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Saturday, Sep. 5, 2015

War on Film

Saturday, October 20, 2007

“The war,” wrote Walt Whitman in 1867, referring to the recent American blood bath, “will never get in the books.” Whatever else he may have had in mind, the writer of “Drum Taps,” who also served as a male nurse baptized in the bloody Washington, D.C. hospitals during the conflict, meant that, in those days before American wars were fought in foreign lands, without the slightest sacrifice demanded from most Americans, except maybe a few cheap tears for the families of the fallen, war could be counted on to generate such implacable feelings that no one who had truly experienced it could be objective enough to write about war as it really is.

Whitman must also have meant that even if a writer or other artist could describe the real horrors of war, as he’d seen it, he’d not be allowed to present it to the naive American public. That, of course, is why the powers-that-be were so worked up when the photo of the coffins of the American dead, shipped back from Baghdad in the early months of the current war, somehow slipped through their hands, out of their control.

I’m old enough to remember seeing John Wayne’s movie “The Sands of Iwo Jima” (1949), one summer afternoon with my cousin Sam Crawford, in Portsmouth, Ohio. I’ve probably got that film mixed up with other war movies of the same era, but what I remember best are the almost generic scenes where the handful of clear-eyed, fair-minded American soldiers, at terrible cost, are beating back the rat-like hordes of slant-eyed, devious Japanese warriors who have planned some sneaky, inhuman attack on blind behalf of their divine Emperor.

Maybe it was in the same movie, the compulsory scene where the camera shows full-face a determined and faintly smiling Japanese dive-bomber pilot zeroing in on an Allied flat-top. Suddenly, the pilot, the smile wiped off his face, throws his leather glove-encased hands to his goggled eyes. A three-second pause ensues. Then, blood begins to flow slowly from behind the shattered goggles, and the Japanese plane, happily aflame, plummets from the sky trailing a heavy plume of black smoke.

When I first saw this movie, some five years after World War II, that bloody scene caused the largely juvenile audience to jump up from their chairs and cheer and holler, as at a Friday night football game. What are we to make of this? For one thing, I guess, that some people, the slant-eyed Japanese for instance, are more easily vilified than others who look like us, the Germans to use an example. For another, that blind hatred can be a long-lived legacy. A Cottey colleague, somewhat older than I, once told me that even after the war had been over for more than half a century, and, at age 5, he’d been by far too young to have fought in it, he’d nonetheless been old enough to absorb the tones of voice of the adults surrounding him, and, consequently, he still intensely disliked and distrusted the Japanese, no matter how many were bright young students in his history classes.

“The war will never get in the books.” Civilians can’t stomach unvarnished or un-prettified pictures of real war. In addition, every artist has his/her own “take” on an event, and will convey that bias/leaning/prejudice through the smallest detail or the most apparently innocuous word or brush stroke.

When I was a teenager, I used to be fascinated by the weekly NBC --TV installments of “Victory at Sea,” a filmic (is there such a word?) history of the U.S. Navy’s struggles against the German enemy in the War. At this skeptical stage of my life, I suspect the directors cut the grisliest parts of their documentary to spare my tender sensibilities, but I was entranced by Richard Rodgers’s magnificent score, and by scenes featuring the stunning fighter planes, like the Corsair, Thunderbolt, Mustang, and Hellcat.

Had they been German or Japanese, I still would’ve loved them. Their prop-driven bodies were so sleek, so maneuverable, so colorful -- so “cool.” Their engines’ purring was pure song to my ears.

And just because the black-and-white film depicted real events, I knew, even then, that that didn’t mean the film editors hadn’t monkeyed with their selection of scenes to promote the desired emotional response from their American audience. Even the documentary filmmaker often has an axe to grind, an agenda to promote, a product to push. The film’s narrative was dry and understated, but it was spoken by Alexander Skourbie, the baritone voice of God. I couldn’t imagine a nobler war story.

Until Ken Burns’s “The War: An Intimate History, 1941-1945,” came along, that is. Burns, a gloriously gifted and un-Hollywoodized (he lives in Walpole, N. H.) documentary filmmaker, has been on the scene for quite a while, even though his hair style makes him look like a 10-year-old. He started out with the story of the making of the Brooklyn Bridge; then went on to eventually tell the 9-part (one for each inning) story of major-league baseball. Whether he drew it from his research or imposed it on his telling of the story, the moral core of Burns’s epic is the racial integration of the game, when Branch Rickey of the old Brooklyn Dodgers hired Jackie Robinson in the spring of 1947. Burns makes that one heroic action the be-all and end-all of the American pastime. And the viewer can believe it or not, as he/she wishes.

Burns experiments brilliantly with the format of most documentaries. Instead of focusing primarily on the movers and shakers of the cataclysmic events he chronicles, the Eisenhowers and Rommels of the War, for example, he dwells movingly on the “average” soldier, pilot, sailor, the men who actually fought the war, put their fragile human bodies on the line; and the civilians, the movie theater owner, the high school biology teacher, the nurse, all those who formed the soldiers’ emotional matrices, half a century after the event. And he lets these Americans speak for themselves, and in doing so eloquently demonstrates one of the main tenets of his over-all artistic philosophy; namely, that, in a democracy such as America’s, there is no such being as an “average” man or woman. By the same token, Burns chooses four “average” American towns to examine during the War years: Luverne, Minn.; Sacramento, Calif.; Waterbury, Conn.; and Mobile, Ala. Mostly through black-and-white snapshots of these “average” small towns, Burns shows how an implacable History has had its way with all four, depriving each, in the time it took to win the War, of its Norman Rockwellean innocence.

The thesis of “Victory at Sea” is an implied one: namely, that although it may be slow to anger and action, there is no more powerful fighting machine than an aroused democracy. Ken Burns, too, has a few theses in his most recent masterwork, the most nearly dominant of which seem to be: one, that no war has a winner; no war is “good.” All wars turn all combatants bestial, “losers” and “winners” alike. Yet, two, ironically, war brings out, as does no other human catastrophe, the heroic, the brave, the selfless.

There have come to be, in the more than half century since the War, certain dramatic black-and-white photographs that now seem to appear in nearly all accounts of World War II, from wide-angle photos of mustachioed Adolph Hitler ranting before endless, awe-inspiring formations of his Nazi troops; to photos of the half-naked dead bodies of those Europeans who, in life, tried to stand in the way of Hitler’s lightning-like and ruthless advance across their countrysides; from film clips of maimed B-29’s returning from their missions to their carriers and slamming into the flight towers; from the magnificent photo of the Marines raising the U.S. flag atop Iwo Jima’s Mount Surabachi, to the prize-winning and ubiquitous picture of the homecoming U.S. sailor kissing a backward-leaning young girl holding her hat to her head, against a backdrop of Times Square; to the first mushroom cloud. I think I know them all. They’ve become all too familiar, visual cliches. But Ken Burns has chosen fresh photographs, from old, private collections as well as from public archives, unseen before by his public, to help him tell the whole story again from scratch, accompanied by the zip a stunning, heretofore-unseen photo delivers.

More important, Geoffrey C. Ward, winner of five Emmy’s, the writer of Burns’s series “Baseball,” has written the narrative of “The War.” Unlike the stentorian voice of Alexander Skourbie, narrator of “Victory at Sea,” which made the most mundane event of the early 1940’s sound like the clanging climax of the Trojan War, and tends to stampede the viewer into feeling a pre-determined emotion, the narrator’s voice of the PBS series “The War” is soft and almost deadpan, an authorial tactic which leaves the viewer/reader in charge of assigning the scene or words any emotion he/she wants. “The War will never get in the books.” Well, maybe Walt Whitman’s prediction will prove to be correct. But, then, again, maybe he just didn’t live long enough to meet Ken Burns. That’s my guess.