war film

Even the Emasculated Version Beats the Hays Code

I gripe about the Hays Code a lot here on Classically Educated, and with good reason. The Code was the dumbest thing ever. While I understand that the movie industry adopted it in order to avoid government censorship from a prudish, adolescent nation, the sheer cowardice involved is staggering. I think a lot of the US tendency to act like children even today (the current “social discourse” with its childlike black-and-white extremes is clearly a fight between groups of coddled adolescents who grew old but never grew up. Cancel culture is another excellent example of people who never outgrew their teen immaturity and need for extreme definitions and inability to see grays or comprehend context) probably stems at least partly from this act of cowardice from the media.

But sometimes, a film comes along that, even though it had to appease BOTH the code and the Army, is still suitable for adults. Such a film is From Here to Eternity.

It’s wonderful to see a film from the 1950s has so much adultery in it without moralizing whether it’s good or bad and with at least one of the adulturers going scot-free at the end of it; even if he didn’t manage to keep the girl, it’s nice that nothing bad happened to Burt Lancaster’s character. I was sure he’d get killed by the raid on Pearl Harbor.

Briefly, the story follows the careers of two soldiers–one a man who refused to bend to the pressure of his superiors and one who bedded his CO’s wife, and both are portrayed sympathetically (which, especially in the second case was specifically against the Code).

Of course, the novel didn’t make it to the screen even remotely unscathed. One of the bad guys had to be punished, references to homosexuality were suppressed and a prostitute was changed to a “hostess”. But the lack of judgment passed against what in the 1950s would have been immorality bordering on the criminal (and actually prosecuted if you went far enough) was more than enough to set this film apart. It thumbs its nose at the censors.

Numerous Oscar nominations followed, a sign that someone other than me thinks the Code was stupid. More importantly, though, the Code was cracking… and From Here to Eternity was one of the first hairline chinks in the armor. The sixties, and their utter demolition of the childish morality of the fifties were, after all, just around the corner.

Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer whose literary fiction quite clearly has no regard for the Hays Code, artificial moralities or any other consideration except how realistic characters would react in specific situations. His literary collection Love and Death, a series of linked short stories that tell a single long tale about multiple characters unaware of how they’re interacting, can be purchased at Amazon.

Forbidden Games – A Poignant War Classic

If you’re trying to make a film about World War II, you need to be a truly gutsy director to cast two children in the leading roles.  But that’s exactly what René Clement did in 1952’s Jeux interdits (Forbidden Games).

Forbidden Games - Jeux Interdits

By showing the war through the eyes of simple country folks who are more concerned with one-upping their neighbors than with the geopolitics of the conflict around them, and also through the innocence of childhood, this film manages to create more emotional impact than any number of soldiers being killed on camera and calling out for their mothers.

In fact, after the opening sequence, there is one death in the film… and that one is caused by a horse kicking a man who dies later.

The magic comes from two sources: the somewhat bizarre plot on one hand and the acting of Brigitte Fossey on the other.  Her performance as the little girl is mesmerizing, hypnotizing and memorable.  It’s peaceful, paused and innocent, while surrounded by poverty, death and, ultimately, betrayal.  This is one that I think will stick with me for a while.

The nice thing about young actors in old films is that many of them are still with us.  Apart from Fossey, there’s another surviving member of this films cast still around, Laurence Badie, who played the daughter of the simple country folk who picked up the little girl after her parents were killed by the Germans.

The one sour note was the very first scene which is completely different in tone from the rest of the film.  Of course the film showing German planes was documentary stock, so inferior in quality, but what really jarred was that a refugee column got attacked by Stukas, then bombed by heavy bombers before getting strafed by Focke Wulfs in the course of five minutes.  While this might have happened at some point in the war, it certainly wasn’t standard operating procedure.  Yes, I know: it’s symbolic of the brutality experienced by civilians… but come on.

Funny note on this one is that the child actor who played the male role alongside Fossey is one of the men who was later involved in the famous Priory of Sion hoax, which eventually inspired The Da Vinci Code.

If you watch this one, you will not forget it.  The director’s deft touch increases the impact.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer whose work spans the genres. If you are fascinated with war, the psychology behind it and the effects on those involved, you will likely enjoy his novel Incursion… in which a suicide mission suddenly gets even more complicated.  You can check it out here.

Trying to Take Stock

There are many films about World War II.  Most of them are action flicks.  Some are anti-war.  Others deal with the horrors of war in general.  Some are Italian, and therefore morally ambiguous and political.  And only Quentin Tarantino knows what he was trying to do with his.

Best Years of Our Lives Movie Poster

But there is one film that stands head and shoulders above the rest when it comes to understanding the effect of the war on the lives of the men and women in the United States who survived it.  That movie is The Best Years of Our Lives, the 1946 ensemble masterpiece that became the highest-grossing film since Gone With the Wind.  And since anything to do with the old South is seriously out of favor nowadays, the war film should come even further into its own as the days go by.

The title, of course, refers to the fact that, despite its horrors, war gave the protagonists–three men recently demobilized who return to their hometown–a shared experience that all of them recognize as participation in the most important event that they will ever be a part of.  They return to a society that doesn’t understand what they’ve been through, and is often cruel and indifferent to their needs.  The question “was this terrifying experience the best thing that will ever happen to me?” casts its shadow over the entire movie.

It’s never answered, because all three of the men eventually find a path that, with luck might bring them something better.  But at the same time, the paths they find might also lead them to a life of grey mediocrity, a condition that they’re ideally suited to identify because of what they’ve lived through.

Interestingly, despite some of the themes, it doesn’t show much anti-war sentiment.  The war happened.  It was important and necessary.  And now they’re dealing with what comes next.  Simple, no need to overthink it.

That’s probably why it works so well today.  In our world, a film like this would have been an exercise in political reflection, guilt and recrimination.  Back then, when the US had an actually significant event to reflect upon, it was a measured, even-handed view.  It’s interesting to see that people back then (yes, even in Hollywood!) acted like adults while seventy years later, everyone is a whining, idealistic adolescent.  Sad, too.  But mainly interesting.

Harold Russell still

The standout for me was the character of Homer Parrish, a former Navy sailor and amputee played by Harold Russell.  Our politically incorrect viewing party immediately dubbed him “Sailor Hook”, but the truth is that he steals the show; his Oscar win for best supporting actor was well-deserved: apart from being an amputee, the guy could act. so we tried to find a little more about him.

There’s an army film about rehabilitating veterans in which he stars, entitled Diary of a Sergeant.  It’s available in its entirety on Youtube.  Inspiring and sobering in equal measures, kind of like the film about the Battle of San Pietro, also produced by the military and which was so significant that we spoke about it twice: here and here.

This film makes the reviewer’s job pretty simple: if you haven’t seen it, watch it.  If you haven’t seen it in a while, watch it again.  There’s something here for everyone except, maybe, for those people who need constant, non-stop action.  There’s a reason this one is considered one of the best of the best.