Friday, October 20, 2017

World War II, as it happened

Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master (2012) doesn’t have combat scenes but it is in many ways a war film. It begins with a US soldier, Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), returning home from World War II. In a veterans’ hospital, a doctor asks him about headaches and a crying spell. Freddie dismisses this at first, but then admits these might have been brought on by “nostalgia”. It’s a strange word to encounter in this context, unless you’re aware that the medical term for various PTSD symptoms was, for centuries, nostalgia.

These scenes in The Master were inspired by a 1946 documentary called Let There Be Light. It was directed by John Huston, one of five American film-makers tapped by the US government to help with the war effort at the start of the 1940s. Just how illustrious a bunch this was becomes clear when you consider that Huston, director of The Maltese Falcon, was the least well-known of the five. John Ford was already considered the greatest director of Westerns ever. George Stevens was the first to pair Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn, in Woman Of The Year. William Wyler had directed Dodsworth; Frank Capra had won Oscars for It Happened One Night and Mr Smith Goes To Washington.

How these five directors went about creating Allied propaganda is told in the three-part documentary Five Came Back. The series, based on a 2015 book of the same name by Mark Harris (who has also written the script for the show), is available on Netflix, as are all the films made by the five. Taken together, they offer fascinating insight into an initiative that used everything from scratchy newsreels to Hollywood spectacle to inspire the troops and reassure the public.

No doubt anticipating an audience that wouldn’t know Stagecoach from Jezebel, the show assembles five recent directors to talk about the original quintet. And so we get the dizzyingly starry line-up of Steven Spielberg on Wyler, Francis Ford Coppola on Huston, Guillermo Del Toro on Capra, Paul Greengrass on Ford and Lawrence Kasdan on Stevens (Meryl Streep does the narration). Even if you’re somewhat familiar with Allied wartime films, the details revealed are fascinating: how, for instance, Ford smuggled out his film in tobacco cans so that he could cut it the way he wanted instead of the army tampering with his vision, or how Wyler went deaf in one ear filming Thunderbolt.

Laurent Bouzereau directs the three 50-minute episodes in roughly chronological fashion, switching between the different film-makers’ stories. He does an efficient job, though it must be said that Five Came Back lacks the depth and ambition of recent extended documentaries. It’s a pity this material wasn’t developed beyond two-and-a-half-hours: we barely scratch the surface of what the Axis powers were doing in their propaganda. The only discussion of American propaganda through cartoons is Private Snafu; it would have been fascinating to learn more about the wealth of wartime—often racist—animation that came out of the US.

Watching Five Came Back, it’s difficult not to think of later films that carry their markings. In the second episode, it’s revealed that the lifelike combat scenes in The Battle Of San Pietro were faked by Huston. Was Clint Eastwood aware of this when he made Flags Of Our Fathers, a section of which is about the falsification of the Iwo Jima flag-raising photograph? Coppola mentions Huston’s ingenuity in getting his soldiers to look directly at the camera—something no “actor” would do; a little later, we’re shown a clip from Apocalypse Now, with Coppola playing a director and shouting, “Don’t look in the camera”. When Spielberg discusses a scene in Wyler’s Memphis Belle in which a pilot ejects out of a B-52, the image that jumps forth is that of Frank Powers trying to escape his plane in Bridge Of Spies.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk is in theatres this weekend, and it should be fascinating to see what this trickiest of modern directors does with the most straightforward of genres. Ever since All Quiet On The Western Front, ambitious directors of all stripes—from Terrence Malick to Kathryn Bigelow—have looked to shape, energize and subvert the combat narrative. Five Came Back takes us back to the beginning, when a small group of directors created the DNA of the modern combat film.

This piece appeared in Mint Lounge.

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