Summer 2020

The Cinema of Healing

Even during the worst of times, directors around the globe found ways of coping with crisis by holding a mirror to society—for good and bad

By Kenneth Turan

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing Paths of Glory
Stanley Kubrick, in dark suit, directs from the trenches on location for Paths of Glory (1957). (Photo: AMPAS)

It's a movie business truism so venerable no one can agree who said it first. Was it Sam Goldwyn, Humphrey Bogart or even Moss Hart who initially posited, "If you've got a message, call Western Union"?

Not that it matters who said it, because it's not really true. Difficult though it may be to believe for today's moviegoers, awash as we are in the cinema of overwhelming visual spectacle—superhero and otherwise—the movies have always sent messages in their own way, always talked to us and offered advice on what we could be thinking.

In times of crisis and catastrophe, this ability of movies and their directors to communicate with audiences, to contextualize trauma and impact public opinion with their artistry, this gift, as Samuel Beckett memorably put it, "to find a form that accommodates the mess," invariably comes to the fore.

For the truth is we turn to the movies and their makers as we turn to our friends, when we are unsettled, unmoored, unable to rest easy. Maybe it's because the screen is so large and authoritative; maybe because we all can cite something about life we first learned from film; but it is there we instinctively go.

It's not answers we look for necessarily, nothing so facile as that, but rather suggestions of possibilities, ideas of how to think about fraught situations. Because directors are grappling with these issues themselves, are living through the same things we are, they have thoughts for us as well.

With a devastating pandemic whose ultimate impact is still unknown very much with us, coupled with widespread discontent and mass protests over racial injustice, this seemed an appropriate time to look back and examine the kinds of compelling work directors have done in this vein in the past, to examine the widely differing ways they've used their gifts to come to terms with crises that were as unimaginable then as what we are currently going through seems now.

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing All Quiet on the Western Front

(Top) Lewis Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front (1930); (Bottom) William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (1946).(Photos: Photofest)

The Devastating Consequences of War

American filmmakers not only responded to war and other cataclysms virtually in real time—sometimes within a year of when the events were happening—they also responded to the same situations decades later, when advances in movie-making technology seemed to give the newer films a kind of edge, at least in terms of on-screen wizardry.

American films made on World War I, for instance, included 1957's ironically titled Paths of Glory, an anti-war epic with an impeccable pedigree. Starring Kirk Douglas and directed by Stanley Kubrick, its based-on-fact story of French military hypocrisy during the First World War shocked that nation to such an extent that the film was banned in France for nearly 20 years.

Paths of Glory is as strong a statement as it is because its war scenes are impeccably filmed, so much so that Winston Churchill admired their authenticity. Shot in Germany by George Krause on a meticulously prepared battlefield, Paths built its trenches two feet wider than the French originals to allow for the kind of bravura tracking shots that Max Ophuls, one of Kubrick's heroes, would have appreciated.

But when it came to immersing the viewer in the field of battle, Steven Spielberg's WWII opus Saving Private Ryan (1998) set a standard for future war movies that will be hard to match. A powerful and impressive milestone in the realistic depiction of combat in its opening D-Day sequence, Saving Private Ryan is as much an experience we live through as a film we watch on screen.

Spielberg's determination to be accurate is revealed in the way he presents action. Private Ryan gets as close to the unimaginable horror and chaos of battle as fiction film ever has—closer in fact, than some audience members may have wanted to experience. Panic, pitiless fear and bloody pandemonium are everywhere; we see the raw terror on everyone's face, and for once we know exactly why it's there.

On the other hand, though they don't necessarily have the equivalent staggering visuals, films made closer to the times of both world wars, sometimes made by people with relevant experience, have an invaluable emotional immediacy to go with their artistry that enables us to get a sense of what it felt like to be alive in those times.

American films made about World War I certainly underline that point, sending searing anti-war messages heightened by participants who knew the war well.

Lewis Milestone's harrowing All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), for instance, based on the Erich Maria Remarque novel, made a point of using veterans as background actors in its strong battle scenes. Winner of the best picture and best director Oscars, it did such an exceptional job conveying, in its own words, that "death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it," that participation in it was said to be a factor in turning star Lew Ayres into a pacifist who applied for conscientious objector status in World War II.

Verisimilitude was also a key element in two films that pressed audiences to understand the particular stresses and ever-present danger involved in being aviators. Wings, made in 1927, was directed by William Wellman, a combat flying veteran who insisted, even when it meant expensive days of waiting, for perfect visual conditions before he would allow planes to be filmed in the air.

Just three years later, 1930's Hell's Angels upped the ante for aerial stunts, creating ones so dangerous that three pilots and a mechanic were killed during shooting and director Howard Hughes, himself a pilot, was seriously injured while executing a maneuver a stunt man refused to attempt.

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing Heros For Sale

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing Casablanca
(Top) William Wellman’s Heroes for Sale (1933); (Bottom) , Michael Curtiz’s Casablanca (1942).(Photos: Photofest)

The Drumbeat of Fascism

When it came to World War II, the films Hollywood made during the war and just after offer the most compelling example of a surprising phenomenon. That would be how wide and varied a net that experienced directors cast in responding to the biggest subject of their lives, with many of their films not feeling at all like the ones we might be expecting. To paraphrase Beckett, it turns out that any number of forms can accommodate the mess.

Even a film that sounds conventional, for instance Fritz Lang's Hangmen Also Die! (1943), ends up darker and more oppressive than standard fare. Based on the story of the real-life assassination of Prague's Nazi ruler Reinhard Heydrich, and made so close to the actual events that the facts of how it happened weren't yet known, Hangmen drew its palpable fury from the participation of three German refugees: writer Bertolt Brecht, composer Hanns Eisler and, of course, director Lang himself, who had been approached by the Reich to do propaganda films before he fled his homeland.

Even Casablanca, perhaps the most celebrated film to come out of the war years, was initially envisioned as a fairly standard piece of propaganda entertainment. In fact, of the films shooting on the Warner Bros. lot in 1942, four of seven involved underground resistance to the Nazis. Yet what almost magically resulted—a hopeful, deeply emotional film that allows both idealism and romance to simultaneously triumph—was directed by an individual, Michael Curtiz, whose on-set empathy was strictly limited. But as an immigrant himself, Curtiz possessed an innate understanding of the refugee despair that is a key Casablanca element.

The most celebrated of the movie business warriors were the five directors—Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler—who, as detailed in Laurent Bouzereau's Five Came Back documentary based on Mark Harris' book, unhesitatingly abandoned their careers and ended up coming back to a postwar movie world that did not look at all the same to them.

Perhaps the most paradigmatic of these directors was Wyler, who, along with Milestone and Wellman, was among the founding members of the DGA. His dazzling air combat documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) was the first film ever reviewed on the front page of The New York Times, a testament to the film's power even at a time when war stories were competing for space. Wyler placed himself in such harm's way that flight conditions filming his follow-up documentary, Thunderbolt, led to severe hearing loss initially estimated at 80% gone.

So it was not a stretch for Wyler to agree to have his first postwar film be The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), winner of seven Oscars and emotionally potent and even painful to this day, a drama Spielberg says he's watched at least once a year for 30 years. The top-grossing film of the decade, this story about the adjustment to civilian life by a trio of returning veterans proved what many thought couldn't be true—that audiences would flock to a film that brought a bracing reality, as well as consummate skill to a downbeat story about problems those returning could identify with: deep psychological stress, bleak job prospects, especially for the disabled, and readjusting to a radically changed world.

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing The Deer Hunter

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing Memphis Belle

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing Dr. Strangelove
(Top) Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978); (Middle) Wyler’s Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944); (Bottom) Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). (Photos: (Top) Everett; (Middle) Photofest; (Bottom) Everett)

Gallows Humor During Dark Times

Arguably the most daring, most creative response to the war, a response so audacious it shocked some who saw it, was Ernst Lubitsch's To Be or Not to Be (1942). Begun when Europe was fully involved in World War II, still in front of the cameras on Dec. 7, 1941, when Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor forced America into the conflict, To Be brought Lubitsch's classic comic elements to a story involving murderous Nazis and the German occupation of Poland. Considered by Jean-Luc Godard to be one of the 10 best American sound films, it's an endeavor that feels fully as risky today as it did when it was made.

As Lubitsch explained in an article in The New York Times, "I was tired of the two established, recognized recipes: drama with comedy relief and comedy with dramatic relief. I made up my mind to make a picture with no attempt to relieve anybody from anything at any time—dramatic when the situation demands it, satire or comedy whenever it is called for. One might call it a tragic farce or a farcical tragedy—I do not care and neither do the audiences."

Lubitsch went on to explain that what was being satirized "are the Nazis and their ridiculous ideology," he wrote. "It can be argued if the tragedy of Poland realistically portrayed as in To Be or Not to Be can be merged with satire. I believe it can be."

More amorphous than the precise military invasions that began World War II, the existential threat of worldwide nuclear annihilation triggered by the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki only intensified when the Soviet Union acquired its own weapons of mass destruction and made it clear it was willing to use them.

Because this danger was so unprecedented and so terrifying, the ways directors chose to deal with it made for deeply unnerving cinema—films that continue to trouble your sleep if you revisit them late at night.

Even something like Fail Safe, which seems to be a straight-ahead genre exercise, fully lives up to the advertising line claiming it will "have you sitting on the brink of eternity." Based on a Eugene Burdick novel and directed with propulsive skill by Sidney Lumet, it stars Henry Fonda as a president who is faced with nothing but unpalatable choices when American planes mistakenly take off to bomb the Soviet Union. The more than 50 years since its release do not make the events here any less plausible or chilling.

As far as nightmarish black comedy goes, Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb has always been in its own league.

Based, like Fail Safe, on a novel, in this case by Peter George, and impeccably acted by a cast that included Peter Sellers (in multiple roles), George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens, it meshed complete absurdity and absolute terror in ways few films have even attempted, let alone achieved.

Nothing so nervy came out of America's next challenge, the Vietnam War, but because that conflict was so polarizing and went on for so many years, it ended up being dealt with by a film industry that broke down by political persuasion in ways other crises did not. No matter what you felt about the war, if you waited long enough, you could point to a film than reinforced your point of view.

Early out of the gate may have been 1968's zealously pro-war The Green Berets, starring and co-directed by John Wayne, but other, later films had different points of view. Both Oliver Stone's Platoon and his Born on the Fourth of July were fueled by a palpable anti-war fury. But the film that had perhaps the most haunting take on the conflict and how it tore communities apart was Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter. Starring Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage as a trio of friends sent to Vietnam, it echoed those long-ago World War I films in its concerns with what the war did to individuals.

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing Saving Private Ryan

DGA Quarterly Magazine Summer 2020 Cinema Healing Fall Safe

(Top) Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998); (Bottom) Sidney Lumet’s Fail Safe (1964). (Photos: Everett)

Finding Hope in the Midst of a Shattered Economy

As a way of coming full circle, the period that in some ways mirrors our own present crisis, the Great Depression—when directors had to grapple with the difficulty of putting into cinematic perspective an event that impacted the entirety of their audience—precipitated a pull-no-punches immediacy and intimacy in storytelling that has rarely been matched since.

As it turned out, the Depression overlapped in part with pre-Code Hollywood, an era mostly known for bold and risqué sexual content. But there was another side to pre-Code, an angry, socially conscious side that was furious at poverty and inequality and created films that were bracingly honest and unflinching even by today's standards. Such was the nature of the times that even as giddy a film as the Mervyn LeRoy-Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1933 made room for Al Durbin and Harry Warren's plaintive lament for the downtrodden, "Remember My Forgotten Man," with its disturbing lyric sung by Joan Blondell and Etta Moten: "You put a rifle in his hand, you sent him far away, you shouted hip hooray, but look at him today."

Even grittier were 1933's Wild Boys of the Road and Heroes for Sale, both directed by the vigorous Wings veteran William Wellman, whose empathy for those society cast off was visible as early as his 1928 silent Beggars of Life starring Louise Brooks.

Wild Boys of the Road, advertised as dealing with "the abandoned generation," starred Frankie Darrow and Dorothy Coonan as part of a small army of young people forced to become vagabonds and ride the rails because of impoverished parents. Basically good kids, they are overwhelmed by the miasma of poverty and end up fighting anarchic pitched battles with unfeeling police. "Ain't you afraid?" someone asks a young woman riding the rails alone. "Wouldn't do me any good if I was" is her edgy reply.

Heroes for Sale, made the same year (Hollywood did not take its time in those days), is if anything tougher and angrier. It stars sad-eyed Richard Barthelmess, a major silent film star (both Broken Blossoms and Way Down East for D.W. Griffith) whose sound career did not match his early glory, which adds a further touch of poignance to the proceedings.

Barthelmess plays a World War I veteran who gets a morphine addiction instead of the medals he deserves, and then endures bread lines, labor unrest and the scrutiny of the sour-faced Red Squad.

More even than its pre-Code co-conspirators, Heroes for Sale actively explores the idea that Depression America was close to total collapse. It's a film that's angry at the direction this country was taking in a way we've forgotten Hollywood can be. Will we ever see that kind of fury again? At this point, with virus uncertainty rampant and the future in doubt, it wouldn't be wise to say no.


Feature stories about the craft and challenges of directors and their teams working on feature films.

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