Sunday, April 18, 2010

The first casualty

I'm a little cloudy today because I stayed up to watch The North Star on TCM. Usually these wartime productions about Our Gallant Russian Ally don't hold my interest. I bailed on Song of Russia the other night shortly after Robert Taylor arrived in Moscow to show the Russians how Tchaikovsky should be played (very fast, apparently). But I had previously only seen the expurgated version Armored Attack, and I wanted to check out the original.

All these efforts by Hollywood to open a second front are pretty cheesy, but they reflect the styles of the studios. Warner Brothers' Mission To Moscow, for instance, grabs you by the lapels and head-butts you with half-truths and outright lies about show trials and purges. In Song of Russia, MGM's Moscow looks a lot like the Paris of Ninotchka, full of sparkling streets, elegant shops, and handsome, well-dressed people. The Samuel Goldwyn studio pulled out all the stops for The North Star; it badly needs restoration (but is unlikely to get it) for the sake of the cinematography of James Wong Howe and the design of William Cameron Menzies. Lewis Milestone was a great director of battle and crowd scenes, and Aaron Copland wrote the score, although he may not have been responsible for the tinny folk-singing. ( SPOILER ALERT: I will be discussing the film in some detail.) The cast includes Dana Andrews as a bomber pilot who becomes the first Soviet kamikaze; Ann Baxter and Farley Granger as the young lovers, a few years away from stardom; Walter Huston as the village doctor (you can't have a propaganda movie without Huston, and I'm thinking of Gabriel Over the White House and Yankee Doodle Dandy as well as Mission To Moscow); Dean Jagger as the militia commander; and Walter Brennan as the clean old peasant.

When the Germans arrive, putting a stop to the folk-singing at last, they are a medical unit commanded by surgeon Erich Von Stroheim. He's a "civilized" German -- he despises his fanatical young subordinate, who can't believe he once studied under an eminent Jewish professor. He immediately recognizes Huston, and wonders what a world-renowned pathologist is doing in rural Ukraine, which is a good question. But he is still a German -- he rounds up the village children and drains their blood to transfuse wounded Germans. On a couple of levels, this makes no sense. Nazi notions of racial purity would seem to preclude polluting Aryans with the blood of Slavs. Moreover, adults have more blood than children, and their veins are easier to locate. Of all the atrocities committed by the German armies in the East, I had never heard of this one. It bothered me all night.

Today the penny dropped, as the English say. This is the infamous "blood libel" turned inside out. For centuries, Jews all over Europe were accused of murdering Christian children and using their blood to bake Passover matzoh. As recently as 1913, a Jew named Menahem Mendel Beilis was tried in Kiev for this very crime (the basis for Bernard Malamud's 1966 novel The Fixer). Perhaps Lillian Hellman got some emotional satisfaction from turning this absurd and vicious myth back on the Nazis. But was it wise?

The trouble with wartime propaganga is that wars end. Then people feel ashamed and foolish for believing the lies of the government and the media (in the case of Iraq, even before the war has ended). During the First World War, it was considered necessary to stoke anti-German sentiment in Britain, and later in the United States, through some fairly outrageous means. The Germans didn't help themselves when they invaded neutral Belgium and killed many civilians, including women and children, in retaliation for attacks on German troops. All wars involve crimes against humanity. But there is no evidence that Germans roasted babies and raped nuns for the sheer fun of it, and the story of the crucified Canadian proved as durable as the Angel of Mons (and as impossible to track down). Eventually "the Hun" was accused of every imaginable transgression including cannibalism, which may have been an innocent mis-translation of the word Kadaver (animal carcass) -- by 1918, starving Germans were certainly eating mules and horses.

After the war, it was stories like that as much as the horrific slaughter of the war itself that turned a generation into pacifists. By the 1930s France and Britain notably lacked the will or the means to oppose Nazi bellicosity; Neville Chamberlain was a national hero when he flew back from Munich with his pathetic piece of paper, proclaiming "peace in our time." When the war began less than a year later, the Allies were almost completely unprepared. In the United States, although many merchant ships had already been sunk by U-boats, the vast majority chose to hear no evil and see no evil until the late autumn of 1941. Not all of this was the fault of propagandists, but they had a lot of ground to make up. Making Americans hate the Japanese was depressingly easy, given American racism. Making them like and trust the Soviet Union even temporarily was hard, and it came at a cost. And the real cost was truth itself -- when horror stories began trickling out of occupied Europe, there were ample grounds for dismissing them as "propaganda." Not this time, tragically.

Once the window of amity closed, studio heads found themselves grovelling before Congressional committees now chaired by vengeful enemies of the New Deal. Jack Warner whined that he had made Mission To Moscow at the personal request of FDR, although the president was too wily to put anything in writing. Louis B. Mayer affirmed his love for America and something new called "Americanism" in the most hyperbolic terms. Sam Goldwyn buried The North Star, which had received six Academy Award nominations. Thousands of careers, and a number of lives, were ended. The bad feeling lasted into the 1990s, when Elia Kazan's Lifetime Achievement award was protested because he had "named names."

Conservatives like to complain about Hollywood liberalism, but it's a pale copy of the 1930s and 1940s. Many people carry an inbred fear of being political in any direction. I don't believe it's an accident that most films about our current involvement in the Middle East are more "get me out of here" than "gung ho." Entertainers feel themselves on much more solid ground when they raise money for environmental causes or disaster relief, than when they help promote a military action. For one thing, there is no pressure to lie. In war, it is said, truth is the first casualty. Sadly, it is never the last.

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5 Comments:

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