What the Movies Taught Us About World War II Cen­ter Insert: Air­craft Spot­ter Cards

Air & Space Smithsonian - - Front Page - BY CHRIS KLIMEK

Our re­viewer picks the best World War II movie ever made. (You’ll never guess what it is.)

If the best film is the one that best il­lus­trates the stress, ex­haus­tion, and dan­ger to which bomber crews were sub­jected, par­tic­u­larly in the early years of the war when there were no fight­ers with ad­e­quate range to es­cort them to heav­ily de­fend

ed tar­gets, BY CHRIS KLIMEK

your choice is likely Henry King’s Twelve O’clock High, from 1949—one of the many fic­tional films to in­cor­po­rate documentary footage of aerial com­bat. Eighth Air Force veter­ans Sy Bartett and Beirne Lay Jr. based the screen­play on their novel. Lay had com­manded a bomb group and flown a B-24 that was shot down over France in May 1944; re­sis­tance op­er­a­tives helped him hide un­til he could be re­united with Al­lied forces after D-day.

But Twelve O’clock High tells a larger, more rep­re­sen­ta­tive story of a na­tion ris- ing to face an ex­is­ten­tial chal­lenge. The film is re­mem­bered for Gre­gory Peck’s per­for­mance as U.S. Army Air Forces Gen­eral Frank Sav­age, who whips the over­taxed and un­der­per­form­ing 918th Bomb Group into shape with a toughlove ap­proach that val­ues achieve­ment above com­pas­sion. “Fear is nor­mal, but stop wor­ry­ing about it,” he tells his men. “Con­sider your­selves al­ready dead.”

(A great movie—but it’s not Twelve IF YOU CON­FINE YOUR SUR­VEY to films made dur­ing the war—which still leaves many hun­dreds of ti­tles on the bal­lot— you might pick 30 Sec­onds Over Tokyo. Mervyn Leroy’s ac­count of Lieu­tenant Colonel Jimmy Doolit­tle’s April 1942 strike on Tokyo in re­tal­i­a­tion for the Ja­panese raid on Pearl Har­bor de­buted only two and a half years after the event it de­picts. Based on the mem­oir of Cap­tain Ted W. Law­son (played by Van John­son), who flew a B-25 in the raid, and star­ring Spencer Tracy as Doolit­tle, the film was lauded at the time for its au­then­tic­ity, de­spite its ob­vi­ous func­tion as pro­pa­ganda.

It doesn’t gloss over the bru­tal re­al­ity that after Law­son crash-landed on the eastern coast of China, his leg had to be am­pu­tated, or that the raid cost seven air­men their lives, or that all but one of the group’s 16 B-25s were lost. Though the U.S. Navy couldn’t spare an air­craft car­rier to stand in for the USS Hor­net— the ship that launched the Doolit­tle raid—the pro­duc­tion’s use of real B-25 Mitchells (C and D vari­ants, but nearly iden­ti­cal to the B-25BS flown in the raid) and canny blend­ing of staged and documentary footage gave view­ers a vis­ceral sense of the ac­tion.

(You can make a strong case for it, but it’s not 30 Sec­onds Over Tokyo.)

THE LARGEST WAR IN HIS­TORY was also, un­sur­pris­ingly, the most filmed and most dra­ma­tized. In the 1930s, while the rest of the econ­omy was in ru­ins, the movie busi­ness was flour­ish­ing, and Wash­ing­ton re­garded it with in­creas­ing wari­ness—this in­dus­try full of sus­pected Com­mu­nists and moral de­gen­er­ates. But

WHAT’S THE BEST FILM EVER MADE ABOUT AVI­A­TION IN WORLD WAR II? That de­pends on your def­i­ni­tion of “best.” If the best is the one that fea­tures the most lov­ingly pho­tographed pa­rade of pe­riod air­craft and the most thrillingly re-cre­ated dog­fights, your an­swer might be 1969’s Bat­tle of Bri­tain. Pro­ducer Harry Saltz­man and di­rec­tor Guy Hamil­ton had scored a huge world­wide hit with Goldfin­ger in 1964, and would col­lab­o­rate on three more James Bond ad­ven­tures, but their ex­ces­sively cheer­ful, star-stud­ded trib­ute to English courage was badly out of step with the “Make Love Not War” ethos of the era, and it lost a for­tune. (It isn’t Bat­tle of Bri­tain.)

O’clock High.)

with the meat grinder of World War I still fresh in the pub­lic mem­ory, peo­ple like Army Chief of Staff Gen­eral Ge­orge C. Mar­shall knew that con­vinc­ing Amer­ica that this war was nec­es­sary and winnable would re­quire the help of Hol­ly­wood. “After Pearl Har­bor, Hol­ly­wood signed on to the war ef­fort com­pletely,” says long­time film critic David Luhrssen.

His­to­rian Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back chron­i­cles the ex­pe­ri­ences of five film­mak­ers at the top of their pro­fes­sion— John Ford, Ge­orge Stevens, John Hus­ton, Wil­liam Wyler, and Frank Capra—who joined the mil­i­tary to make doc­u­men­taries and pro­pa­ganda films. Ford, a Naval Re­serve of­fi­cer who’d sought a trans­fer to ac­tive duty three months be­fore Pearl Har­bor, was wounded by shrap­nel while film­ing The Bat­tle of Mid­way, a strange, im­pres­sion­ist documentary that came out a lot artier than his bosses wanted.

Both he and Stevens were present on D-day, cam­eras rolling, though much of what they shot was deemed too grue­some for pub­lic con­sump­tion. Capra made the Why We Fight doc­u­men­taries, seven short fea­tures de­signed to demon­strate to the troops as well as the pub­lic at home the ne­ces­sity of stop­ping the Axis pow­ers. Wyler flew with a B-17 crew on bomb­ing raids to shoot his documentary Mem­phis Belle: The Story of a Fly­ing Fortress.

Ar­riv­ing at the Dachau death camp with no idea what he’d find, Stevens shot footage that was later edited into a pair of films used as ev­i­dence in the Nurem­berg tri­als. Decades would pass be­fore he would speak of the hor­rors he wit­nessed there. Stevens’ pre-war phase would be out­shined by his post­war ca­reer, which in­cluded the films Shane, Gi­ant, and The Diary of Anne Frank, but be­fore he went to Eu­rope, he’d been known for his come­dies. He never made an­other one after he got home.

Luhrssen, who co-au­thored War on the Sil­ver Screen: Shap­ing Amer­ica’s Per­cep­tion

of War, also points out that many ma­jor stars vol­un­teered for ser­vice. The most

dis­tin­guished of these was Jimmy Stewart, al­ready a box of­fice fa­vorite when he en­listed in the Army in 1941, after first be­ing drafted and re­jected as un­der­weight. A li­censed pi­lot, he feared he would be as­signed to duty as a flight in­struc­tor, or worse, a morale-boost­ing, troop-en­ter­tain­ing seller of war bonds. He wanted com­bat, and he pushed un­til he got it, ris­ing in rank from pri­vate to colonel by the time the war ended.

FILMS MADE YEARS OR DECADES after the war have the ben­e­fit of giv­ing writ­ers and di­rec­tors dis­tance from the events they dra­ma­tize and greater free­dom to de­pict what would have been de­mor­al­iz­ing or un­bear­able with the trauma still fresh. Movies that in­cluded the Ja­panese point of view as well as the Amer­i­can per­spec­tive, such as 1970’s Tora! Tora! Tora! (an Amer­i­can-ja­panese co-pro­duc­tion about the Pearl Har­bor at­tack) or 1976’s Mid­way, a soapy, fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of the tide-turn­ing air and sea bat­tle, would not have been made dur­ing the 1940s.

Like Bat­tle of Bri­tain, both Tora! Tora! Tora! and Mid­way cou­pled splashy com­bat shots with hammy writ­ing and over­wrought per­for­mances. Mid­way is also a bit of an anachro­nism. Its open­ing ti­tles in­di­cated that it in­cluded real com­bat footage wher­ever pos­si­ble, but de­clined to men­tion how heav­ily it re­lied on ma­te­rial shot for other movies: Its very first frames are right out of the then32-year-old 30 Sec­onds Over Tokyo, and it used (com­par­a­tively) fresh shots from Bat­tle of Bri­tain and Tora! Tora! Tora! too. Some of its documentary footage dates from later in the war than the May 1942 bat­tle; it in­cludes air­craft that were not yet in ser­vice at the time.

Be­cause the movie came out in the mid­dle of the sen­si­tive 1970s, it in­vested deeply in not one but two maudlin ro­man­tic sub­plots. Charlton He­ston—who had served on a B-25 crew in the war—plays Cap­tain Matt Garth, a di­vorced Navy flier who risks his ca­reer to make amends with his es­tranged son, also a naval avi­a­tor, by in­ter­ven­ing on be­half of his son’s in­terned Ja­panese-amer­i­can girl­friend and her par­ents. Ap­par­ently that didn’t suf­fi­ciently hu­man­ize the gran­ite-faced He­ston, be­cause the pro­duc­ers took the ex­tra­or­di­nary step of hastily writ­ing and shoot­ing ad­di­tional scenes for the TV ver­sion of the film, after Mid­way had al­ready been re­leased in the­aters. The new ma­te­rial gave Garth a girl­friend who agrees to marry him, pre­sum­ably deep­en­ing the tragedy of his sac­ri­fice at the end of the movie, when he crashes and dies while at­tempt­ing a car­rier land­ing.

The World War II fly­ing movies made closer to the end of the war were bet­ter. Sam Wood’s 1948 Com­mand De­ci­sion, adapted from Wil­liam Wis­ter Haines’ novel and stage play, starred Clark Gable as an Army Air Forces bri­gadier gen­eral. The movie de-em­pha­sizes com­bat scenes, in­stead ex­plor­ing the psy­chic cost of order- ing men to their deaths in B-17s and B-29s. (Gable had been awarded a Dis­tin­guished Fly­ing Cross and an Air Medal for his ser­vice as a waist gun­ner on a B-17.)

Funded by Howard Hughes, Ni­cholas Ray’s 1951 Fly­ing Leath­er­necks starred John Wayne as a Ma­rine Corps avi­a­tor based loosely on Medal of Honor-win­ning ace John Lu­cian Smith. (Wayne had been crit­i­cized by his friend and fre­quent col­lab­o­ra­tor John Ford for not vol­un­teer­ing for ser­vice, as Ford had.) Like the gen­er­als in Twelve O’clock High and Com­mand De­ci­sion, he feels the loss of ev­ery life un­der his com­mand, but he must keep this bur­den hid­den—and teach his sub­or­di­nate, played by Robert Ryan, to do the same. The film is bet­ter re­mem­bered for its Technicolor pho­tog­ra­phy than for its writ­ing or per­for­mances, which are solid but un­re­mark­able.

(It’s not Com­mand De­ci­sion or Fly­ing Leath­er­necks.) THE WORLD WAR II fly­ing movies made dur­ing the 21st cen­tury have tended to dis­ap­point: 2012’s Ge­orge Lu­cas-backed Red Tails, a fic­tion­al­ized ac­count of the ex­ploits of the 332nd Fighter Group— bet­ter known as the Tuskegee Air­men, the first black pi­lots in the Army Air Forces—was a no­ble but hammy ef­fort, de­spite a script by John Ri­d­ley, who would go on to win an Os­car for his adap­ta­tion of Solomon Northup’s mem­oir 12 Years a Slave. HBO’S 1995 movie The Tuskegee Air­men was a more en­gag­ing and sen­si­tive de­pic­tion of the strug­gles against in­sti­tu­tion­al­ized racism the 332nd pi­lots had to wage de­spite their ex­em­plary record of ser­vice: The 450 Tuskegee Air­men earned a to­tal of 850 medals dur­ing the war.

Michael Bay’s Pearl Har­bor, re­leased Memo­rial Day week­end in 2001, is widely re­viled among movie crit­ics, in part be­cause of its over­re­liance on a love tri­an­gle no one cared about. (It’s def­i­nitely not Pearl Har­bor.) But count­less movies used ro­man­tic jeal­ousy as a short­cut to win­ning au­di­ences over dur­ing the war, and some­times it worked: 1941’s A Yank in the R.A.F., also di­rected by Henry King (who made Twelve O’clock High eight years later), main­tained a light touch while gen­tly sug­gest­ing Amer­ica’s neu­tral stance had an ex­pi­ra­tion date. A swag­ger­ing Amer­i­can pi­lot played by Ty­rone Power flies a Lock­heed Hud­son bomber from Canada to Eng­land to earn a cool $1,000, but then de­cides to en­list. Soon he and his com­mand­ing of­fi­cer are com­pet­ing for the af­fec­tions of the same woman, played by Betty Grable in her first lead­ing role. Be­fore the war’s end she’d be one of the big­gest stars in Hol­ly­wood, and a 1943 pin-up photo of her in a one-piece swim­suit be­came an icon of the era.

A Yank in the R.A.F. couldn’t have been a more “Hol­ly­wood” movie. Twen­ti­eth

Cen­tury Fox stu­dio chief Daryl F. Zanuck wrote the script him­self (al­beit un­der a pseu­do­nym) and ar­ranged for the par­tic­i­pa­tion of the Royal Air Force as well as the U.S. mil­i­tary. He even agreed to the Bri­tish gov­ern­ment’s script note that Power should sur­vive rather than per­ish hero­ically in the cli­mac­tic bat­tle. Film­ing was done on sound stages and in lo­ca­tions around south­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Naval Air Sta­tion Point Mugu stood in for Dunkirk, not only in this film but in later doc­u­men­taries that re­pur­posed the fake Dunkirk evac­u­a­tion cre­ated for it. But much of the pic­ture’s aerial com­bat footage was of real life-or-death dog­fights shot by fight­ers the RAF had equipped with cam­eras ex­plic­itly for the pic­ture. It’s dis­con­cert­ing to re­mem­ber you’re likely see­ing real deaths oc­cur in a film that’s largely a ro­man­tic com­edy with mu­si­cal num­bers. Cer­tainly to mod­ern eyes, the sub­ject makes the care­free tone the film­mak­ers cul­ti­vated seem wildly in­ap­pro­pri­ate.

And yet the film was a hit, ar­riv­ing in the­aters two months be­fore the at­tack on Pearl Har­bor. Many im­i­ta­tors fol­lowed, fea­tur­ing heroic Yan­kee fliers who en­listed in for­eign mil­i­taries rather than wait for their govern­ments to stop drag­ging their feet. One of them, the Warner Broth­ers quickie In­ter­na­tional Squadron, even starred a Ty­rone Power wannabe by the name of Ron­ald Rea­gan.

(It’s not A Yank in the R.A.F. or In­ter­na­tional Squadron.)

Some World War II fly­ing movies have sur­vived sim­ply on their artis­tic merit. One is Michael An­der­son’s The Dam Busters. Re­leased in 1955, the film tells the story of Op­er­a­tion Chas­tise, a dar­ing 1943 at­tack on Ger­man dams by the Royal Air Force’s No. 617 Squadron. The op­er­a­tion used a spe­cial “bounc­ing bomb” de­vel­oped by Barnes Wal­lace to skip along the sur­face of the wa­ter, elud­ing tor­pedo nets on its way to the tar­get. Star­ring Michael Red­grave as Wal­lace, the film spends most of its time chron­i­cling the ex­haust­ing re­search and de­vel­op­ment process that went into the bomb, as well as the pi­lots’ ef­forts to per­fect the low-alti­tude fly­ing re­quired to de­liver it ac­cu­rately. Filmed us­ing four RAF Avro Lan­caster bombers, the pic­ture’s cli­mac­tic raid se­quence fea­tures some un­con­vinc­ing flak ef­fects, but re­mains cel­e­brated for its savvy edit­ing and over­all qual­ity of sus­pense. Ge­orge Lu­cas has cited The Dam Busters as his in­spi­ra­tion for the fighter at­tack on the Death Star in Star Wars. Peter Jack­son, di­rec­tor of The Lord of the Rings tril­ogy, has ex­pressed in­ter­est in re­mak­ing the film.

(And yet The Dam Busters is not the best.)

The Bri­tish writ­ing-pro­duc­ing-di­rect­ing duo of Powell and Press­burger (col­lec­tively known as “The Archers”) made an as­ton­ish­ing run of films dur­ing the war and in the years im­me­di­ately after. After 1942’s One of Our Air­craft Is Miss­ing, they made what is widely re­garded as their great­est pic­ture, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, de­pict­ing an un­likely 40-year friend­ship, through the Boer War and the two world wars, be­tween a Bri­tish Army of­fi­cer and a Ger­man one. (The Ger­man of­fi­cer em­i­grates to Eng­land as an old man after his sons join the Nazi party.) To­day, the 1943 movie seems shock­ingly mourn­ful, re­flec­tive, and time­less, given that it was made in a coun­try un­der siege. The Archers’ ro­man­tic fan­tasy A

Mat­ter of Life and Death, re­leased in 1946, was set a year ear­lier. It starred David Niven as the pi­lot of a flam­ing and crip­pled Lan­caster bomber who or­ders his crew to bail out with­out telling them his own para­chute has been de­stroyed.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.