestone are so closely tied to our character. She is being made new in front of us.

There is only one thing left to do and as a final outward expression of her reconciliation and renewed heart, she reunites with the only family she has left on earth. Her estranged daughter-in-law and quizzical grandson. She overwhelms them and grabs her boy up in her arms. Because that’s what he is of course. Little Jimmy is a stand-in for his father and so Hannah smothers him with her love. It was a Pilgrimage to be sure. Hannah traveled across the sea only to come back home a revitalized human being. Now she can look into Jimmy’s eyes and know full-well she is forgiven and loved.

4.5/5 Stars

The Lost Patrol (1934): A Tale of Survival

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The Lost Patrol comes out of the colonialist traditions of the era with the white soldiers in Mesopotamia doing battle with an Arab enemy who strike like ghosts. They are phantoms and rarely seen in the flesh. It’s an unwitting bit of commentary but it also simultaneously becomes one of the story’s most unnerving assets. There’s a tension born in an adversary who is all but invisible and still has a deadly sway on the story.

The film’s opening images are telling in establishing setting and the man behind the camera. Because this is a John Ford movie. It’s a fairly early offering, but there are elements that feel unmistakably relevant to his oeuvre. There’s the shadow of horses trotting across the sand, and then a line of riders snaking their way across the wide-open vistas of the dunes. It’s a variance on the western form or at the very least a transplant.

During this journey, their thick-skulled commanding officer is knocked off unceremoniously. He also never thought it prudent to tell his second-in-command what their orders were. With him gone, the remaining contingent is left wandering through the desert wasteland without any kind of direction.

The Lost Patrol is an expedient drama with little time to waste and so survival becomes its primary focus. It’s not searching out a destination or looking to vanquish the foe as much as it’s about these men living to fight another day. It’s a windswept character piece more than anything.

We see Victor McLagen at his most restrained and sensible. His wealth of experience has taught him to keep his head, and he makes darn sure that all his men stay on high alert. Take, for instance, the euphoric scene where the mirage is real, and they finally settle on a spring of water. The men are satiated by a cool drink — a lifeline in the midst of such an arid and desolate terrain — and they fall into it with joyous elation. Their Sergeant is the one man who holds back, chiding them to take care of their steeds.

If McLagen is one of the stalwarts, Boris Karloff is uncharacteristic as Sanders, a jittery and spiritually inclined fellow clinging to his belief although he seems ever ready to spout off jeremiads. For him, their latest discovery is tantamount to The Garden of Eden.

It is an oasis, but they’re also stuck there. Instead of being excommunicated, they might as well die where they stand if they can’t get support. Much of the film at this juncture comes from digging in and waiting it out. We get to know the band of men and at the time same are brought into the tension of their prolonged campaign of survival.

A young lad, wet behind the ears, is crazy about Kipling and the glories of war. Whereas he’s woefully ignorant of the tough side of the life he’s chosen. Morelli (Wallace Ford) is a bit more jocular blowing off some steam with his harmonica even as he brushes off his own bad luck, calling himself the Jonah of their expedition. Still, their leader doesn’t see fit in tossing him overboard. They’re only going to prevail if they stick together.

Because this is a Ford picture, there also have to be a couple token Irish old boys to round out the company. They’ve seen much of the world thus far, and they have more or less willed themselves to fight another day. It’s baked into their stock.

By far the most intriguing has to be Boris Karloff as he’s taken over by his religious fanaticism. And he’s not the only one to totter toward the precipice of insanity or unrest. There are others. In fact, how does one not lose their mind under such dire circumstances?

Their situation is laden with the kind of dread of a who-done-it murder mystery. Men get knocked off or become lost to the elements, one by one, until their mighty group is dwindling with the unseen enemies still lurking just beyond the sand dunes.
Though the parameters of the drama come out of a bygone era that we have left far behind, somehow Ford’s film maintains some amount of its mystique. He’s already well-versed in capturing the panoramas around him in striking relief. He’s actually aided even more by hardly showing his villain at all. Time honors this decision because it falls away, and we forget the stereotypes as much as we feel the specters hanging over the patrol.

To the very end, McLaglen is a stalwart and you can see how Ford is able to fashion him into a reputable even idealized champion. He’s not unlike a John Wayne or other figureheads Ford found ways to fashion into his personal visions of inimitable manhood. There’s something admirable about them — found in their mettle and loyalty — even as they exude a persistently evident humanity.

3.5/5 Stars

Dawn Patrol (1930) and The Numbing Cycle of War

 

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Taken in the context of his entire career, Dawn Patrol becomes a prototype for a plethora of later Howard Hawks pictures involving aviation and male bonding, including the likes of Ceiling Zero, Test Pilot, and certainly, Only Angels Have Wings. As a WWI pilot, Hawks has more than a passing interest in flying. He seems totally invested in its depiction. But despite its inadequacies, Dawn Patrol has more to offer than a mere technical exhibition.

This one opens with a telling note about WWI and the nations “entrusting salvation to youth.” It’s a sobering thought, but the phrase makes more and more sense as the film progresses.

We meet Major Brand (Neil Hamilton) as he’s forced to pass hours at his desk. He goes out on the limb for his men with superiors having the gall to suggest over the phone that they’re not doing enough. It’s a thankless job that only gets worse when he listens to the planes touching down. He knows by the sound of the engines how many boys have come back unscathed (and how many have perished).

It’s a fine representation of how Hawks is able to indicate exposition through what is off-screen. Soon, the head of the flyers, Captain Courtney (Richard Barthelemess), checks in to give his report. He and Brand have a contentious relationship and every one of their conversations devolves into a yelling match.

The men standing outside, by the bar, give some suggestion it might be over a girl they both knew in France. All we have is the here and now, and that seems heated enough. We don’t envy either of their posts: The one giving the orders and the one obediently carrying them out.

Barthelemess never had much range, but this blandness does serve the picture well. He doesn’t need life. He needs to evoke the emptiness, the tiredness, the deadly monotony of his station. With every new mission, bright-eyed inexperienced kids arrive like lambs being readied for slaughter. It’s utter insanity, and we are there to witness it.

The chalkboard in their headquarters becomes one of the most sobering markers of the film. Because as the names come off and get replaced by a fresh batch, there’s something inevitable and terrifying about it. This suggests the impermanence of life with each name so easily wiped away from that board as each life is snuffed out.

His best friend, the affable Scott (Douglas Fairbanks Jr.), is one of the few pilots with enough skills, tenacity, and good fortune to survive their regimen of harrowing missions. He’s someone you can count on through thick and thin.

Similar to John Ford’s movies, songs become such an integral part of their community, banding together and joining their voices in an act of unity during their off-hours. It also settles their nerves.

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However, Dawn Patrol simultaneously considers the absurdity of war where you can share a drink, a laugh, and a hug with the man who shot you down out of the sky and was trying to kill you. How can it be? It only works if you can compartmentalize the experience and keep your feelings contained.

But this is only a temporary salve. Soon there’s a new villain on the rise — he’s a German ace named Von Richter — and more kids are called in to counter the havoc he’s wreaking on the allies. Although the chain of command changes with Courtney being promoted, the flaws and unyielding shackles of leadership become even more apparent. Soon friends are pitted against one another, fighting over the life of a hapless younger brother: one of the latest recruits. He knows not what he’s signed up for. They know only too well.

It causes a rift between the two men. In fact, it’s uncanny how much it’s like the row between Court and his Major before them. He’s become the distraught leader made callous and mercurial with daily stress and drink. But this is his best friend on the other side of the desk and the life of Scott’s kid brother is in the balance. Surely this should be different. What a horrible institution war is and what a terrible position to be in.

You survive long enough, and they stash you behind a desk so you get the unsavory job of sending men off to their deaths. What makes it worse is the sheer eagerness that all these fresh-faced lads take to their assignments. They brim with enthusiasm ready to do their part on behalf of the war effort and their country.

What a horrible cycle it is, and it seems ceaseless. The only way Court sees a way out of it means taking matters into his own hands — breaking the chain — and making the ultimate sacrifice on behalf of his best friend.

Because there is a suicide mission to be done. A volunteer is needed. Scott jumps at the opportunity, wanting to get out of that vile place and knowing full-well Court will be happy to see him go. Of course, this isn’t the case. There’s still a beating heart in there somewhere, and he takes on the bombing assignment himself.

In one of the last scenes, in the dark of night, they wait nervously ready to light fires on the runaway for Court’s return. Surely, he will come back! He always has before…They never see him. There’s only the faint motor of the plane and what a brilliant piece of exposition because the full import of the significance only hits us moments later.

If this scene is one of the most affecting, the last one is equally telling. No, the war is not over. That would be too clean, too easy. Instead, the chain of command has continued. The faces ready to take to the skies have changed just as new names get wiped off the chalkboard. What an abhorrent thing this is. What’s more terrifying is how numb we become to it.

3.5/5 Stars

Swing Shift (1984): Underrated Classic with Caveats

Swing_shiftAside from films actually produced during the war years, I’m not sure if I can think of a film that highlights the homefront to the degree of Swing Shift. The soundtrack is also perfectly antiquated (sans Carly Simon) fitting the era and mood to add another definite dimension. It effectively takes us back with the auditory cues of Glenn Miller, Hoagy Carmichael, and the rest.

We read in our history books about Rosie the Riveter and women gaining a newfound freedom as they fell into work formerly held only by men. But here this reality is put into practice in a manner that makes tangible sense.

The events of the war happen to them as they walk along the pier, sit in their living rooms, or do their work. Instantly they become current events.

We understand the certain amount of independence women would have been allowed in this time, where they were given a part to play in the struggle against the Axis powers. War can simultaneously cause deep wells of tragedy and bring us the greatest joys.

Our relationships become entrenched with a profound camaraderie and yet we can hurt the ones we love. We change and they change. Things very rarely remain the same after something so cataclysmic.

There are several intentional and formative relational dynamics in Swing Shift. It is about two working women: Goldie Hawn and Christine Lathi. They are by each other’s side through the thick and thin of friendship. Putting in a solid day’s work and then getting dolled up to go out on the town. They’re inseparable. However, sometimes it’s relationships like these that can suffer the most.

It is about a husband (Ed Harris) and a wife (Hawn): one going off to war and the other staying behind — prepared to walk alone. This isn’t what they were planning, but it’s happened and they move forward through the paces of it the best they can. And yet life gets in the way — where time and space separates them — and makes the waiting and the worry all the more difficult.

It’s about a woman and a man who cannot contain the genuine feelings they foster for one another (In real life Kirk Russell and Goldie Hawn fell in love and never looked back). Because he is present, in the flesh, good-natured and available in a way her husband never was — even when he was around. And yet Lucky (Russell), when he’s not riding his motorbike or playing the trumpet, is a wounded soul in his own right. War only works to exacerbate the clouded emotions of the day and that goes for all these relationships. They are interconnected issues.

But I think this is the best compliment that can be paid to the story. Because sometimes it looks a bit like a TV soap, and the story doesn’t always fall together, and yet there is a broader sense of what this movie is and what the focal points must be. This I believe we can attribute to Jonathan Demme. It’s meant to be more than conventional romance and we get tastes of that.

I say tastes because Swing Shift also has to be one of the most notorious cases of artistic tampering, right up there with The Magnificent Ambersons or Terminal Station. Warner Bros., at the behest of Goldie Hawn, edited the movie and reconstructed the story after Demme had finished principal photography.

Aside from story or continuity questions causing a few head scratches, the issues seem to go deeper still. I am by no means an insider, but from what I can gather, Hawn’s version tried to center the story around her and Russell. There’s an obvious reason for this. They have more than chemistry. They have romance. However, it also attempted to simplify her image and rectify any conflict we might have with her character. In essence, the goal was to make her more likable.

It causes her to maintain some sense of moral dignity and still the movie ends on an unfulfilling, empty note. It’s as if some kind of greater catharsis was possible, and we are robbed of it all with a final tear and a whimper. The resolution is not quite a cop-out as it is an exercise in indecision. The picture dissolves when something more complex, something more evocative, was probably called for and just waiting to be excavated.

Someday I hope the Demme version might go back into circulation, not just so we can see the movie as it was meant to be seen, from the untarnished vantage point of its creator. That’s part of it. But there’s also a sense Demme attempted to develop something more full-bodied and well-contoured.

Hollywood is always obsessed with primary action — the characters at the center of the story — but so often what is most interesting is what remains on the periphery. The supporting characters or the elements of the world that make it come off the screen and feel real.

One is reminded of the moment a smartly dressed soldier boy comes up to one of the swing shift members (Holly Hunter). He’s there to give her the horrible news, and she knows it before the words leave his lips. She falls onto him and he apologizes — he’s never done this before. How horrible and pitiful and lovely it is because it feels so innocent and honest.

Moments like these are a testament to a movie with so much to offer, bubbling up under the surface. It’s a shame it was so badly mangled. We must be thankful for what we have and hold out that someday we might get to see the cut that kept to Demme’s vision. Here’s to hoping. For what, it’s worth, Swing Shift might well be an underrated classic with a couple substantial caveats to include.

3.5/5 Stars

The Young Lions (1958): Humanity in Epic Scale

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The opening of Edward Dmytryk’s The Young Lions, based on Irvin Shaw’s titular novel, could be plucked out of an earlier picture like The Mortal Storm. It’s New Year’s Eve 1938 in Bavaria, Germany. Young lovers ski and frolic in the snow as locals make merry indoors.

Marlon Brando is a sympathetic German or closer still a principled man named Christian, currently sharing the company of a beautiful American — one Margaret Freemantle (Barbara Rush). For her, the evening is quashed with the word of Hitler. However misguided it might be, he has a genuine optimism about what Hitler can and will do for his country. Christian is not a monster. Likewise, he believes if lives have to be sacrificed for the sake of peace, he will gladly go to war.

Although these two people will never share the screen again, this is the beginning of everything. Because of course, we know what happened next in the history books. War did come. First in Europe, making its way to France, then Britain, and finally, the U.S. got involved. Christian gets his start policing the streets of France, upending their derogatory view of the enemy, even as he struggles with the perils of radical ideology.

It occurs to me, part of Brando’s success comes with how his social consciousness paired with his acting prowess. Because when he still seemed thoroughly engaged with his career, he sought out parts of such diversity, bringing humanity to all sorts of disparate people. They didn’t always hit the mark (I think of Viva Zapata and Tea House of The August Moon), and yet during this same period, he played an informant, a southern ace who falls for a Japanese girl, and here a sympathetic German during WWII.

There’s a calculated empathy to the adaptation, casting a German and a Jewish man as two of our most prominent protagonists. It’s difficult to begrudge The Young Lions its inclinations because they seem genuine and earnest, especially in the capable hands of Brando and Montgomery Clift. Yes, we must take a moment to mention Clift now.

The older actor is sometimes clumped with Brando, but even in the context of this movie, it’s fascinating to begin comparing them. Brando burst onto the scene and ultimately let himself go — becoming disinterested and disaffected by his screen career. Clift, likewise, was an incandescent talent transplanted from the stage, but he was totally engaged in his craft.

His own setbacks were initially out of his control: a car accident that left him dependent on drink and pain killers. He considered Brando a squandered talent for all of his abilities, but if anything, it shows how devoted Clift was to his art, doubling his efforts even after his injury.

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While they’re not exactly “young” lions, Dean Martin and Clift are a pair of compelling ones as they are drafted to be sent out overseas. You would never think of putting them together. Their personalities seem so adverse to one another, and yet there is a component of loyalty found in their performances bleeding out into real life. They were there for each other, forged by fire as they were.

Dean Martin was two years removed from his split with Jerry Lewis, and The Young Lions was his first big chance to redefine his image as an actor. He gives it a valiant go in a performance that maintains shades of his persona. In this case, Michael is a stage entertainer hesitant about going off to war and looking to dodge culpability any way he possibly can. He jousts with his girlfriend Margaret (Rush), who simultaneously doesn’t want him to die even as she disapproves of his dereliction of duty. When the time comes, he proves his mettle and his steadfastness.

Maximillian Schell was a revelation to me quite a number of years ago when I first saw Judgement at Nuremberg. Because in a picture with such contentious stakes and with so many prominent acting powerhouses, for me, he is the film’s standout with the most spectacular stand. In The Young Lions, he plays Brando’s superior espousing the typical rhetoric: The German army is invincible because it obeys orders and it harbors no sentimentality, moralists, or individualists.

In one sense, he constantly castigates Christian for his lapses in judgment, for this softness he has, but for all his perniciousness, Captain Hardenberg still comes off as a human being.  He has a flirtatious wife (May Britt) waiting back home and a life ultimately crippled by injury. If Martin holds his own up against Clift, then Schell — learning his lines phonetically no less — certainly proves himself a compelling presence opposite Brando.

They get reassigned to Rommel’s Afrika Corps in North Africa working behind enemy lines. It’s in these moments, in particular, as they bomb and mow down their unsuspecting enemy, we get a gutting portrait of how merciless the world can be, but that lets people off the hook too easily.

Human beings — myself included — can be petty, mean-spirited, and cruel to one another, and The Young Lions is not only about this global scale of war between nations. It’s about the conflicts and schisms formed in what’s supposed to be a united front — a shared cultural identity. Whether it’s a German with a heart and soul or a Jewish man who is ridiculed and discriminated against in his own country for something that is out of his control.

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The onslaught of Allied forces sweeping across North Africa — the Brits with their bagpipes and Patton with his tanks — is a force to be reckoned with even as the homefront is ripe with the division. Even as Noah (Clift) finds himself a lovely small-town girl (Hope Lange) to wed, the systematic bigotry of his barracks-mates and his superior officer is crippling. He faces it with a lion-hearted resolve as Michael does his best to back him up.

The tide of the war finds Brando and Schell fleeing on a motorcycle to escape the steadily advancing enemy forces. Christian eventually loses his commander and must face the man’s wife with a renewed disillusionment. Even a return to Paris and greetings from old friends (Parley Baer and Liliane Montevecchi), show him the world has changed dramatically. He has as well.

On the Allied front, Michael finally asks to be sent to Normandy, and there reunites with Ackerman to liberate a concentration camp. It is the same camp that has opened Christian’s eyes about what the Germans have been perpetrating for the past 5 years under the guise of Nazism. While not a totally graphic scene, it’s no less of a gut punch as each character is forced to meditate on what is before them.

There’s this driving sense of fate as The Young Lions mounts to highlight one of the monumental absurdities of war. Here we have spent an entire film — through all its peaks and valleys, heartbreaks and reveries — and we finally bring together our three primary leads.

They are on opposites sides of the conflict though they are all men of a certain stock and decency. And yet because of war and how factions are aligned, they are meant to kill one another. They will never have a chance to sit down at a table together and know how similar they really were. This is the great tragedy The Young Lions underlines.

Not only does it exhume the hidden evils of the human heart, but it also annihilates all sense of common humanity, forcing us to only see a demonized enemy opposed to men and women who are not unlike ourselves.

In a better world or even in a world before the war, these three men could have been friends or compatriots. Alas, it was never to be and what’s crueler still, they will never know what they have missed out on. They already have so many traumas; it’s difficult to discern if these thoughts will plague them. But that is not the purpose. The film is constructed in such a way, it’s meant to commend us to cast off war altogether and this is far more telling.

The impression I am left with has magnitude. It’s a minor miracle how the grandiose scale of a cinemascope epic, backed by performances from such renowned talents, somehow still manages an immediacy and intimacy. The Young Lions might be lengthy, but it never loses its protagonists in a mass of humanity. Instead, it highlights the humanity of a few to illuminate a whole society.

4/5 Stars

“The young lions lack and suffer hunger; but those who seek the LORD shall not lack any good thing.”

Sayonara (1957): Marlon Brando and Miiko Taka

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Major Lloyd “Ace” Gruver (Marlon Brando) lands on the airbase in Korea and almost immediately gets assigned leave in Kobe. However, this leave has ulterior motives, signed by General Webster (Kent Smith), a friend of his father’s and the father of the pilot’s sometime girlfriend. It’s meant to be a contrived reunion no doubt so they can consider their wedding plans.

One of Gruver’s men, Joe Kelly (Red Buttons) is set to get married himself. Soon they’re showing off cheesecake photos of their girls until it evolves into something far more complicated with more uncomfortable implications. Because Joe is intent on marrying a Japanese gal named Katsumi (Miyoshi Umeki). If nothing else, you admire the man because he’s totally committed; there’s a complete integrity and personal conviction behind his intentions.

As the film points out later, he wasn’t alone. Lots of servicemen looked to marry Japanese girls after the war, and yet there certainly is something countercultural about him. What becomes immediately evident is this sense of casual (or not so casual) racism. Though hardly a spiteful person, Gruver has some preconceived notions about “slant-eyed runts.”

He has his misgivings about the wedding and yet, as a favor to his subordinate, he agrees to serve as his best man. The pervasive strains of discrimination continue as Gruver makes it to Japan and rendezvous with the Websters and Eileen (Patricia Owen). They attend a club for American personnel only to witness a soldier getting turned away with his Asian girlfriend. The coded language of “fraternization” is really just de facto segregation. For the time being, Gruver has no stake in the matter and so leaves it be.

His first true immersion into Japanese culture, at the behest of his girlfriend, comes from a Japanese kabuki performance put on by a revered actor. Although it’s a bit unfortunate having Ricardo Montalban playing Nakamura, he gives it his best showing, which actually comes off rather sensitive as far as yellowface goes.

While I’m not sure Joshua Logan exactly comprehends Japanese culture aside from its exquisite exoticism, he does take his stage pedigree and proceeds to translate the Japanese arts into flat two-dimensional showings mirroring their inherent performance elements. At the very least he understands their use of space and augments them within the framework of the broader film.

Owen is intriguing because she has all the attributes of a beautiful American girl: well-groomed and fit to be a 1950s housewife, but she has enough wherewithal to think for herself and not to be a “type” for her man to return home to. It forces Brando to make some kind of commitment. Currently, he’s not in a place where he feels that he can. If the movie were to continue down this commonplace path it would be dull going.

Instead, the camaraderie between Brando and a marine, Mike Baile (James Garner), is born. The other actor doesn’t have much to do except act as a cultural guide; still, Garner takes to his role genially and with his unadulterated charms no one could ever fault him. He’s another agreeable face, and he also knows a good deal more about Japanese culture…

Miiko Taka literally stops Brando cold (and the movie with it). The film turns on a new axis as Gruver becomes infatuated with the preeminent dancer, Hana-ogi-san, who can be found crossing the bridge to the theater every day before and after her daily performances. The outmatched pilot finally plucks up enough acumen to find himself a pocket Japanese dictionary only to toss it away.

It’s like a new pastime as he waits to catch a glimpse of her and get a chance to interact. He finally gets his chance — a meeting with her in person — though this is normally totally forbidden for someone in her position. The added grievance is the death of her father who perished at the hands of an American bomb.

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Even though the preamble has some rumblings of discord, there’s something about Brando’s introduction to the Japanese household that’s warm and affecting because in it some cultural understanding is made — appreciation of customs and how our differences somehow lead us to a place of mutual respect.

Amid gags of him continually bumping his on on doorways, there are far more tender moments that never feel like they’re reaching toward didacticism. Joe has him remove his shoes before entering the home, and he learns about sake (fermented rice wine) and how to pour for others.

If this scene tickles the heart, it doesn’t last long. The accompanying moment with Brando and Taka’s first time reclining at table alone together is imbued with a sinking feeling of discomfort. He’s so lax and culturally unfamiliar, making a go of it the best way he knows how. There’s a sense he is sunk even before he’s begun. What words will come out of her mouth in response?

Far from being dismissive, she’s gracious and tender speaking of her life and her desires for love and some far-off dream amounting to something more than her extravagant life of a dancer on the stage. She craves something deep-seated, a longing inside of her.

Although they come from two distinctly different worlds, their lives are similarly planned. Either by the strict confines of her theatrical tradition or the regimens of the military. And yet against this backdrop, they find happiness together watching fireworks, being in each other’s company, and generally filling up their days with romantic contentment. What’s refreshing is how none of this feels self-serving or staged. We willingly believe there is something tangible between them.

The seeds of bigotry have already been planted early and so they eventually germinate. The military cracks down calling for all military personnel to stop seeing Japanese women and those who are married, like, Joe are given especially harsh treatment. They’re effectively forced into subordination on the threat of court-martial and deportation.

Sayonara has successfully put its flag in the ground when you know what’s happening and yet the events unfold and you cannot look away. Because the mantle of the story has been passed onto the characters whom we now care for. What follows has legitimate consequences for us.

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Thus, their friend’s fate is swiftly decided and yet Ace and Hana-ogi’s roads look to be diverging. There is no other way through unless one of them intercedes and gives up everything they have already built. It’s a point of no return.

To Brando’s credit, he sells the transformation from blundering ignorance to genuine care for this woman who has so enchanted him. Mikko Taki, who is still with us, far from simply being gorgeous, brings a quiet understanding and gentility that stays the course of the movie. In no way does it feel like she’s totally overwhelmed or upstaged by Brando. They make the romance a union between two people bridging two cultures in the face of adversity.

The final delight comes with Brando sticking it to all the naysayers and wishing a “Sayonara” to everyone who would stand in their way. It leads to warm feelings not least of all because the picture is finally done.

All said, the Technicolor scenery and scenario are noteworthy, even cutting edge for the time period, but with the loose threads and lumbering running time, the movie could spare to lose a few scenes. Although admittedly obligatory, it’s the scenes of mechanized conflict and dialogue between Brando and the military that feel rote and uninteresting.

The main players are the ones making waiting through the dross worth it thanks to their candor and agreeable charisma. What a lovely screen couple Red Buttons and Miyoshi Umeki make. Above all, it gladdens me, in all her humility, Audrey Hepburn turned down the role foisted on her at the behest of Joshua Logan. She graciously declined and instead, we were blessed by a performance by Miiko Taka.

Although she, like Shirley Yamaguchi in House of Bamboo or even Umeki Miyoshi, is cast as the delicate Japanese beauty, this only becomes a stereotype if it is never replaced with other roles. For what it is, the part balances several traits, including a degree of independence and familial duty. Thus, any lasting criticisms for Sayonara in this area feel more indicative of the industry now 60 years on than a single performance decades ago.

If Sayonara is rife with stereotypes in its honest attempts, then not enough has been done to build on its legacy to bring us even further in the present. Because, amid the flaws, there were some exquisite touches, from the gorgeous imagery to little accents like the neighborhood cherry shop on the corner or the Japanese conversations shared between a husband and wife. They elicit something genuine and emotionally sincere.

3.5/5 Stars

Seven Days in May (1964): A Twilight Zone America Strikes Close to Home

Sevendays_moviepThe opening images of Seven Days in May could have easily been pulled out of the headlines. A silent protest continues outside the White House gates with hosts of signs decrying the incumbent president or at the very least the state of his America.  We don’t quite know his egregious act although it’s made evident soon enough.

The scene at hand rapidly escalates to violence. There’s an immersive cinema-verite quality to the mob that breaks out between rival protesters. It instigates the film’s overt sense of technical style even if it’s not always straight to the point.

What becomes imperative to John Frankenheimer’s movie is how this showmanship frames the performances at its core because the movie is driven by its robust melange of characters. Fredric March is president Jordan Lyman. He’s getting middling reviews for headlining a nuclear disarmament deal with the Soviets. This includes backlash from his highest-ranking military officials, and they’re not going to sit around while he lets America get annihilated.

It might seem like a slightly peculiar (if not entirely unfounded) reaction, seeing as in real life so many people would soon call for peace. Except in this world, the Cold War is literally reversed; now they have peace, and the outcome still remains the same. Everyone’s suspicious of what might really be going on behind the Iron Curtain.  If it’s not evident already, Seven Days in May effectively becomes an off-shoot of your typical Cold War doomsday drama.

Somehow it seems fitting Rod Serling adapted the script from the titular novel because this is a story planted in an inconspicuous and generally subtle near-future. It is its own Twilight Zone in that the logic feels slightly tweaked from what contemporary America was familiar with. At any rate, it’s concerned with an entirely different outcome than President Kennedy was currently faced with. What makes it truly startling is how much of a hop, skip, and a jump it feels from reality.

While it’s unfeasible to totally encapsulate public discourse during the early 1960s of the Kennedy administration, it’s often true movies act as an echo chamber of the times, reverberating the current issues in fundamentally different ways. I cannot speak to the anxieties Seven Days in May explicitly illustrates. But there are tinges of very real conditions, be it public protests and national marches (with the civil rights movement) and certainly the ongoing frozen-over politics of The Cold War.

Foremost among the detractors is General Scott (Burt Lancaster), who adamantly believes nuclear disarmament is a dubious peace — a sign of America’s weakness as they roll over and cave to Soviet interests — leaving the nation vulnerable. And it’s not an isolated opinion with close associates including Colonel “Jiggs” Casey (Kirk Douglas) sharing his line of thinking.

However, even their own private allegiances dictate drastically different courses of action. There would not be a movie if “Jiggs” did not uncover General Scott’s covert operations. Namely, a garrison of men training at an undisclosed facility in El Paso. It’s the first of several red flags.

The Colonel immediately brings a line of communication straight to the top triggering mistrust and paranoia as the inner circle of the president is overtaken with consternation. Although he seems admittedly quick to sound the alarm, it is indicative of the times. Especially because their fears of a military plot to take over the government seem overwhelmingly well-founded. Such a coup d’etat on the oval office almost feels unthinkable in the modern age of America; maybe this fits a more Twilight Zone sense of our government structures.

Regardless, Lyman heeds the warning and sends one of his closest allies, old southern boy, Ray Clark (Edmond O’Brien), to check out El Paso. Another oval office insider (Martin Basalm) ends up tracking down the one standout from the conspiracy — an admiral currently based out of Spain — who gives a signed statement of foreknowledge. Meanwhile, The Colonel is asked to continue in the uncomfortable position of an informer. The President must bide his time until he can back up the claims, lest he be seen as a raving madman by the general public.

While Lancaster might have the more high-profile post, it is Douglas who feels like the sinews holding the movie together, and rightfully so, because he was one of the major forces behind the film’s production. To his credit, it shows his ability to play a more restrained part — close to the vest — which still remains deeply impactful.

His scenes with Ava Gardner feel like a minor side note to this covert conspiracy of international importance, and yet it’s a tribute to both of them; it feels real and devastating in its own right. Their shared context means something.

Given the era, it’s hard not to consider the likes of Advise & Consent and then the more nuclear-oriented dramas like Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove. And of course, John Frankenheimer had a well-documented pedigree with the political thriller from one of the most high-profile contenders, The Manchurian Candidate, and the criminally overlooked Seconds a few years down the road.

If we were to take his loose trilogy and compare it with Alan J. Pakula’s trifecta of thrillers from the 1970s, we can somewhat trace the evolution of the genre from one decade to the next.

As Lyman notes, the electorate is looking to elect a personal God for the duration, whether a McCarthy or a General Walker. They clamor for such a person to assuage their fears. The enemy is not other men but the nuclear age. We suspect infiltration and that the enemy is trying to blow us off this rock. Not until later would our own government be implicated, and then big business and our own systems be seen as a source of the problems.

Some of the best scenes take place in the privacy of the oval office because we sense the tension provided by the stakes. However, the whole drama is brought down to a manageable scale that can be quantified and understood through human relationships.

The intimate confrontation between March and Lancaster is probably a pinnacle of the storytelling, far more impactful in fact, than watching a full-scale conflict play out. Instead, it’s the whole movie hinging on one showdown between two incomparable forces, and what a showcase it is.

What makes the film smoke with legitimacy is how both men suggest, in their heart of hearts, that they are right and justified in what they are doing. And that’s what the great actors can do. Lancaster, in particular, is easy enough to cast as the power-hungry, possibly sleazy villain with a Napoleonic complex. But Lancaster’s ferocity is only matched by his steely delivery. There’s never a suggestion he is phoning in those lines of dialogue. They come off real and true and unflinching.

In the eleventh hour, there’s a sigh of relief and an equally perturbing sense of unease. We conveniently never find out if the peace treaties were a ploy by the Soviets. All we’ve done is live to fight another day. Tomorrow could signal oblivion. For this early in the decade, it feels surprisingly downbeat signifying the times certainly were a-changin’. The shift was inexorable.

4/5 Stars

*I wrote this review well before events at the Capitol on January 6th, 2021.