Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): They Were Expendable, A Canterbury Tale, & Hail the Conquering Hero

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

They Were Expendable, A Canterbury Tale, & Hail the Conquering Hero


Watching three films from 1944-45 back to back to back I was struck by World War II cinema's variety of flavors. Hail the Conquering Hero, an all-American Preston Sturges comedy, takes place far from the battlefield, on the homefront where all eyes are on a war which remains somehow elusive, even imaginary. They Were Expendable, on the other hand, is mired in the muck of war; it's one of John Ford's most Hawksian films, the male camaraderie (even featuring a "one of the guys" tough gal, played by Donna Reed) mostly untouched by sentimentality or mythologizing. Meanwhile, Powell and Pressburger, that eccentrically flamboyant yet surprisingly un-escapist duo, negotiate between these two spheres. A Canterbury Tale is set on a "home front" which is also at times a battlefield, a British countryside fundamentally transformed by modern warfare, with its troop transports, blackouts, and women at work. Together, the three films convey a fascinating triptych view of how movies presented the war while it was still unfolding.



Hail the Conquering Hero sings a cockeyed duet with Sturges' earlier Sullivan's Travels: in that film, a wealthy filmmaker desperately tries to experience Depression-era poverty, yet circumstances keep returning him to comfortable Hollywood. Hail's impossibly named Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (Eddie Bracken) is an ex-Marine, discharged due to hay fever; while millions of young men worry they'll die by Japanese hands, Woody frets over missing Guadalcanal and losing his opportunity to follow in dead Dad's footsteps. A troop of sympathetic Marines concoct an elaborate lie whereby Woodrow will return home a war hero and, against his wishes, the whole town ends up feting this "triumphant" veteran. Sturges savors the ironic premise while also sardonically yet lovingly painting a portrait of out-of-touch small town America, concerned and fascinated by the war but without a clue of its reality.

Apparently, while directing They Were Expendable, John Ford treated John Wayne like a real-life Woodrow Truesmith, constantly mocking and correcting him for not "getting it right" due to inexperience (Wayne got a deferment and never served, whereas Ford himself was in the Naval Reserves, and shot propaganda films in the heat of combat). Star Robert Mongomery, D.P. Joseph August, and writer Frank Read were all either reservists or veterans, and the story - following the plight of a PT crew as the Japanese approach the Philippines - is saturated in stoic attitude and realistic texture. It has its longueurs - if that's the right word - but they are gripping longueurs, capturing both the nervous downtime and the chaotic action of warfare. The attack sequences still cary a verve and sense of realism, while the location work, conducing in Florida, nonetheless captures the pungeant texture of Bataan.

A Canterbury Tale is also shot on location, far from the sweat of the Phillipines, yet just as close to a (different) enemy. The movie fascinates because it captures a sense of civilian society at war. There are three soldiers onscreen, yet the most memorable characters are Alison Smith (Sheila Sim), a hearty farm worker whose lover was lost in the Mideast, and Thomas Colpepper, JP (Eric Portman), an enigmatic official and local history buff who just may be the "glue-man," a mysterious midnight marauder pouring glue in girls' hair to keep them indoors. When the true culprit and motive are unveiled, there's less logic than whimsy in true Powell and Pressburger fashion. However, this conclusion also concerns itself with what this changing world will ultimately produce. If Hail anticipates and speculates on the war from afar, and Expendable experiences it up close, then Canterbury already starts to move beyond it, recognizing how this total war brings people together and pulls them apart, how it can create a new future while reawakening the past and how, unlike poor Woody, ultimately we are all soldiers on history's battlefield.

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