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Archive for the ‘war’ Category

Movie Review: Homecoming (MGM, 1948)

In film, history, war on May 24, 2009 at 3:20 am

It is long past time that some neglected classic films were revisited and rehabilitated to their proper place — including this one. Having previously been put off by existing reviews of this old ‘women’s picture’ by high-priced professional columnists who go with the flow, late last night I was pinned to the armchair for the duration by Feline, Lucy and Tiger in a phalanx and so watched it right through for the first time on the Turner Sky channel. Imagine my happy surprise as an unpleasant duty as a reviewer slowly turned into a riveting experience. I found it, against all expectations, to be a very moving film — far from the manipulative tearjerkers tugging every heart-string with multi-G force that were put out in the studio era.

From the preeminent studio of the day, MGM, it was a rare exception at the glossy factory where as a rule output was geared to appeal to all-American sensibilities: in its genuine, low-key treatment of serious subjects, namely life priorities, wartime relationships and wartime separation. The director, Mervyn LeRoy, had been one of the Warner Bros hard-hitting armory of moviemakers plucking their stories from current headlines, often about gangsters and sometimes urging societal reform. Among his were classics Little Caesar (1930) and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932). At the end of the Thirties he was lured by a huge pay hike and producer status to make the move and there followed a series of unabashed but effective wartime weepies including Blossoms in the Dust, Random Harvest and Madame Curie (1941-43) starring stiff-upper-lip Brit stars Greer Garson and Ronald Colman or upper-crust trans-Atlantic patrician Walter Pidgeon. This pool of talent was able to create a whole generation of trembling-lower-lip working moms in America and continue through the war with easily palatable sentiment served thick on a silver platter: not much was seen of real war or real people.

Which makes it all the more satisfying that this director turned around to make something genuine about war. Maybe most surprising of all was the fact that what made the movie was the performances of the four principals, Clark Gable, Lana Turner, Anne Baxter and John Hodiak, especially those of the two superstars heading the cast — who from their own time until now have been treated by movie reviewers and historians of all shades as lightweight “star” performers relying on their own personalities to purvey a strong screen presence rather than any acting ability they might (or might not) have.

clarkgablehomecomingIn 1948 Gable was 47 and still the slim, trim figure and was as full of testosterone as ever. (In his fifties he would age rapidly, like the other male screen icons born within a year either side of 1900, Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney — all roughing it without the aid of botox and casual cosmetic surgery undertaken today.) From what I have seen of Gable, and that includes more than thirty films stretching thirty years from 1931, this is one of his absolutely top-flight acting jobs, probably better than in Gone With the Wind, The Misfits or his Oscar-winning performance in It Happened One Night.

Yet this film is condemned by Leonard Maltin (Is this guy someone’s nephew?) as “dreary drama” and “one of Gable’s lesser efforts”. Is that because he doesn’t do as much huffing and puffing as Schwarzenegger or Stallone, or as much stony grimacing as Harrison Ford, or sweat and twitch like Anthony Hopkins or James Woods?

Portraying a social-climbing surgeon who enters the war indifferent to the strife of the wider world but is transformed into a genuinely compassionate well-rounded person, every nuance of human expression plays subtly across Gable’s face; but not so subtly as to deliver an anonymous non-performance lacking any human impact at all, as do most of today’s “stars”. His timing is natural and flawless — a true phenomenon and at least the equal to that of the screen’s finest comedians. See the extended bathing scene, where as a dignified middle-aged professional proud of his position in society, he is bashful even out of eyesight of earthy nurse Lana Turner’s nudity. Most satisfying of all, there was none of that sly-winking on-screen ‘fun’ where you can see Hollywood’s in-group stars smirking at how cute they are: Tracy and Hepburn in Adam’s Rib (1949), Crosby and Hope in the early Forties’ Road series, the Rat Pack in Ocean’s Eleven (1961) and numerous others. The modern Ocean’s 11, 12, 13… are made, I think, so fans can see George Clooney’s, Brad Pitt’s and Matt Damon’s sparkling smiles, and Julia Roberts’ sultry sulk. All on screen in Homecoming are dedicated to contributing — making a good picture even better in whatever way they can.

lanaturnerPossibly the biggest surprise to me was the pitch-perfect acting of Lana Turner, at the pinnacle of her popularity here but trivialized by commentators as “The Sweater Girl” since her first movie 11 years before, for her jiggling scene walking down the street and observed by a predator in They Won’t Forget (WB, 1937). In an age supposedly limited by its “personality” performers, it strikes me that there is a greater range of realistic characterization shown by Lana between this role and her seductress in The Postman Always Rings Twice (MGM, 1946), than say, Meryl Streep in any two of her roles, which depend mainly on a switch of accent and arching of eyebrows. Lana was just 27 here but within ten years was playing middle-aged momish glamor in Peyton Place (1957) and other glossy soap operas.

The first time I realised that Anne Baxter was capable of more than variations of Moses’ overheated temptress in The Ten Commandments (1956) was with her natural, totally convincing playing in the western Yellow Sky (1949) and Hitchcock’s I Confess (1952). In this women’s picture she is a callow but single-minded society wife transformed by war separation into someone capable of enduring patience and understanding. John Hodiak too shows a wide departure from his more frequent hard-bitten roles in the likes of Lifeboat (1944) and Battleground (1949) as an earnest grassroots doctor working in the slums, initially infuriated by his friend Gable’s complacency.

Given the fact that this was a “women’s picture”, pivoting on wife Anne Baxter’s needy devotion and Lana Turner’s knowing desire despite the doctor’s faults, the film has been put down simply for that — Gable supposedly coming off second best or wasted. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether under LeRoy’s direction or not, Gable’s powerful manhood is intact throughout and his change into a guy who’s had the stuffing knocked out of him by war and love lost is portrayed brilliantly.

See also my forthcoming article ‘WHAT IS ACTING?’

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POLITICAL REVIEW: Keeping Score in the War

In morality, politics, television, war on March 12, 2008 at 8:17 pm

Here in New Zealand the local Auckland television channel, Triangle, carries the PBS tv nightly news from Washington DC, with Jim Lehrer, Judy Woodruff and a number of other expert, veteran journalists.

A 'famous' shot of the Iraq War, but hardly ever seen

A 'famous' shot of the Iraq War, but hardly ever seen

Aside from the usual topics internal to the US, they conscientiously cover the US-Iraq war. A very nice, personal touch, obviously aimed at humanizing what can become just a numbers game, is in collecting the names, ages, ranks and hometowns, with a photo, of all American dead and broadcasting them in lists of about ten at the end of a program after next of kin have been informed.

It’s obviously more than patriotism can stand — giving aid and comfort to the enemy? — to tell the whole truth, say, with a few representative photos of the non-American casualties. They do give the running total whenever a new survey gives a new figure, or rather, range of figures. There are so many foreign dead this is just a number, a very high number — so impersonally presented it is impossible to comprehend the tragedy of a country destroyed.

The trap that PBS has fallen into concerning American losses is to play the politicians’ games by comparing monthly totals like some stock market forecast, so that it appears to be a good thing that ‘only’ 29 servicemen have been killed in February 2008 compared to the 105 in February 2007.

Homeless and 'displaced' refugees: more uncounted statistics

Homeless and 'displaced' refugees: more uncounted statistics

For most other countries, zero servicemen needlessly killed is the only acceptable number. But, sure enough, surveys of the American public seem to show that an increasing number of people are coming round to the conclusion that, say, 25 to 50 a month might be a happy compromise. That must explain why even Democrat representatives overlook the fact that people continued to be killed in a war that was started over nothing and drags on with no stated aim in sight.

Whatever happened to “No foreign wars!”

In history, ideology, morality, politics, television, war on December 27, 2007 at 10:06 am

Living outside America, as I have since age five — that is, my entire informed life — I have been disadvantaged in one sense in looking at the ‘Homeland’ (a term a little too reminiscent of ‘Fatherland’). That is, not being able to see it intimately, from the inside. I was acculturated as an American but since about sixteen, when I first thought of looking at things with an independent mind, I haven’t experienced the unadulterated pride and satisfaction Americans have in simply being American. (I almost said self-satisfaction but I think that applies more to the British; I’m convinced Americans are, for the most part, unassuming and appreciate things that come their way as gifts rather than rights they deserve.) I’m sure it’s made up of appreciating the many little things. But in a larger sense also, the state of simply living in ‘The Land of the Free’ — or what used to pass for it.

But on the other hand, though seeing America second hand, I don’t run the risk of self-serving delusion. And, standing back from something as big and complex as America — the place and the concept — you can, I think, more often see ‘the big picture’, and little things you often can’t see for standing right on top of them.

Now, I have rich childhood memories of America (1955-60) and am the first to admire American popular culture: the little cowboy outfit I wore riding on my trike; the junior grid iron one I had in USC colors — yellow and blue; the derringer in a belt buckle that would pop out with belly pressure; the rifle with a built-in ricochet; the crystal set in the shape of a rocket ship I used to listen to hit parades from 1958 on. For the past few days over Xmas I have been enjoying back-to-back screenings of B-movies from the Thirties and Forties on DVD. And if old B-movies are still worth watching, how much better was the ‘A product’ with slightly bigger budgets? — before 1975 and the mega-budgets spent on ‘perfecting’ very routine ‘special’ effects through the Spielberg-Lucas-Cameron-Jackson era. But the foreign policy of the United States is another thing entirely, something to be anything but admired, as many Americans have come to feel over recent years.

Though this fatal disconnect between a huge proportion of the population and its ruling elite has only come about recently, it has been in the brewing for decades. The big difference is that now the level of discontent has reached its critical mass. Something big is about to happen — must happen — for the unbearable political stress to be released. Over perhaps the past fifty years, since about the time of the Korean War and the inexorable build-up of what Eisenhower warned against as the self-sustaining power of the military-industrial complex of the United States, foreigners have tried to stretch their minds around how this need for vast military power equates to the generous, unassuming Americans they have met and got to know as individuals.

It is easy to see how the thinking of politicians is corrupted by power — it happens in every country in the world — but how do peace-loving small-town people across America, with their Saturday morning bake-sales, scouts activities, camping vacations and Mom-and-Pop businesses buy into this thinking?

Everyone knows that from the Founding Fathers on, Americans avoided foreign wars on principle, almost at all costs — allowing for the cruel Civil War and occasional imperialistic forays into Asia, the Pacific, the Caribbean. Before his nation finally joined in World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt had to plead with his countrymen not to ignore for too long the fact of the war and that one day they would have to relate up close and nasty with those aggressor countries who had made war on the rest of the world. Then as soon as the war was won there was a popular cry from Americans to “Bring the Boys Home!”

But now the United States is the aggressor and the populist cry is “Let’s support our boys over there!”, as if soldiers should be directing the foreign policy of the United States; and the president should be conducting international relations as a commander-in-chief — he who must be obeyed to the ends of the earth, no matter how bogus the premise for war, no matter how wanton the war or destructive to his own people. Every president from Washington to Eisenhower must be rolling in their graves at the thought of the incumbent. On the other hand one of the popular, ‘liberal’ and seemingly rational Republican presidential candidates, Senator John McCain, is all for “supporting our troops” no matter how many of the troops disagree with him or resent being put in the crossfire for no good reason — repeatedly, as terms of duty are extended and then multiplied, indefinitely. Yet McCain must represent something akin to a mainstream in this warped thinking. He has been welcomed onto tv’s ‘The Daily Show’ and backslapped by hard-hitting satirist John Stewart — at least, hard-hitting when he has something easy to ridicule.

One tiny fraction of the (foreign) price of war: an Iraqi mother clings to her dead child

One tiny fraction of the (foreign) price of war: an Iraqi mother clings to her dead child

Unless Americans come out wholesale to vigorously protest (it might be illegal to incite actual rebellion) they can kiss what is left of their democracy goodbye. But the task looks immense. Already the Republican and Democratic presidential candidates with the largest followings shaping up for the next election in November 2008 have publicly refused to rein themselves in by renouncing the powers the current president has grabbed for himself — happy with the fact that his freefall towards full-blown fascism has set the precedent.

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