Wednesday, March 4, 2015

The Duality of the "Good War"

Can we view both of these photos as equally important?

Two notable 70th anniversaries of the Second World War have been on my mind lately--two events that are remembered in very different ways.  The final phases of the global conflict were grinding to a tumultuous end, yet the level of carnage became only more gruesome.  Two equally compelling events of February 1945 continue to denote our contrasting perceptions of what WWII was.  I speak of the controversial bombing of Dresden and the glorified flag raising on Iwo Jima.  The former military action symbolizes the war we tend to forget while the latter is the type we prefer to commemorate on monuments and shot glasses.  Seven decades later, the dissimilar memories of these moments are emblematic of one-sided interpretations of World War II.

Our tale begins with a twenty-two year-old GI named Kurt Vonnegut.  Later to become the internationally-known novelist and jeremiad, the young Indianan was merely a weary infantryman in the fall of 1944.  While serving as a forward scout in the U.S. 106th Infantry Division during the Battle of the Bulge, Vonnegut was wounded and captured by a German patrol on December 19.  “We were obliged to stay and fight,” Vonnegut recalled in a typed letter to family six months later. “Bayonets aren't much good against tanks: Our ammunition, food and medical supplies gave out and our casualties out-numbered those who could still fight—so we gave up.”  Although he later received the Purple Heart, Vonnegut was altered by what he experienced in the scorched landscapes of Europe.  In this context, medals and commendations mattered little to him.  “The 106th got a Presidential Citation and some British Decoration from Montgomery,” he wrote.  However, “I'll be damned if it was worth it. I was one of the few who weren't wounded. For that much thank God.”

Pvt. Kurt Vonnegut
Transferred to a POW train streaming into the German heartland, Vonnegut and his fellow prisoners were “loaded and locked up, sixty men to each small, unventilated, unheated box car.”  The confining cars were caked in fresh cow manure and, appropriately enough, the GIs were packed in like cattle.  Along the freezing journey, Vonnegut experienced one of the most terrifying episodes of warfare: friendly fire.  An Allied plane strafed his train, killing some 150 Americans on board.  This slim escape from death would not be Vonnegut’s last.

Eventually reaching a work camp in Dresden, the cadre of prisoners was in for more hurdles.  Reflecting upon the “fanatical” soldiers who watched over him, Vonneget wrote, “We were refused medical attention and clothing: We were given long hours at extremely hard labor. Our food ration was two-hundred-and-fifty grams of black bread and one pint of unseasoned potato soup each day.”  Comrades died of starvation.  Others were executed in their vain attempts to steal food from their captors.  Tensions escalated and the POWs grew increasingly wary of tasks and inadequacies of their daily lives.  Yet all those fears paled in comparison to what awaited them.

Throughout early 1945, Dresden—a city purportedly of little strategic value—was targeted by Allied air commanders largely for vengeance.  In answer to the bombings of London and several other non-strategic locations in England, the Allied high commanded were fully committed to retaliatory air raids on civilian populations.  Dresden, Germany was among their objectives.  (Recent studies suggest that Dresden possessed more military and industrial significance than what was previously acknowledged in postwar histories.)

From February 13-15, 1945, the Allies unleashed a firestorm of high explosives and incendiaries.  Over 9,000 tons of bombs were dropped on the historic city.  The incendiary bombs blazed through the centuries-old buildings and over 12,000 structures were completely ravaged by the inferno.  At least 25,000 to 35,000 civilians were killed.  (Politically-driven number crunchers after the war inaccurately claimed ten times those figures were lost.)  No exact quantity of fatalities is known due to the large amount of refugees taking shelter within the city at that moment.  The joint British-American raids were dreadfully successful in battering the will of the German people to continue the war they initiated.  Twelve square miles of what Vonnegut called “possibly the world's most beautiful city” burned into a smoldering heap of red hot cinders.  Untold thousands perished, he admitted.  “But not me.”
During the hellish barrage, Vonnegut and his captured comrades took refuge in an underground meatpacking cellar known as Slaughterhouse Five.  He was one of only seven American prisoners to survive the bombing.  His extraordinary experiences became the basis for his best-known novel, Slaughterhouse Five, published twenty-four years later.  The madness and complexities of warfare and human nature became the pillars of many of Vonnegut’s prophetic writings.
Twenty-five year old British POW Victor Gregg was also held in the city during the bombardment.  Like Vonnegut, he was saved by the durability of an underground shelter.  Afterward, he recalled the incessant cacophony of horrid sounds rising from the city’s flames: “[A]s if the Devil himself decided the torment the people were suffering was insufficient, above the noise of the wind and the roar of the inferno around us came the agonised screams of the victims as they were roasted alive. It was these fiendish visions that brutalised my mind in later years.”

The horror was not over.  The remaining POWs were forced by German soldiers to help bury the burned and mutilated bodies.  Vonnegut remembered: “After that we were put to work carrying corpses from Air-Raid shelters; women, children, old men; dead from concussion, fire or suffocation. Civilians cursed us and threw rocks as we carried bodies to huge funeral pyres in the city.”  The apocalyptic and smoke strewn landscape was “Utter destruction.  Carnage unfathomable.”  His work was in vain.  There “were too many corpses to bury. So instead the Nazis sent in guys with flamethrowers. All these civilians' remains were burned to ashes.”  Similar destruction of war-torn Berlin is depicted in Vonnegut’s Mother Night—another masterful literary contemplation on war and loyalty.

Vonnegut was inexorably affected by the military devastation unleashed upon civilian populations.  A sense of guilt consumed him.  Flashbacks of suffering people led to contemplations of suicide in 1970 after he witnessed the horrors of disease and malnutrition on a trip to Africa.  (Equally troubling was the suicide of Vonnegut's mother while he was in the Army).  This horrid combination of tragedy left an indelible mark on the aspiring writer’s life.  In his own words, he just “wanted out of here.”

War in its purest form: Dresden after the firebombings.

Were the Dresden raids justified?  Did they reconcile for Hitler's V-2 rockets thundering into London?  The bombardment of civilians was regardless a form of retribution against the consummate evil of the Third Reich.  Yet, the Allies embraced total war strategy that Hitler himself approved.  We partially became what we fought.  The resulting collateral damage was unparallelled.  On the other hand, perhaps the greater moral wrongdoing would have been to lose the war by foregoing the bombings.  These are the dark dilemmas we must confront.  I do not have the clear answers.

Accordingly, we must also tackle the sanitized attitudes of WWII.  Referred to as the "Good War" for many valid reasons, this phrase is yet an oversimplification of the era.  Citizens are swept away by the romanticization of the war: Big Band music, classic cars, sexy pinups, the perceived nobility of the Greatest Generation.  The 1940s was all these things, but not in its totality.  We need only to look to an event one week after Vonnegut barely survived Dresden to see how true this is.  70,000 Marines and American personnel invaded the eight square-mile island of Iwo Jima in February 1945 with mind-boggling ramifications.  Nearly one out of three Marines who charged across Iwo's bleak landscape became casualties.  For Americans of the time, Joe Rosenthal's subsequent photograph of six Marines raising the stars and stripes atop the island's Mount Suribachi rightfully became emblematic of sacrifice and endurance.  Today, I sense this is no longer the case among Americans.

Honoring history?
The imagery of the Iwo Jima flag raising has become a commodity--a visual that has been emblazoned upon every manner of merchandise and kitsch conceivable.  This in and of itself is not inherently bad.  However, this process of pageantry steers us away from the darker realities of the Pacific war.  Most Americans can identify the Iwo Jima photo but only a vast minority can tell you why it happened or what it meant.  We have lost the contexts of struggle and sacrifice--removing us further from the grim complexities of warfare in our own era as well.  A recent U.S. Naval Institute article has deemed Rosenthal's image the most "parodied" photo in history.  If anything, this pattern reinforces "'Murican" exceptionalism and invincibility--both increasingly dangerous views in an age of globalization and instability. 

Ceremonial display associated with the photo is honorable and warranted.  In fact, the image proved so profound in 1945 that it helped raise in excess of $23 billion in war bonds--feasibly winning WWII.  But that was then and this is now.  Without true comprehension of war and its ugliness, the Rosenthal photo becomes nothing more than a cliched blanket statement about indomitable heroics.  Context is everything.  On this note, our inability to recognize the duality of war is what perpetuates war.  As a result, we should contemplate the Dresdens of history as much as the Iwo Jimas of history.  This just might help us in the long run. 


Monday, January 26, 2015

Filming Against the Sun

Exclusive Interview with Director Brian Falk 

I love a good history movie.  In fact, I am a history movie junkie.  The best of such films cannot only tell us something about the past but perhaps even something about ourselves.  I had these thoughts in mind when I recently interviewed Brian Falk, director of the brand new adventure drama Against the Sun.  Produced by the American Film Company, the semi-independent motion picture is intimate and revealing.  According to the movie’s website: “In one of the most harrowing true stories of World War II, three U.S. Navy airmen crash land their torpedo bomber in the South Pacific and find themselves on a tiny life raft, surrounded by open ocean. No food. No water. No hope of rescue. Against incredible odds, these three virtual strangers must survive storms, sharks, starvation—and each other—as they try to sail more than a thousand miles to safety.”  In my interview questions, the director expounds upon some of the intricacies of bringing a story of this nature to life in an authentic and dramatic manner.

Perhaps you could start us off by telling us about the mission of the American Film Company?

The American Film Company was founded in 2008 by entrepreneur Joe Ricketts to make movies based on engaging true stories from American history. It’s a mission the company has taken very seriously from its first film, The Conspirator, directed by Robert Redford, to its latest, Against the Sun.

How did you first hear about the saga of Harold Dixon, Gene Aldrich, and Tony Pastula stranded at sea?  What motivated you to produce this tale as a motion picture?

I received a draft of a script about the story from screenwriter Mark David Keegan. That script became the basis for Against the Sun.  There’s an old nautical adage: “smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” That idea—that we as humans are often at our best when things are at their worst—was something I was interested in exploring.

The casting choices for the three main characters were excellent.  How did you come to choose the actors you did?

I first want to say that working with those three guys was one of the greatest joys of my professional life.

I met with Tom Felton first. His enthusiasm for the material was contagious, and although he’s famous for playing Draco Malfoy [in the Harry Potter films], Tom is actually the sweetest guy. He also agreed to do an audition tape with our casting agent so I could hear his American accent. When I saw that video I knew Tom was meant to be Tony Pastula.

I met a few “Dixons” but none were quite right. Then I heard that Garret Dillahunt was available and we rushed the script to him. I was a big Deadwood fan so picking him to play Dixon was a no brainer.

I met many “Aldrich” actors. It was Jake Abel’s audition that really sold me. Aldrich was from southeastern Missouri, which has a real accent. Jake was the only guy who really went for that in his audition, and that told me he was willing to take risks, which I knew all of the actors I chose would have to do. I could not be happier that I chose him, and that he chose this project.

In recent years, many historical films have been held to higher standards of authenticity.  What measures did you take to ensure this in your film?

In the scripting phase, we sent drafts of my script to a consultant, Robert Cressman, an expert on the U.S. Navy and World War II, in order to make sure everything, from the characters’ period vernacular to the specifics of flying a torpedo bomber, was accurate. We also used many real WWII-era props, and handmade other props to the exact specifications, such as the Mae West life vests and rafts. Any time there was a question on set about authenticity of a particular prop or line of dialogue, my response was always “let’s double check.”

A great strength of the film is the cinematography.  While one might imagine that an entire movie in raft would become monotonous, it is anything but.  Would you care to elaborate on your filming techniques that sustained the drama and suspense of the movie?

It was always my goal to make the movie visually interesting, even given the limiting circumstances. Luckily, I’ve worked with Cinematographer Petr Cikhart for many years, so we speak the same language when it comes to shot selection, composition and sequencing. We started with very specific story boards, which we then translated into shot lists for each day. Our goal was always to keep a scene moving and not get stuck on a master shot.

Brian Falk on set.
I was rather pleased to see that this film was rated PG.  Nearly all war films are rated PG-13 or R these days--making many difficult to use in educational venues for young people.  Was this script decision made with that motive in mind?

While it wasn’t necessarily a goal to hit a PG, it was great to make a movie that can entertain the entire family—without buckets of blood or gratuitous sex scenes. A good story still works.

In many ways, I felt this film was reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock's Lifeboat—a wartime survival story of high tension on the high seas.  Even more will undoubtedly see a similarity between your film and a significant portion of Unbroken.  How do you perceive your movie as distinctive from others?

Of course there will always be similarities between movies about people in small boats on the open ocean. And I, of course, watched Lifeboat again before making this movie, mostly to look at how a master like Hitchcock blocked his actors. It’s great. But it’s also film noir and Against the Sun is not. Unbroken has closer parallels, but luckily the movie business in not a zero sum game. If people like Unbroken they will probably like Against the Sun too, and vice versa.

What is the next project for you and/or the American Film Company?  Do you find that there is a viable market for such historical films?

At the moment we’re hyper focused on the roll out of Against the Sun. And instead of waiting to see if the market is viable, we’re trying to create a market for this movie by digitally targeting specific groups of likely buyers. It’s a first for the film industry, and time will tell if it’s successful or not.

I would like to extend my gratitude to Brian Falk for taking the time to discuss his film with me.  I also thank Alfred Levitt and Kurt Graver of the American Film Company for helping to facilitate this dialogue.  Learn more about their movie productions here.

Check out the trailer for Against the Sun.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Point of Regret

This week I tuned in to watch the pilot episode of Amazon's new Civil War drama entitled Point of Honor.  Centered on the fictional, elite Rhodes Family of Lynchburg, Virginia, the show blends historical fictions, paradoxes, and boatloads of clich├ęs.  A 21st century equivalent to North and South, the soap opera presents an historically improbable yet cinematically predictable plot of torn families and loyalties in 1861.  At the outset of the conflict, the Rhodes elders elect to free their slaves in the wake of Fort Sumter--to the consternation of the daughters.  Better yet, one of those daughters is married to the northern West Point classmate of her brother.  While a vast minority of real-life planters freed their slaves, including John Randolph of Roanoke, most did not do so until after their deaths.  In Point of Honor, however, the youthful Rhodes clan free their slaves, renounce the institution, and then inexplicably fight for the Confederacy defending that same institution.  While the show does not sugarcoat the horrors of slavery as in many Lost Cause films, it is nevertheless an historical oxymoron and squanders an opportunity to delve into profound issues of the time period.

In short, Amazon's Civil War production suffers from The Patriot Syndrome. In that 2000 Revolutionary War film, Mel Gibson's character owns a South Carolina plantation on which there are no slaves.  Rather, the African Americans on the property "work the land as freed men."  The absurdity and scarcity of such a scenario is equally embraced in Point of Honor and other films.  Morally upstanding white protagonists somehow always have to be the exception rather than the rule within their slave society. There's nothing wrong with creating main characters with flaws--as online shows such as House of Cards have revealed. In this context, there is a certain lack of creative courage with Point of Honor.  

Additionally, the show has received criticism for it simplification of antebellum issues and contemporary social strife.  As Sonia Saraiya with Salon writes: "The pilot demonstrates ridiculous historical inaccuracy and mind-boggling racial insensitivity, but that doesn’t even really cover it. It’s more that the show is offering up a narrative of whiteness in the South that is worryingly, terrifyingly convenient in a world still very much plagued by racial inequity."  In this regard, the program seems to care more about evoking sympathy for the elite planter class than conveying some semblance of authenticity.  Considering that show writer Randall Wallace also penned the equally inaccurate Braveheart and Pearl Harbor, none of this should come as a great surprise to viewers.

From a military history perspective, the show begins with a commendably orchestrated recreation of First Bull Run, but quickly spirals beyond reality with a series of hackneyed skirmishes and a perverse Union officer with a Colonel Kurtz-style blood lust.  Typically, I embrace most film productions about the Civil War era because I fervently believe that cinema has the ability to spark interest in the past.  Unfortunately, Point of Honor provides little use to educators except to reveal another episode of fantasy historical exceptionalism.  The question remains: Why do screenwriters insist on fabricating narratives when true stories are far more astute and revealing?