Our War Films Come Back To Haunt Us

Published: 2005-01-11

It is discomforting, if not embarrassing, when watching films Hollywood made about W.W. II, to note the parallel between ourselves and the Germans; especially regarding occupation. There are those who will say we bear no resemblance, that we stand for liberty and freedom, but it is we of course who say this, just as the Germans too had their excuses.

Films about the occupation are an interesting study. I have just watched, for instance, “This Land Is Mine,” directed by Jean Renoir, staring Charles Laughton, George Sanders and Maureen O’Hara. Laughton is on trial for the murder of Sanders, a German collaborator, and the Germans devise a ruse to prevent Laughton from speaking his defense. That puts me in mind of the fact that for long time after his capture we heard nothing of Saddam Hussein, who was anything but subdued and rather vociferous the one time he was allowed to appear in public. Now that his trial is finally underway, we still hear only bits and pieces, enough to realize Saddam at least is not being drugged.

It is interesting to note an admission the Germans allowed freedom of speech in French courts. We say we do in Afghanistan and Iraq, but it wasn’t all that long ago, a matter of recent memory, that we were shooting down Iraqi civilians protesting the closing of certain of their newspapers. Of course, we said maintaining public order was necessary. We also said the paper was calling for armed resistance to our occupation; quite intolerable. Isn’t that what the French resistance was doing in regard to the Germans, not to mention those who resisted in Denmark and Norway – with our help?

For a while now we’ve been hunting for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Iraqi insurgent who narrowly escaped U.S. capture at a coalition check point in February 2005. Zarqawi is wanted as the mastermind behind bombings and sabotage against the US-led occupation; compare to resistance leader Viktor Lazlo in “Casablanca,” who eludes the Nazis all over Europe and ends up sipping champagne with them at Rick’s Café in French Morocco. Major Strasser, the Nazi leader, knew who Lazlo was but respected international agreements: he wouldn’t arrest him on Vichy territory. How unlike our troops who, when they found the sons of Saddam Hussien, annihilated them in their own home.

Lillian Hellman’s “Watch On The Rhine” was released by MGM in 1943. Hellman’s story occurs nowhere near the Rhine but is comfortably removed to the United States where her protagonists seek asylum. Kurt Mueller, an Austrian immigrant (played by Paul Henreid) and his wife (played by Bette Davis) and three children come to the U.S. as legal aliens through Mexico (how unlike the illegal way we get them now) and settle with the wife’s mother in a posh New England home. One soon discovers Kurt is an “anti-fascist,” that he makes his living fighting the Nazis though it doesn’t pay well. Turns out, however, he’s carrying $23,000 in anti-Nazi donations. A certain Rumanian count, also living in the home, finds out about it and blackmails Kurt for a share. Problem is, Kurt is due to return to Germany to carry on the fight. On the night of his departure, he murders the count to keep him from tattling, then pleads with the wife’s family to cover for him. They in fact do him one better: they give some of their own money to continue the killing campaign once he returns to Germany. Puts me in mind of the suicide bombers in Iraq and Israel. One of Israel’s (and, of course, our) complaints against Saddam Hussein was the fact he made monetary donations to the families of Palestinian freedom fighters once they had died for their cause. In Saddam’s case, however, we are to understand this was anything but noble. And yet, Hellman, who is Jewish, and Metro Goldwyn Mayer, our largest U.S. film company, obviously thought this was quite o.k. when the shoe was on the other foot some sixty years ago.

Not only does Kurt go to risk almost certain death against the Nazis, but his eldest son gains the sympathy and understanding of the mother (Davis) to follow in his footsteps should the father not return; not to mention his younger brother after him, if necessary: this degree of fanaticism is unmatched even by Arab freedom fighters, who get a bad rap for their more modest sacrifice. The same theme is played out in a different way in the film “Tomorrow Is Forever.” Here our star, Orson Wells, playing the role of “Eric Kessler,” prevents his son from leaving on a train with his buddies to enlist, only to return him to wife Claudette Colbert who decides her son’s wanting to fight Hitler is o.k. after all, even if he’s still a minor. Remember this when you are asked to disparage Palestinian mothers who allow their children to throw stones at Israeli tanks. There is also a scene in this film where Orson, who is in disguise and has been living in Austria, speaks about how he saw Nazis murder a doctor because they could not countenance his tending the wounds of patients who were not sympathetic to Nazism. One may recall, however vaguely, the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch and the fact American soldiers killed Iraqi medical personnel because they were thought to be a threat and not sympathetic to Americans. One must give credit to Private Lynch for telling the truth afterwards, something young Natalie Wood was not in a position to do when playing the little girl frightened by Nazi brutalities.

We are wont to deprecate the French because they opposed our going to war against Iraq; we are wont to remind how we helped liberate them in W.W. II. “Is Paris Burning” (1966) reminds it was French General LeClerc and fellow Frenchmen who, in fact, liberated Paris. With a script by Gore Vidal and Francis Ford Cuppola, it hosts a wealth of French and American actors, including Orson Wells, Yves Montand, Charles Boyer, Glenn Ford, Anthony Perkins and Kirk Douglas. Of particular note, the film depicts the German high command conspiring with the Luftwaffe to bomb the city when they depart and otherwise preparing charges to blow up all the major buildings: the Eiffel Tower, George the Fifth Bridge, Napoleon’s Tomb, the Chamber of Deputies. Of course, in reality, none of these edifices suffered any harm. The Germans did not destroy them. Not so all the major cities in northern France we bombed in preparation for D-day, or the capital of Iraq and other Iraqi cities upon which we rained many tons of smart and not-so-smart bombs, producing a mass of rubble and twisted steel the vice-president’s pet company is now earning billions of your tax dollars to clean up. “Is Paris Burning” is memorable too, for the scene where two SS officers come to see German commandant von Choltitz demanding to expropriate an 11th c. tapestry from the Louvre as a present for the Fuehrer. Those thieving Nazis! Of course, one wonders whether any of the thousands of artifacts looted from the Baghdad Museum of Antiquities ended up in Washington, let alone as souvenirs in the private homes of GI’s returning to the States. Meanwhile, we are told we are helping to return those stolen items. Same deal regarding some 5,000 to 8,000 works of art the U.S. removed from Germany after W.W. II. For nearly 40 years, the U.S. Department of the Army held art it stole (“confiscated,” if you prefer) from the Germans, paintings by H.O. Hoyer, Wilhelm Sauter, Paul Hermann, Heinrich Knirr, W.O. Pittham, Claus Bergen and many others. Not until the mid-80’s did the U.S. Army begin to repatriate this art, but only those works that did not display the swastika. Thanks to us, the swastika was banned in Germany, and so according to rules we helped establish against free expression and freedom of political association, we also found ourselves in a position to justify retaining stolen goods.

“Edge of Darkness” (1943) portrays the brutality of the Nazi occupation of Norway. In it, Ann Sheridan is raped by a Nazi and this sets the mood for a righteous uprising led by Errol Flynn killing Nazis hither and yon. Of course, the insurgency that is killing our troops in Iraq began well before the Abu Ghraib scandal, but the scandal doubtless lent it some vehemence, just as more recent stories by Newsweek about flushing the Koran down a toilet at Guantanamo have led to riots and deaths (obviously we had to shoot those getting angry) in Afghanistan. Meanwhile, the enlisted perpetrators of Abu Ghraib are facing trials where they’ll receive relatively light sentences, their bosses, Brigadier General Janice Karpinski and Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, getting off with reduction in rank or loss of promotion. Compare this to the punishments we meted out to the highest ranking Germans following the show trials at Nuremberg. Unfortunately, the high-minded lesson we were teaching the world at that time didn’t stick.

There are literally hundreds of films made about the tragedy of the German occupation during World War II. The majority of these films, of course, were made in the U.S. The irony is that despite the ready exposure to the bad behavior of the Germans, we’ve become very much like them – or, at least, the negative image we created about them. “Beware your enemy, lest you become them,” runs the old saw. Truth is, our military’s adoption of the “Fritz” helmet makes us even look like the Germans. Oddly, however, we are now mock Germans fighting Arabs. Perhaps in another forty years we’ll be wearing turbans. Who will we be at war with then?


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Author(s): Daniel D. Desjardins
Title: Our War Films Come Back To Haunt Us
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Published: 2005-01-11
First posted on CODOH: Nov. 29, 2005, 6 p.m.
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