Make-Believe War

THIS much you must say for Hollywood: it always runs true to form. Here we are in the most momentous war that man has ever known, — a war which is rocking civilization and altering the face of the world, — and our authors of fictitious movies are generally showing it on the screen, as they have shown all crises in history, as a background for make-believe. Remote in their plush-and-ehromium cloisters, they are still twisting grim events to suit the fanciful contours of a plot. Those of us who had hoped that the movies might suddenly grow up, in time of genuine trial, have been in for a cruel shock.

Picture makers have their own point of view and the satisfying conviction that they are doing a superior war job. The fact that millions of customers—more than ever before — are flocking every day to the movies is all the encouragement they need to continue their humdrum duplication of familiar hero-whooping films. In their simple estimation, eighty million people can’t be wrong — which is a comforting way of dismissing the nibbling thought that they themselves can.

This is not a blanket indictment. There have been a few — a precious few — Hollywood films which have given a fair conception of the sacrifice and misery in this war. Wake Island was a credible documentation, in fiction style, of heroic defense, and Air Force showed the courage and coöperation required of a Flying Fortress crew. The Moon Is Down made us realize the terrible tension inside Norway. But our studios have yet to make a war film to compare with Noel Coward’s InWhich We Serve— a picture which actually succeeds in conveying the selfless duty and devotion of a whole people at war.

It is almost, embarrassing to say so, but the heroes in most of our war films have been decidedly disagreeable characters. They have been the sort you wouldn’t have around the house — that is, at the beginning of the picture. They all get better as they go along. In the end, of course, they get medals and a smug, toplofty air. For it seems to be an axiom with script writers that there is no such thing as a plain American man: we are all either rebels or misfits — and egoists above all else.

Robert Taylor, for instance, in Stand By for Action— a fantastic film — was at the outset a super de luxe social snob, that most affected of movie patricians, a “typical" Harvard man. He was a two-striper naval reservist and an aide to the admiral. But he learned the stern code of duty from the lowborn commander of a destroyer with the Pacific Fleet and, after a series of spirited adventures, was able to manifest, that “Harvard teaches a man to stand on his own two feet and accept, responsibility for his own mistakes.”Of course, the camera was focused almost entirely on Mr. Taylor’s face. That was to keep folks from forgetting that it was he who was fighting the war.

In the picture called Crash Dive, Tyrone Power was a similar sort of chap — the scion of a traditional Navy family which had its seat in an old Southern manse in Massachusetts. His youth had been wild and romantic, and his grandmother (Dame May Whitty) proudly proclaimed that “it took all of our influence to keep him from being thrown out of the Academy his first year.” Yet Mr. Power became sufficiently stabilized to join a petty officer and a Negro cook from his submarine, at the big moment, and to knock over a complete, secret Nazi base. To be sure, Mr. Power did most of the knocking, But the red, white, and blue-blood spirit prevailed.

Another elaborate example of a Hollywood egoist in war films was the hero of a Marine Corps picture, To the Shores of Tripoli. Here the lad joined the outfit, simply to gratify the desire of his old dad, a Marine Corps veteran of the last war, but he was arrogant and rebellious from the start. It was only through the grace of a top sergeant, an old friend of the dad (Marines please note), that the boy was saved from court-martial. Indeed, he was actually on the way out when the big thing happened — Pearl Harbor! — whereupon the youngster really showed his stuff. He climbed out of civvies and into uniform right in the middle of the street as his regiment was marching off.

That is one sort, of war-film hero — the superior, rebellious type. There is another: the cool, contemptuous cynic. He is usually of a lower social class. In a little horror called Remember Pearl Harbor (which got, no closer to Pearl Harbor than the Philippines), the hero was a former Army deserter who had done a bit of spying for the Japs before he discovered his miscalculation and pitched in on the right and winning side.

Usually this type of hero stems from a gangster background. Hollywood has found the war a timely refuge for its waning toughs and thugs. In a film candidly titled Hitler, Dead or Alive, the highminded heroes were mobsters who tried in vain to “snatch” the Nazi boss. “Two Yanks in Trinidad " were gangsters doing the best they could in uniform.

Likewise the hero of the film China, — a current favorite named Alan Ladd, although not precisely a criminal, was a fellow of a very shady stripe. He was, in fact, a vicious opportunist whose principal business was selling oil to the Japs until the shining, unselfish example of Loretta Young penetrated his commercial mind. Miss Young, guarding a brood of little Chinese schoolgirls, plus the spectacle of a few Jap atrocities, altered his whole outlook. Coolly, he pilfered some dynamite and blew up a Jap division.

So much for the American heroes conceived by Hollywood. The warfare itself, as represented, has been equally spurious. Naturally, commando tactics exert a strong appeal on the makers of fictional films, so commando raids in the movies have become frequent and commonplace. Almost every war film is now climaxed by a stiff commando raid — especially since “ inside” pictures have become epidemic on the screen. “Inside” pictures are such fables as have to do with strong resistance in occupied lands, and obviously a commando raid is the handiest way of getting the patriots out.

One of the most desperate raids yet seen, from a Hollywood point of view, was that which rang down victory on Commandos Strike at Dawn. Not only did British raiders barge into a Norwegian fjord with bagpipes skirling and motors roaring, to get the jump on a Nazi air base, but they did so in broad daylight. The title anticipated their arrival by several hours.

In Edge of Darkness, another film which had to do with Norwegian resistance, the climax was a slaughter to behold. It was not the commandos this time; most of the fighting was done by the valiant, unflagging Norwegians, led by Errol Flynn. Armed with material dropped to them from the skies by the RAF, the patriots assaulted the Nazis in true raid-the-stockade style. The dead were piled up like cord wood after the shooting was done. Mr. Flynn, who was in the van, escaped without a scratch.

That is warfare according to Hollywood. The implausibililies stand out like “ V for Victory ” signs. Even in a picture as persuasive and inspiring, up to a point, as Air Force, the climax became hyperbolic. Jap warships were blown up like wooden tubs — which, in a manner of speaking, is precisely what they were. And Wake Island had its pyrotechnics before the bitter end. Somehow the Hollywood film folks seem to work in a few too many shots.

As reputable a producer as Walter Wanger, head of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, justifies wild exaggeration and improbabilities in war films on the ground that the guilty pictures carry at least a measure of sober warning. But this is something like saying that a food which is generally harmful for children is thoroughly justifiable because it contains a speck of vitamin A. There is no honest rationalization for the general run of Hollywood war pictures except that they seem to make money — a slim alibi in these times.

Films, in the last analysis, are no stronger than their weakest cliché. Unfortunately, most of our war films have been unable to bear the slightest strain.

  1. One of the more tenacious of New York’s movie-goers is concealed by tiie pseudonym, “THE LOOKER.”Countless “B" pictures have failed to stifle his hope that the next one, somehow, will be better.