Tag Archives: William Wyler

On WWII Documentaries & Riley Rossmo

During WWII, a ton of major Hollywood directors were called into service in order to create films documenting the war effort. If you check out the filmographies of the major directors of the era you’ll see titles jump out like George Cukor‘s Resistance and Ohm’s Law (za?), Josef von Sternberg‘s The Town (nothing says Americana like von Sternberg), and famously John Ford‘s Sex Hygiene (an engrossing…and graphic educational film about the horrors of STDs).

My personal fave (although no director is credited) is The House I Live In, starring Frank Sinatra:

Frank Sinatra talking about “Nazi werewolves” is a recipe for success.

As you can see, the tone of these films is all over the place, some are instructional, some entertaining, some documentative, and some overtly propagandistic.

Anyway I’ve checked out 2 in the past couple days (well 3 including the first 2 episodes of Frank Capra‘s Why We Fight, but I wanna write about that one when I’ve seen it all):

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (William Wyler, 1944)

This documentary is one of the more highly regarded WWII documentaries produced, helped in large part by the fact that Wyler himself was flying the missions documented in the film. One gets a sense of the palpable danger Wyler and the men he’s documenting faced. We see the Memphis Belle fly on bombing missions of the German countryside and engage in dogfights with German planes. We see men injured and we see the damage done. The film closes with sobering and haunting narration thanking these men for the destruction they are unleashing upon Germany, destruction like this:

There’s something about association of destruction and heroism that I find troubling. I realize that essentially war lauds those who kill the most men, but usually that aspect is downplayed or ignored in favor of some aspect of bravery, courage, or selflessness. So the film closing with a note of gratitude regarding the astonishing destruction being inflicted upon Germany, stands out as a hell of a jolt.

Nazi Concentration Camps (George Stevens, 1945)

Much different in tone from Memphis Belle, this film is documentary footage of the concentration camps, filmed after the defeat of Germany. The intent of the film rather than to serve as propaganda, was to document as accurately as possible the atrocities of the camps, and in fact the film was shown at the Nuremberg Trials, offering damning evidence of Nazi war crimes.

As such the film isn’t constructed with any concern for cinematic or entertainment value (not that holocaust footage should be entertaining, but something like Alain ResnaisNight and Fog is obviously structured to enhance the audience experience and is replete with cinematic technique). It makes for an interesting film, though pretty boring…it sounds ghastly to say such a thing, but the footage simply exists as footage. It’s purpose is to serve as evidence and nothing more.

There’s a couple of interesting things I did notice though. The first few minutes of the film are spent reading the affidavits of several witnesses, including George Stevens and John Ford, who swear that the footage is authentic and has not been altered in anyway other than the editing of 80,000 feet of film into about 6,000. Now I’m not sure if this was a standard legal practice, or if it was done to reinforce to any doubters that yes, this did actually happen.

Secondly there are multiple instances in the footage, of German officers, soldiers, and civilians being forced to view the piles of dead bodies and the charred remains of those long since disposed of.

A good friend of mine, the wonderfully talented comic book artist, Riley Rossmo, author of everyone’s favorite Sasquatch detective comic, Proof, and Seven Sons, a marvelous adaptation of the famed Chinese folktale of 7 Chinese Brothers, espouses a belief in what he calls “the power of shame”. It’s a doctrine that dictates that sometimes the best form of instruction and correction is to shame people by showing them how there actions are affecting others. Essentially make the person feel so bad that they won’t do it again. This can be as simple as bending over really slowly and with great difficulty to pick up someone else’s garbage, essentially forcing the litterbug to confront the error of their ways.

I realize that “the power of shame” in the context of the holocaust is perhaps a little trivial, but essentially I believe that’s what is going on in this documentary. Forcing to people to face the results of their actions is the best way to ensure contrition, awareness, understanding, and remorse. To ignore or gloss over the truth, only breeds misinformation and lies, while ensuring that justice cannot be served.

On WWII, Hollywood & The Homefront

In my current list obsessed state, I’ve been working through the NFR list at a furious pace (I’m up to about 360 of the 500), which lead me to watch a couple of WWII documentaries filmed by Hollywood directors (William Wyler and George Stevens respectively) aimed at helping the war effort.

I’m very much intrigued by the relationship between Hollywood and WWII, as there was virtually universal support by Hollywood of the war effort, with various directors and actors enlisting (James Stewart, George Stevens, William Wyler among many others) and many actresses getting involved in humanitarian efforts (Myrna Loy), selling war bonds (Carole Lombard), or simply by being dutiful wives living in humble army accomodations (Gene Tierney). This in addition to the wealth of war pictures made during the period…all of which seemed to aimed at villifying the heinies and glamorizing the allies.

I’m struck by the contrast between that era and modern times…where U.S. involvement in war is marked by public dissent, political strife, and an almost universal opposition by those in the arts and in Hollywood. Furthermore the art created about war during these times is always critical, cynical, or satirical. No one makes good ol’ fashioned propaganda no more.

I’ve been wondering about what caused such a radical shift in ideology among the arts community…from united support to dissidence. Obviously the calamities of Vietnam and the radicalism of the 1960’s did a great deal to undermine the sense of patriotic fervor regarding the war. Interestingly in stark contrast to WWII, Hollywood generally avoided making pictures that dealt with the Vietnam war effort. John Wayne‘s ridiculously patriotic “The Green Beret” was one of the few films of the era to depict the American involvement in Vietnam, and was met with general disdain upon its release. The younger generation was not interesting in mythmaking about the war.

I think the dissolving of the studio system in the early 1950’s also did a great deal to shift Hollywood’s war ideology. With actors, directors, producers, and writers no longer bound to a singular studio, it became much more difficult to present a cohesive ideology in the movie industry. More daring films could be made, and the talent wasn’t obligated to toe the line for fear of reprisal.

I realize I’m overly sentimental and nostalgiac in writing what I’m about to write, and the fact that I didn’t live during WWII means I can only see it through rose-colored glasses, but a big part of me wishes we could go back to that time again. Reading various accounts of Hollywood folk from the era, I’m struck by the level of cohesion there was amongst the movie industry, the media, and even the general public. The sense was that the war was worth fighting, that licking those japs, or kicking those krauts…or even “sinking the japanazis(!)” was a goal that everyone could get behind. It was good vs. evil. I’m in awe of the idea of unity and teamwork and of a supportive homefront. I like the idea that it was honorable and right to serve your country dutifully, knowing full well the risks. Jimmy Stewart enlisted, ditto Ted Williams, and neither were given cushy promo gigs, they both fought admirably in real battles. They gave up highly paid, highly publicized jobs in order to serve. That strikes me as rather heroic.

I’m aware that the homefront wasn’t as unified as I imagine. I know that the U.S. didn’t enter the war for 2 years and that there was a huge support for maintain an isolationist policy…that American involvement in the war was purely out of self-interest. I know that anti-semitism was still going on in America, even as it was being fought against overseas. I know there were the Zoot Suit Riots, and segregation both at home and in the service. I know there was sexism and opposition to women in the workplace. I know that there were Japanese internment camps and anti-German sentiment. I get all that.

But I want to believe in the myth that people at one point worked together, that fighting for your country didn’t make you a murderer or a baby-killer, I want to believe in John Wayne and unity. I want to believe things were simpler once upon a time. I want to believe in America (I’m Canadian by the way).