Monday, March 09, 2015

Pulp Nonfiction and The Big Red One

This article was originally published in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission

Released in 1980, The Big Red One tells the story of a squad leader and four privates fighting in every World War II campaign involving the U.S. 1st Infantry Division, whose nickname gives the film its title. These men are not the squad’s only members; they’re just the ones who survive. The rest are simply replacements, who look upon the veteran privates—“the Four Horsemen,” they’re called—with awe: How on earth do these men repeatedly escape death? For their part, the Horsemen regard replacements as “dead men who temporarily had the use of their arms and legs.” Replacements come and go so fast the Horsemen learn to keep them at a distance. A joke that runs through the film is that even after months of training alongside fellow soldiers none of the quartet has bothered to learn their names.
Lee Marvin plays the squad leader, known simply as The Sergeant. He is a veteran of World War I, grizzled, taciturn, and utterly realistic. The Horsemen are played by Mark Hamill—yes, that Mark Hamill—Bobby Di Cicco, Kelly Ward, and Robert Carradine. In this ensemble effort Carradine’s character, Zab, ranks first among equals and has the most developed role—unsurprising, since Zab, who provides a voiceover narration, stands in for Samuel Fuller, the man who lovingly wrote and directed The Big Red One.
Sam Fuller (1912-1997) himself fought in The Big Red One. A precocious writer, he was covering crime for the New York Evening Graphic in his teens and as a young man scripted B movies. He said he joined the Army because “I had a helluva opportunity to cover the biggest crime story of the century, and nothing was going to stop me from being an eyewitness.” Superiors tried twice to make him an official army reporter, but he insisted on serving in the infantry. Like alter ego Zab, Fuller published a mystery novel at the height of the fighting, sold the film rights to Hollywood, and spent a thousand dollars of the proceeds on a party for his squad days before the Battle of the Bulge. Like Zab, Fuller chomped cigars and did everything possible to make himself seem larger than life. And like Zab, he got through the war in one piece.
Fuller went on to become a Hollywood director whose 23 films have a deserved reputation for combining gritty realism and vivid characters with unabashed melodrama. During his life Fuller won little critical acclaim, but he influenced directors who became masters, including Martin Scorsese (Taxi Driver, GoodFellas) and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction, Inglourious Basterds).
Fuller spent years trying to get The Big Red One financed. When he did, the studio, horrified by his film’s 4-1/2 hour length, demanded edits that reduced the running time to 113 minutes. Fuller initially claimed to be glad the movie had been produced at all, but subsequently expressed regret that the public had not seen the movie he had imagined. His friend and admirer, film critic Richard Schickel, felt the same. After Fuller’s death Schickel supervised a “reconstruction” of The Big Red One, incorporating 50 minutes of footage the studio had cut. Upon the expanded version’s release in 2004, Pulitzer-prize winning critic Roger Ebert promptly placed it on his list of Great Movies.
The Big Red One isn’t merely based on Fuller’s wartime experiences. It pretty much recounts them—something that becomes obvious if you read his memoir, A Third Face, published posthumously in 2002. Even the least likely episodes turn out to dramatize events that really occurred: the private in Sicily who has a testicle blown off and is told that that’s why the good Lord gave him two, the raid on a Belgian insane asylum, the underage civilian sniper who when captured isn’t shot but spanked, the liberation of a concentration camp. Zab’s narration is pure Fuller, as when the Horseman explains an explosive device used to clear concertina wire on Omaha Beach. “The Bangalore torpedo was 50 feet long and packed with 85 pounds of TNT and you assembled it along the way, by hand,” Zab says. “I’d love to meet the asshole who invented it.”
Almost none of the film’s incidents build upon one another, but instead stand as deliberately unrelated vignettes. Fuller maintained that that is the combat soldier’s life: a string of vivid episodes, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. Thus he could place a firefight in a Roman amphitheater without invoking gladiators, as many another filmmaker might. In a heavy-handed scene, a battle is under way in an insane asylum when an inmate grabs a submachine gun. “I am one of you!” the madman shouts as he indiscriminately sprays bullets. “I am sane! I am sane!” This would be the clumsiest kind of symbolism—except that Fuller was recreating a wartime incident he witnessed and in his memoir even supplies the patient’s name.
At the conclusion, Zab conveys the picture’s moral: “Surviving is the only glory in war.”  This makes The Big Red One sound like an anti-war film. It isn’t. Fuller plainly regarded World War II as a great adventure, and his mindset seeps into The Big Red One, lending the film a seductive appeal. The focus on Zab and his comrades tempts the viewer to identify with the Four Horsemen, to imagine participating in the adventure and coming away unscathed. It’s easy to forget that in combat, a soldier’s fate is likelier to be that of a replacement.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Great Civil War Historian Freak Out

I'll introduce this post by re-printing one I published earlier this month in Civil Warriors, entitled, Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out? - Part 1:

Recently two “think pieces,” coincidentally dealing with pretty much the same topic, appeared in the major professional journals concerned with the American Civil War:

Gary W. Gallagher and Kathryn Shively Meier, “Coming to Terms With Civil War Military History,” Journal of the Civil War Era (Volume 4, Issue 4):487-508.


Earl J. Hess, “Where Do We Stand?:  A Critical Assessment of Civil War Studies in the Sesquicentennial Era,” Civil War History (Volume 60, Number 4, December 2014):371-403.

Both articles depict, to varying degrees, the increasing marginalization of traditional military history (strategy, operations, tactics, etc.) within academe.  Actually, I would place the word “seemingly” immediately before the word “increasing.” But I’ll explain that in a future post.  For now, I’d just like to call attention to the response to these two pieces by Historista, the nom de blog of Megan Kate Nelson, author of Ruin Nation:  Destruction and the American Civil War (2012), which, according to the description on the back of the soft cover edition, is “the first book to bring together environmental and cultural histories to consider the evocative power of ruination [that is to say, the destruction of cities, houses, forests and soldiers’ bodies] as an imagined state, an act of destruction, and a process of change.”  Which is to say, one of the books forming part of the phenomenon that is causing Civil War military historians to freak out.

Her post, entitled “Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out,” appeared on her blog on December 10, 2014.  I self-identify as a military historian, and I’m freaking out so badly that I assigned Ruin Nation as a supplemental text in an undergraduate readings course I taught last summer and as a required book in my upcoming graduate readings course (it starts next week).

For now, I simply refer you to the post, with comment to come on the articles that prompted it:

Megan begins:
Let’s imagine that you wake up one morning after many years of writing and speaking and teaching in your academic specialty. You have tenure, you have written a lot of books and articles and book reviews, and colleagues across the profession (and sometimes, complete strangers) know who you are. But you wake up one morning convinced that it has all been for nothing. Nobody cares anymore about your research topic or your methodologies or your arguments. You wake up and think, “Oh my god! My field is dying." 
So what do you do?

Find out by reading Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out

It turns out that Megan isn't the only writer in the blogosphere to comment on these two articles, and I'm not the only one to comment on her post.

Over the holiday break, the staff of Civil War History compiled a list of online blogs and articles that relate (both directly and more indirectly) to the think piece by Earl Hess. The staff has shared the list on the CWH Facebook page  "in hopes that it continues to inspire a thoughtful and productive dialogue."  With that hope in mind, here's the list as they have it thus far (leaving aside the link to my own post, reprinted above):

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory, What Do We Need to Know About Traditional Military History? (December 7, 2014)

Megan Kate Nelson, Historista, Civil War Military Historians Are Freaking Out (December 10, 2014)

Claire Potter, Tenured Radical, And the Dead (Fields of History) Shall Rise Up (December 11, 2014)

Kevin Levin, Civil War Memory, In Defense of Hess, Gallagher and Meier (December 11, 2014)

Kathleen Logothetis Thompson, Civil Discourse Blog, "Coming to Terms With Civil War Military History":  A Response (January 5, 2015)

Kevin Gannon, The Tattooed Professor,  Taking a Walk on the Civil War’s "Dark Side" (January 6, 2015)

(NB.  Actually, it's no longer accurate to refer to the "blogosphere," at least not as a self-contained entity, because when links to posts are shared on Facebook or Twitter (as they frequently are), most of the ensuing dialog takes place on those sites, especially FB.  The update on the Civil War History Journal Facebook page is itself a case in point.  The resulting dynamic is worth a post in its own right--something I'll have to place on my long list of things to blog about.  In the interim, it's time to write part 2 of  my own response.)

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy

Cross-posted from the Society for Military History blog

The Society for Military History has just released a white paper entitled “The Role of Military History in the Contemporary Academy.”  In it, notes the SMH web site:
 co-authors Tami Davis Biddle of the U.S. Army War College and Robert M. Citino of the University of North Texas provide a compelling chronicle of military history’s revitalization over the past four decades and assess its current place in American higher education. In addition to the sub-field’s maturation in academic terms, its enduring popularity with the public and college students makes it an ideal lure for history departments concerned about course enrollments and the recruitment of majors and minors. Knowledge of the uses, abuses, and costs of war should also constitute a part of the education of future leaders in the world’s mightiest military power.
The SMH intends this white paper to generate a dialogue with history professors, college and university administrators, journalists, politicians, and citizens regarding the key role the study of military history can play in deepening our understanding of the world we inhabit and producing an informed citizenry.
The white paper is available here. (It can be read online or downloaded in PDF format.)

Monday, January 05, 2015

Come and See's Unblinking Eye

This article was originally published in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission

In his classic 1959 book, The Warriors: Reflections on Men and Battle, philosopher and World War II veteran J. Glenn Gray observed that war is visually fascinating. Renowned director Franรงois Truffaut expanded on this thought, arguing that it was impossible to make an effective anti-war movie because war by its nature is exciting, especially to the eye. Come and See, a 1985 film directed by Elem Klimov in the Soviet Union, defies Truffaut’s dictum.
 The film’s title comes from the Book of Revelation: “. . . And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth.”

Klimov asks, in effect, that we come and see an apocalyptic vision play out in a backwater of Nazi-occupied Belorussia, now Belarus, where forests, fields, and hamlets constitute a hell as vivid as the one Dante Alighieri portrayed in his Inferno. He succeeds, paradoxically, because he assumes no moral position but rather observes, with eyes wide open, his characters and the nightmare world in which he has placed them.
As the film begins an old man is calling to figures out of frame revealed to be two boys of 14 or so. The youths are digging in loose soil to retrieve weapons; they mean to sign up with a partisan band. The old man tries to discourage them, but the boys ignore him, and a few days later enlist.
From this point the film  follows Florya (Aleksei Kravchenko), who has joined the resistance to take action but instead is mostly acted upon. As the partisans depart on a mission, a man with tattered footwear appropriates Florya’s boots. The fighters order the boy to remain in camp, together with Glafira (Olga Moronova), a girl not much older than he. The two spend much of the film together, as companions rather than friends. They leave camp to wander a largely empty landscape, trying to avoid dangers both elusive and omnipresent. Florya suggests they go to the hovel where his mother and siblings live. No one is there, but a warm meal is in the oven. Flies are buzzing. The boy and girl begin to eat, nearly oblivious to the insects..
Florya decides his family has gone into hiding, and races from the hut, followed by  Glafira follow.  Glancing over her shoulder,  she sees the source of the flies: piled against the dwelling are dozens of naked corpses, surely including Florya’s family. Glafira keeps this information to herself as they wade through a waist-deep bog to the island where the boy imagines his family to be. Finally, drenched in mud and reeking water, the girl cannot contain herself. 

“No, they aren’t here! she screams.  “They’re dead!”  A furious Florya briefly tries to strangle her.  Then one of the resistance fighters appears; he takes the youngsters to a spot where refugees and partisans stand intermingled.  In the midst of them, lying on his back, is the man who at the film’s outset told Florya and his friend to stop digging. Third degree burns cover the old man’s body; he is dying. The Nazi patrol that slaughtered the civilians set him on fire as a lark.“Florya,” he says, “didn’t I warn you?  Didn’t I tell you not to dig?” In that moment Florya finally accepts the deaths of his mother and siblings.

The horror of that moment is oddly intensified by the obvious indifference of the partisans, one of whom has placed a skull atop a scarecrow-like torso and laughingly applies clay to it, sculpting a facsimile of Hitler’s head.
Indifference is, indeed, central to Come and See.  Klimov wanted to produce a film with devastating impact, and he succeeded; Come and See is widely admired as a masterpiece.  But the method by which he achieves this impact is a studied indifference. The camera impassively regards characters and situations. The editing never calls attention to agony, atrocity, or terror. The soundtrack, understated and monotonously ominous, conveys neither empathy nor antipathy.
A viewer may see good and evil, but every element in the film conspires to deny that good and evil exist. There is a  harrowing sequence in which Germans—who with one minor exception do not appear until 90 minutes into the two-and-a-half hour film—round up Florya and the population of a village and crowd them into a barn.  An SS officer says that those without children can leave through a window, but the children must stay.  No one accepts the cruel offer except Florya, although moments later a young mother attempts to leave with her toddler.   The soldiers toss the toddler back through a window, drag the woman off by her hair, and set the structure  on fire.. As the villagers begin to scream, the soldiers applaud. For a full 10 minutes the camera holds on the barn and the sheets of flame consuming it, cutting away only to show one group of soldiers carrying off the terrified young mother to be raped, while another forces Florya to his knees and places a pistol against his temple—not to kill him, but to use him as a prop for a jovial group snapshot.
In its closing moments the film does at last adopt a moral position.  The camera shows justice meted out.  The sound track, hitherto so muted, swells in tragedy.  The partisans seem somehow noble rather than wretched.  And Florya, so ineffectual through much of the film, suddenly performs an act of stunning power—yet one that occurs only symbolically.  There is no redemption from what we have seen.  
“The spirit gone, man is garbage,” wrote Joseph Heller in Catch-22.  In war, Come and See declares,  the living are garbage, too.  

Friday, January 02, 2015

Wounded Warrior

Diary of a Sergeant (1945)  22 minutes, 14 seconds. Produced by the Army Pictorial Service, US Army Signal Corps

This is the training film in which director William Wyler discovered Harold Russell, whom Wyler would cast as Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives..  A number of amputees are in the film.  Russell’s the first amputee to appear, with his double amputation prominently displayed.  He is the ostensible narrator of the film, although someone else actually provides the narration. Early in the film it’s disclosed that his character lost his hands on June 6, 1944--but in a training accident, not on the beaches of Normandy.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Best Years' Welcome Home

This article originally appeared in World War II magazine.  Reprinted with permission

The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) opens with the fortuitous meeting of three veterans returning to Boone City, their home town. They are making the journey in the nose of a B-17 bomber.  The oldest, Sergeant First Class Al Stephenson (Fredric March) had been a well-to-do bank loan officer and family man.  Next is Captain Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), an Army Air Corps navigator who had been a mere soda jerk before enlisting.  The youngest is Petty Officer Second Class Homer Parrish, a star high school quarterback who had lost both hands when the aircraft carrier on which he served had sunk.  (The actor who played Homer, Harold Russell, was an actual double amputee discovered by director William Wyler in an Army training film.  Russell had lost both hands in a training accident.)
Homer wears a pair of hook-like prosthetics, but impresses Al and Fred by his lack of self-pity. He had served in the repair shop below decks, Homer explains, and although he was in plenty of battles, he literally never saw combat.  “When we were sunk,” he says, “all I know is there was a lot of fire and explosions.  I was ordered topside and overboard, and I was burned. When I came to I was on a cruiser, and my hands were off. After that I had it easy.”
 “Easy?” says Al incredulously.
“That’s what I said,” Homer replies.  “They took care of me fine. They trained me to use these things. I can dial telephones, I can drive a car. I can even put nickels in a jukebox. I’m all right. But...” His voice suddenly trails off.
 “But what, sailor?”
 “Well,” Homer says; “Well, you see, I’ve got a girl.”
 “She knows what happened to you?”
 “Sure. They all know.  But they don’t know what these things look like.”
 It is the first inkling of the struggle Homer endures throughout the rest of the film.  He fears he will be pitied.  He fears his girlfriend, Wilma, will find his condition too much to bear. When the taxi that carries the three men to their respective homes arrives in front of Homer’s house, Al and Fred witness his homecoming.  Wilma embraces him, but Homer’s arms remain stiffly at his side.
The cab pulls away. Fred comments, “You gotta hand it to the navy. They sure
trained that kid how to use those hooks.”
 “They couldn’t train him to put his arms around his girl, to stroke her hair,” Al quietly observes.
 As the film unfolds, Fred and Al face their own homecoming challenges.  Fred discovers that his military experience counts for nothing in the civilian world; he returns to the menial job he had before the war.  Al, having learned in combat to judge men on the basis of character, not collateral, has trouble adjusting to his former life as a banker.  He drinks too much and feels awkward with his family. But those challenges pale in comparison to Homer’s.  When the three men rendezvous at a bar owned by Homer’s uncle, Homer betrays frustration. “They keep staring at these hooks,” he says of his family, “or else they keep staring away from ‘em. Why don’t they understand that all I want is to be treated like everybody else?”
Unable to bear the pity, Homer retreats from his family and from Wilma.  Finally, late in the film, Fred persuades him that he has a good thing in Wilma and should not let her go.  Homer agrees.  He then finds Wilma, takes her up to his bedroom, and shows her what it would be like to spend the rest of her life with him.
Quietly, matter of factly, Homer demonstrates that he can remove the harness that holds his prosthetics in place.  He then wiggles into his pajama top, but cannot button it. Wilma does it for him.  “This is when I know I’m helpless,” Homer tells her.  “My hands are down there on the bed.  I can’t put them on again without calling to somebody for help. . . .  If that door should blow shut, I can’t open it and get out of this room.”  He tells Wilma that having witnessed this,  “I guess you don’t know what to say. It’s all right. Go on home.”
“I know what to say, Homer,” Wilma replies.  “I love you. And I’m never going to leave you. Never.”  It is not only Wilma who feels that way.  Homer’s family and friends have loved him all along.  But until this moment he could not accept it.  The film concludes with Fred and Al attending Homer’s wedding.  Fred has found a decent job (helping to scrap the very bombers in which he once flew). Al has made peace with his own job and reconnected with his family.  And Homer has found nothing short of redemption from the loveless existence he feared awaited him.
The Best Years of Our Lives proved a stunning success.  It won nine Academy awards, including Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler, who was himself a returning veteran), and Best Actor (Fredric March).  Harold Russell was nominated for Best Supporting Actor but  considered such a long shot that the Academy created a special award for him “for bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans through his appearance.” Yet in fact he did win Best Supporting Actor, the only actor ever to receive two Academy Awards for the same performance.
 Although much of the film’s success owed to its superb script and performances, it also offered a strong rebuttal to a debate then raging about whether the millions of returning veterans could re-integrate into society.  A host of social scientists and psychiatrists were predicting that many veterans would be unable to adjust to civilian life without major psychiatric intervention.  “The thing that scares me most,” says Al early in the film, “is that everybody is gonna try to rehabilitate me.” Few movie-goers could miss the significance of his remark.  But The Best Years of Our Lives dramatically argued that these fears were misplaced.  And no character in the film illustrated it more eloquently than Homer Parrish.