Tuesday, November 29, 2022

Lifeboat (1944)


                “Lifeboat” is an Alfred Hitchcock film.  It was one of his “limited-setting films”, like “Rear Window”.  The limited-setting is a lifeboat after a ship has been sunk by a u-boat.  It came from a novella by John Steinbeck.  He was paid $50,000.  Steinbeck was upset with the finished product.  He criticized “slurs against organized labor” and the “stock comedy Negro”.  His black character was dignified.  He wanted his name removed from the credits, but the studio refused.  As you can imagine, it was a difficult film for Hitchcock to do his famous brief appearance.  He thought about being a floating body.  He ended up appearing in a before/after ad  for a weight reduction drug in a newspaper one of the passengers looks at.  And this gave Alfred the chance to highlight his recent loss of 50 pounds.  The movie was nominated for Oscars for Best Director, Original Story (Steinbeck), and Black and White Cinematography.  Although most critics praised it and it is considered a classic today, the film was controversial for its supposedly sympathetic portrayal of a German.  It is the only Hitchcock movie without a score.  The movie was a difficult shoot even though it was inside in a tank.  The water and oil caused illnesses in the cast that held up production.  Tallulah Bankhead caught pneumonia, for instance.  Maybe she needed more clothing.  They had to climb a ladder to get to the boat in the tank.  Tallulah did not wear underwear, which caught the attention of the crew.  When informed, Hitchcock said:  “I don’t know whether to call for wardrobe, make-up, or hairdressing.”

                The movie opens by panning over wreckage from a ship, including a body.  There is one lifeboat.  A columnist (Bankhead) pulls a man aboard.  She is excited about the film she took of the sinking.  Others join the passengers.  A black steward (Canada Lee), a rich industrialist, a mentally unstable mother with her dead baby, several regular joes, another female, and a German survivor named Willi (Slezak).  Willi is hiding a secret identity.  There is some discussion on whether to throw the German overboard, the liberals win. There are other scenes that develop the scene that different personalities must work together to survive.  Hitchcock was personalizing the Allies here.  The boat starts with eight members, it won’t stay that way.  It goes through several leaders, including Willi.  They have to manage lack of water and getting on each other’s nerves.  And the fact that there is a Nazi on board.

                “Lifeboat” is an interesting movie because of the interaction between various types in a confined space.  And you have the rat in seaman’s clothing.  It is a lesser Hitchcock film and if you did not know it, you might not guess it’s Hitchcock.  Unless you look carefully at that newspaper ad.  The cast is good and the movie is well-acted.  It has some stars from the 1940s including Bankhead, Slezak, Jon Hodiak, William Bendix, and Hume Cronyn.  Bankhead gets the meatiest role.  She plays a stereotyped rich gal who is forced far from her element.  There is a running gag where she keeps losing her rich trappings, including the camera that got all those great shots of the sinking.  However, the film does not allow the actors to really cut loose because despite the scenario, they really don’t go through enough hardship considering the lack of food and water.  I don’t need to tell you Ms. Bankhead keeps her well-coifed hair throughout.  One weakness of the character development is some of the characters do not behave consistently.

                As far as the criticism by Steinbeck, I have to say that I did not see the German as a sympathetic character.  He is cunning (which would be a German stereotype), but he is clearly evil and he does get his comeuppance. Ironically, he does aim them to their rescue.  The film does not have the feel of anti-Nazi propaganda.  And it is not racist.  I did not find Joe to be a stereotyped black.

                “Lifeboat” is considered a classic, but I found it to be just an average war film.  I have seen most of Hitchcock’s films and would put this one somewhere in the middle.  In fact, I think all of Hitchcock’s WWII films (Foreign Correspondent, Saboteur, Notorious) are average   “Lifeboat” cannot be classified as a mystery because the audience is aware that Willi is the u-boat captain and vile.  I guess it is a mystery as to how the captain was the only survivor, but the movie does not deal with that. 


Sunday, November 27, 2022

NOW SHOWING: Devotion (2022)


            Aviation war movies seldom come our way.  (I’m not including movies like “Spitfire Over Berlin”).  But in 2022, we have been blessed with two major aviation movies.  Both used real planes.  Both have amazing combat scenes.  Both star Glen Powell.  Both used Kevin LaRosa to coordinate the stunt flying.  But only one of them is a true story and has realistic combat scenes.   That movie is “Devotion”.  It is based on the book “Devotion:  An Epic Story of Heroism, Friendship, and Sacrifice” by Adam Makos.  It was published in 2015.  Glen Powell read the book and pushed for it to be made into a movie.  The movie was directed by J.D. Dillard.  It was his third movie.  The project was personal to Dillard because his father was a black naval aviator.  His dad was on set as a technical adviser.  Powell was able to visit Thomas Hudner before he passed away in 2017.  He was impressed by the number of photos and mementos of Jesse Brown were in his home.  The movie used several F4U Corsairs, a Skyraider, 2 Bearcats, a HO5S-1 helicopter, and a MiG-15.

            The movie skips the usual enlisting and training scenes.  In fact, it is Hudner who arrives as the new guy.  He meets Brown (Jonathan Majors) and in a role reversal, it is Brown who is standoffish.  Brown is part of a group of five who all respect him.  There is no racist in the group.  Brown takes Hudner up to break him in and tells him “try to keep up”.  Brown puts their Bearcats through some thrilling aerobatics.  Soon, they discard their Bearcats for F4U Corsairs.  The fighter is called the “widow-maker” because it is difficult to fly.  One of the core group is eliminated.  Then it’s off to the Mediterranean because the Soviets have been saber-rattling.  Shore leave on the Riviera includes a meeting with Elizabeth Taylor and an invite to a casino.  This results in the usual “we don’t want your kind in here” and the obligatory fight in a bar.  By this time Hudner and Brown have bonded and are wingmates.  Hudner promises Brown’s wife Daisy (Christina Jackson) that he will protect Jesse.  Foreshadowing.  The Korean War breaks out and the USS Leyte is sent.  Their squadron takes off to support an attack on two bridges.  There is also a “Top Gun” style dogfight with a MiG.  When the Chinese onslaught occurs, the Corsairs are used for ground support for the Marines surrounded in the Chosin Reservoir.  One of those missions is going to result in a Medal of Honor.

            When I first saw commercials for this movie, I had a fear that the title indicated it was going to be one of those movies that are religious.  I was surprised to find that religion plays no role in the film.  Second, I was concerned about the CGI.  It turns out that the movie eschews computer generated images for the aviation scenes.  The vintage fighters are beautiful in action.  If you love fighter planes, you will enjoy this movie.  Third, it seemed logical that the main theme would be the racism Brown had to overcome.  Very surprisingly, the racism card is underplayed.  Brown alludes to racism in his becoming the first black pilot in the Navy, but the movie uses only the Riviera scenes to check that box.  He encounters no problems on the Leyte. In fact, he has the support of a number of black sailors.  This movie is not “Tuskegee Airmen” or “Men of Honor”.  The film’s main theme is friendship.  It is strong in this area.  Hudner does not have to overcome racist views to befriend Brown.  Instead, the tension is in their relationship comes from different views toward following orders.  Hudner is a rules follower and Brown believes in taking the initiative.  But this difference of opinion is barely a bump in the road.  Ironically, it is Hudner who does something that he could have been court-martialed for.  Chalk that up to devotion.

            The movie is medium budget, but wisely a good chunk of the money went to facilitating Kevin LaRusa’s aerobatics.  They rival those of those of the “Top Guns”.  There’s little of the defying of the laws of physics like you see in most CGI aviation movies.  There are four quality scenes:  the follow me flight, the hard to land crisis, the bridge attack, and the ground support scene.  All are well-done and exciting.  The scenes in between do a good job developing the two relationships:  Brown/Hudner and Jesse/Daisy.  The movie avoids melodrama and both couples have some chemistry

Most of the cast is unknowns, but the two leads are recognizable.  Powell and Majors are excellent and Thomas Sadoski is great as their squadron commander.  The movie avoids stereotypes and cliches.  That doesn’t mean that aviation movie afficionados won’t see some things coming, but for the most part the movie doles out more surprises than predictables.  One thing you will see coming is the emotional final scene, but it still will have you tearing up.  Nothing in the movie is pandering.  There is little enhancement of the combat, unlike that other aviation film that came out this year.

            Clearly, “Devotion” is going to get nowhere near the box office of “Top Gun: Maverick”, but it is a movie that deserves to be successful.  If not, bombast will have won out over sincerity.  This is a true story well-told.  As you can see below, it is accurate enough to pass the smell test.  There is room enough in the subgenre for us to have another good aviation combat movie this year.  And I would say a better one.  Give me propellers over jets (which the movie shows in a dogfight scene) and Glen Powell with Jonathan Majors over Tom Cruise.

GRADE  =  A-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  I used to tell the story of Hudner and Brown in my American History classes.  I was very interested to see how close the movie would adhere to history.  It turns out that it gets the basics right.  Although the movie starts with Brown already an established and respected pilot, there is some alluding to his background.  His father was a sharecropper, but Jesse was not destined to follow in his father’s footsteps.  He grew up in a house with no central heating or indoor plumbing.  He was a good athlete in high school, but also a good student. He graduated as salutatorian.  He went to Ohio State University and majored in Architectural Engineering.  He was the only African-American in the College of Engineering.  In his sophomore year, he saw a poster encouraging young men to join naval aviation.  Brown had dreamed of flying since he saw an air show when he was six.  He joined the Navy Reserves even though the recruiter tried to discourage him.  Brown passed all the written tests and went to flight school where he excelled and became the first black pilot in the Navy.  He did overcome discrimination, but the movie shows that once in the Navy, he was respected and there were no barriers.  Before he went off to sea, he got his degree in Architectural Engineering.  The scenes where Jesse hurls racist remarks at himself in the mirror to motivate himself was true, but apparently this was done when he was younger.  There is no evidence he continued this when he was in the Navy. Probably because, as the movie shows, he was treated fairly once he became an officer.

            He did become friends with a rich white boy.  Hudner’s family owned a string of grocery stores.  He was a Naval Academy graduate.  Hudner became Brown’s wing man and they trusted each other implicitly.  Brown was married to Daisy and had a young child named Pam, but Hudner never visited their home and thus did not make a promise to be there for Jesse.  Hudner did not meet Daisy until the funeral.  It was squadron mate Carol Mohring who visited several times. 

            Their squadron did transition from Bearcats to Corsairs. I found no evidence that Brown had trouble landing on the carrier the first time.  The USS Leyte was sent to the Mediterranean and the guys did get shore leave on the Riviera.  Both Hudner and Brown met her, but separately.  There was a trip to the casino, but not by her invitation.  That invitation was given to a group of Marines.  Taylor visited the Leyte several times.  The bar fight was one of the few Hollywood tropes that snuck into the screenplay

            In the Korean War, they flew about 20 missions before the climactic air support mission over the Chosin Reservoir.   I found no evidence for the mission where he takes out the bridges.  I don’t think the Corsair’s rockets could take down a bridge.  The final scene is very close to what happened, although they had not fired on any enemy.  Brown’s plane was hit by ground fire and unluckily developed a fuel leak.  He did crash land in a clearing.  He was pinned into the cockpit.  Hudner risked court-martial to belly land near Brown’s plane to try to rescue him.  He was unable to budge Jesse.  He did use snow to put out the fire, but some remained.  Lt. Charles Ward did land his helicopter to help.  The duo used an axe to try to free Jesse.  After 45 minutes in freezing weather, they had to leave.  By that time, Brown had succumbed.  Before he did, he told Hudner to “tell Daisy how much I love her.”  Brown’s body could not be recovered, so he was given a “warrior’s funeral” when his mates dropped napalm on the crash site.

            Hudner was not court-martialed for losing an aircraft against orders.  He was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor.  His medal was used in the movie.  

Wednesday, November 23, 2022

DOCUMENTARY: With the Marines at Tarawa (1944)




76 hours of hell ended on Nov. 23, 1943.  There is a documentary of that hell. 

            “With the Marines at Tarawa” is appropriately titled.  The Second Marine Division invaded the island of Betio in the Tarawa atoll.  The invasion took place from November 21-23, 1943.  The amphibious invasion was the first of the island-hopping campaign and the first landing that was contested.  The 2nd Marine Division had fought on Guadalcanal, but that invasion was not opposed.  Betio was very well-defended and the Marines had trouble just getting to the beach, much less inland.  Some of the Marines had to wade to the beach under heavy fire.  One of those men was Sgt. Norman Hatch who was armed with a .45 pistol and a 35 mm. movie camera.  Hatch and other photographers were embedded with the Marines.  Two of them were killed.  Louis Hayward, an actor who enlisted before the war, was the director.  The footage was brutal and when the film was shown to President Roosevelt, his aides recommended that the film be censored.  They were worried the public was not ready to see what war is really like.  FDR consulted with war correspondent Robert Sherrod (who later wrote a book about Tarawa).  Sherrod told the President that the Marines wanted the public to know what the war was really like.  FDR agreed and gave the green light for the film to be shown in movie theaters. It had the effect of causing many factory workers to work harder.  The movie won the Best Documentary Short Story Oscar.

            The movie has a typical war documentary template.  But this was the first war documentary that many Americans saw, so it was new to them.  The doc begins with the Marine Corps Hymn, naturally.  The music pops up throughout the movie.  Troops board the transport ships.  They view a relief map of the island.  As the camera pans over the Marines, the narrator tells the audience “Many of these men were killed the following morning.”  The Navy warships and planes bomb the island.  “It didn’t seem possible that anyone could live through that bombardment.”  That would have been a conclusion reached by most of the Marines.  They will be wrong.  The combat is intense as the photographers are amazingly close to the action.  There is a lot of gunfire in this movie.  The audience sees Marines wading to shore.  Flamethrowers are used.  The Marines use grenades on the entrenched Japanese.  Before Americans see dead Marines, they see a lot of dead Japanese.  “They are savage fighters.  Their lives mean nothing to them.”  Later, we see American corpses.  “These are Marine dead.  This is the price we have to play.”  (I just recently saw an exhibit of art by Tom Lea.  Lea was an artist who painted scenes he saw when he was on board the carrier Hornet and with the Marines on Peleliu island. One of his most famous paintings is of a Marine who has been shreaded by machine gun fire.  He entitled the painting “The Price.”)  Marines are buried at sea.  The Seabees come in and repair the airfield.  The American flag goes up.

            It’s no surprise the film won an Oscar.  It was groundbreaking.  The color footage would have wowed audiences.  That would have been one emotion.  Others would have been horror and patriotism.  Although Hayward wanted to show the hell of war, he also wanted to Marines effectively defeating the “savage” enemy.  Although that enemy is referred to as Japs and Nips, this is not really a propaganda film.  It is a chronicle of a battle.  The film covers many of the highlights that the battle is famous for.  But it is a little hazy as to strategy and tactics.  The battle comes off as simpler than it actually was.  It omits all the errors the Navy and Marines made.  The narrator says about the bombardment:  “Everything went like clockwork.”  The fact that a force of B-24 bombers failed to show up is not mentioned.  The wading across the coral reef is glossed over.  Seems like Hatch (who provided much of the footage) would have wanted that emphasized.  The most patriotic impact the film could have had would have been to describe how those American boys risked their lives for each other.  (Not for the people in the audience.)

            Tarawa deserved a good documentary and it got one.  The 76 hours of hell are not hellish enough in celluloid, but considering it came close to not being released, it was as hellish as you could get in 1944.  The narration is sparse and it’s not jingoistic.  The film let’s the remarkable footage do the talking most of the time. 

            On a personal note, I used to show a documentary to my American History classes entitled “Seven Views of War.”  It focused on the experiences of seven American servicemen and women in WWII, Korea, or Vietnam.  One of the seven was Hatch.  I can remember him saying that his footage was the first time Americans saw dead Americans.  Do your part, factory worker!

            P.S.  I just was doing some research on the battle for my website (History Anecdotes for Teachers) and I ran across a myth that the documentary perpetuated.  The narrator mentions that the shore guns that the Navy took out was Vickers guns captured by the Japanese at Singapore.  Many years later, historians discovered the guns were sold to Japan in 1905 for the Russo-Japanese War.  The mistake was understandable.

 Here is the documentary:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JolhiCbU_u8