Sunday, February 12, 2012

World War II In Films

I am taking a class again - at Harvard Extension - this one is called World War II Through Film and Literature - and is roughly what it says it is. The history of the war, covered in the context of films and books. We're three few weeks in - the first three films have been The Mortal Storm, The Winter War and Mrs. Miniver. The Winter War is the outlier there - a film about the war between Finland and the USSR in 1939-40, made for the 50th anniversary. It's an obscure episode in the war, not fitting with the dominant story - the Russians attacked Finland in a dispute over land (the Soviets wanted land, to help defend Liningrad, basically) - since Russia had signed the non-aggression pact with the Germans, the western allies flirted with jumping into the war on Finland's side... they didn't, and a couple years later, Finland rather rashly started this war up again, on the German's side... complicated. Anyway - the Soviets invaded, the Finns fought back, and for three months or so held off the infinitely stronger Soviets, in a gruesome bloodbath. The Russians just kept coming and the Finns mowed them down. It was 1916 all over again. In the end, the Russians punched through a couple places, enough to convince the Finns to take the Soviet offer of peace, though they were still holding most of their land. Anyway - the film is a grunt's eye view of this war, a Finnish unit in the trenches, fighting off the Soviets, day after day after day... It's brutal and unrelenting, and the film keeps you in the middle of it - but for all its harsh realism, it still manages to hit nearly every cliche in the book. Story and style - the training, the banter, the mix of characters, the home front, the girls, the wounded soldier gone home to find himself alienated, etc. - and the style, pulls out music and slow motion and sound design at the places where war movies always do those things.... It's a noble attempt to show war at its ugliest, but it doesn't quite seem to have the chops to do it.

The other two films are a different matter. The Mortal Storm is one of those films made between the start of the war in Europe and Pearl Harbor that started to take sides - while maybe trying to maintain some plausible deniability. It's about the opening period of Hitler's rule in Germany - Frank Morgan plays a college professor who everyone loves - but then Hitler is made chancellor and things go wrong. He is hounded from his job (the people who celebrated him before turn against him - including his own friends and family); Jimmy Stewart is another one - a pacifist, a liberal, and a horse doctor - who before long has to run away to Austria. Margaret Sullavan is in it too - Morgan's daughter, courted by Robert Young (of all people) in the role of a Nazi student... It is a Frank Borzage film - a handsome, rather gloriously overdetermined melodrama that ends as badly as one might expect. It's also a pretty decent account of the early years of the Nazi rule - showing the slow but inexorable logic of their extension of terror and persecution... It doesn't pull a lot of punches in this - though it's interesting which punches it does pull. No one mentions Jews - "non-Aryans" only; the film barely mentions Germany... It's interesting too that even at the end, when the pacifists are chased out of the country, murdered, shot down in cold blood and so on - they don't take up arms. This isn't quite Sergeant York.... I don't know how much of that is from the story and how much from the times - some of it must be from the times, as those American films tended to keep pushing closer to calling for war...

Finally, Mrs. Miniver. Like the Mortal Storm, this is a big, handsome MGM production, directed by one of the high end directors of the time - William Wyler this time. This is about the Miniver family, Clem and Kay, their three kids, especially son Vin, and the aristocratic girl he falls in love with. The film commences in the summer of 1939 - before long, England is at war. Vin joins the RAF, everyone else does whatever their duty happens to be - home guard, air raid wardens and whatnot - the film jumps ahead to the summer of 1940, and things happen. Dunkirk - the Battle of Britain - bombing raids - death from the sky... It was started before the US entered the war, but not finished until early 1942 - this led to certain scenes (especially the one with a German pilot) being amped up a bit. Though the main story would have been pretty straightforward pro-British more or less propaganda from the start. It's an interesting film - it's a handsome, impeccably made work, with a very strong script, and a few moments of truly magnificent filmmaking. The problem is - as consummate a work of art as it is, it is very polite, very MGM - with all the sense of stasis and self-congratulation that can entail. I'm not a fan of the style - it goes against me, even when the filmmaking is as good as this is. Somehow, even though it is made about the same time, at the same studio, in the same style, I much prefer The Mortal Storm - it seems - more at peace with its melodrama. I guess. All this tends to disappear as the film goes on - there are moments - the assembly of the Dunkirk fleet - the bomb shelter - most of the ending - that are filmmaking at its finest, on par with Lang or Hitchcock. Wyler is known for his love of deep spaces - and certainly, he uses space to great effect here.... But what's surprising is how much tension he milks out of the lack of space - the bomb shelter sequence, and the ending, are brilliant - using tight framings, sound, flickers and flashes of light - to make extremely powerful, stressful scenes.


World War 2 Movies said...

The Mortal Storm seems like it could be quite an interesting film. I've always been a huge fan of World War 2 movies but haven't ever ventured into the films actually created during or right after the war. This could be an interesting time of film making to check out.

weepingsam said...

It is a very fine film. Those films made in 1940-41 in the US are an interesting bunch - tiptoeing around the war, dropping hints but not quite calling for intervention... though some of them - like Lang's Man Hunt - are pretty straightforward in their politics... good stuff.