Sunday, September 26, 2010

Don't say they didn't warn you

In 1930,  Lewis Milestone, directed the first adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque's novel of the First World War.  I find it rather impressive that within a decade of the conflict,Hollywood would have presented a film that doesn't demonize the German soldier.  The principle characters and focus of the film are not "bad guys". these soldiers just happen to be German and could easily have been American, British, French or any of a number of nationalities  Starting off with a lot of fanfare, parades and marching music, the citizens of a small town are whipped to a frenzy by patriotism, as we see entire classes incited to enlistment for honor, glory and pride of country.  This film is full of some very stirring performances with some battle sequences impressive even by today's standards, with the first real battle (following the minor skirmish with the rats in the bunker) as effective as Spielberg's and Fuller's D-Day invasion.  "All Quiet On The Western Front" shows the mundane and exciting, bravery, cowardice, survival as well as a boiled down discussion among the soldiers from the trenches about politics and the need for war, even an interesting alternative.  It doesn't stop there, following the soldiers as they attempt to adapt as civilians after their experiences in the Hell that is War.

In 1940, Hollywood issued a plea to the conscious of the American movie viewers with Frank Borzage's "The Mortal Storm". With Hilter's rise to power in the Germany of the 1930s this film casts the spotlight on trouble yet to come.  Frank Morgan, who's voice is easily recognized a year after his portrayal of the Wonderful Wizard of Oz plays a college professor that sees his family torn apart by a divided loyalties to the rising Hitler.  James Stewart, a friend of the professor's family, feels no need to embrace the new fascist views rising throughout his homeland, even standing up to the oppression as he defends himself and others against attack from the Nazi fanatics.  In retrospect, it was quite an effective movie, while as a predictive cautionery tale, it surely deserves to be remembered.
As I watched the conclusion of the film, I recognized similarities to Jean Renoir's earlier film "Le Grande Illusion" which focused on activities during WWI.
Future TV stars Robert Young ("Father Knows Best" and "Marcus Welby, MD") and Robert Stack (The original Eliot Ness on "The Untouchables") play Nazi Party members and supporters as well as that staple of John Ford's troup Ward Bond, who is actually heard to deliver that stereotypical line "we have ways of making you talk" while interrogating a woman.

Notable Exceptions:
G. W. Pabst's "Westfront 1918" very much like "All Quiet On The Western Front" is another look at the same war from a German director and just as reviled by the rising Third Reich for it's bleak defeatist view.  I got this from TCM about a year ago, so be on the lookout.  It's well worth seeing.

Vincente Amorim's "Good" from 2008.  Viggo Mortesen stars as an intellectual author who, though unsupportive of the Nazi Party, rises in their ranks eventually when his book about compassionate euthenasia is favored by the fuhrer.  The benefits of recognition by the party and complacency lead to an abandonment of his own values.

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