The Ingrid Pitt column: Hollywood’s uneasy relationship with war

Ingrid's got a stack of war films to work her way through... and some observations to share about them

I’ve just receive my packet of 14 war film DVDs from the Daily Mail. It seems crazy that you can get that number of films for under ten quid but I’m not complaining. As I wrote in an earlier bBlog, the 1940s is the period when the cinema lost its innocence. Up until then most of what was being pushed through the sprockets was experimental stuff. Testing the audience to get a reaction. In many ways the approach to film making was very naive. But it was this naivety which makes the reissue on DVD so watchable now. Fittingly one of the the last films of the 30s, Gone With The Wind, starring Clark Gable and Vivienne Leigh, a gutsy story about the American Civil War, hit the screens in Atlanta, Georgia in December 1939 while Britain sweated out the phoney war waiting for hostilities proper to commence. While Europe burned in 1940 and 1941 the Hollywood studios, by and large, ignored the conflagration and indulged in such fripperies as Down Argentina Way starring soon to be forces favourite, Betty Grable, oily Dago Don Ameche and the ‘Brazilian Bombshell’ with a penchant for wearing bananas, Carmen Miranda.

Louis B Mayer at MGM did offer a low-keyed story, The Mortal Storm, about Nazi persecution of the Jews in Germany and Britisher Alfred Hitchcock had a more gritty view of what was going on in Europe with Foreign Correspondent. General acknowledgement that there was anything amiss with the world passed isolationist America by. At the end of the film Joel McCrae did give a dire warning of things to come. With bombs raining down on London he does his broadcast to the US ending with: “The lights are going out in Europe. Ring yourself around with steel, America”. Someone must have heard the call because a couple of months later the studios pushed out A Yank in the RAF. This was about an American pilot, Tyrone Power, who joins the RAF to impress his girl friend, Betty Grable, (a noble sacrifice) but then realises what is at stake and becomes a fighting ace. Also in 1941 Gary Cooper appeared as a pacifist forced to fight a European war in Sergeant York. The film was a fantastic success and made the Americans even more determined to stay at home.

The English film industry was in one of its frequent states of crisis when the war broke out. Luckily the Whitehall moguls were inclined to finance film making as long as it promoted the Cause. This resulted in one of the most brutal films ever made. It exhorted the public to commit bloody mayhem on any German spies that happened to be lurking around the towns and villages. Went the Day Well was a pseudo documentary telling the tale in retrospect of the time when the Nazi troops took over an English village. The Narrator, Mervyn Johns, points out a memorial stone in the village church. On the plaque are the names of German Soldiers. “That’s the only piece of English soil the Germans ever got.” he explains to a visitor. The rest of the film points up how you can spot a Nazi. Things like crossing the number 7 and clicking your heels when introduced come high on the list. Then it shows how to kill them. Particularly enlightening is when the kindly old Granny hacks a Nazi invader to death in her front room.

As the war went on and bombing, rationing and death became the norm, the productions acted as morale boosters. Instead of showing individual heroes they projected everyone as a hero. John Mills and Dickie Attenborough seemed to be everywhere. John Mills usually playing a likeable cockney character and Dickie, more often than not, as a coward. But a redeemable coward to show that even Britishers who looked upon themselves as cowards have the true Brit deep inside. In Which We Serve (1942) not only had John and Dickie but, for good measure, that arch-Brit, Noel Coward. The story is about the survivors of HMS Torrin clinging to a lifeboat while being strafed by the devilish Hun and, while their mates silently slip, away keeping up their spirits by reminiscing about the past. It was written, acted, produced and directed by Coward, with a little help from a friend, David Lean. Mills played his staunch cockney character and Attenborough took charge of the cowarding department.

Ad – content continues below

By this time America had had its Damascus moment and were limbering up to join the war. Pearl Harbour convinced them that sending their young and unemployed to war while racking up the flagging industries wasn’t all bad. While the British cinema stuck to the stories of a stoic home front and the comradeship of all being bombed together, Hollywood’s approach was, typically, more flamboyant. America’s ambiguous approach to the war up until 1942 is revealed in a film made and released in late 1941, So Ends Our Night, before the Yanks were bombed into the war. It is a story about Nazi oppression and its genocidal hatred of the Jews. It had a story to tell but it was manacled by the fact that America didn’t want to come out overtly against a powerful country which still might turn out to be one of its best customers. Hitler isn’t mentioned and the whole approach is woolly.

Compare that with a film made only a few months later – Casablanca. Humphrey Bogart stars as a world weary American, Rick Blaine, hiding out in North Africa. He doesn’t want to know about the war or anything outside the confines of his night-club, Nick Blaine’s Cafe Americain. Casablanca has the lot. Beautiful and alluring love interest, Ingrid Bergman, Czech resistance hero, Paul Henreid, husband to the beauteous Ingrid, a venal copper, Claud Rains, Peter Lorre doing his nasty little man act, his on-screen partner, Sidney Greenstreet in his usual nemesis role and villainous Conrad Veldt. And of course there is wildly smiling Dooley Wilson to seal the romance with As Time Goes By. Which in a way leads to Bogart’s final line as Bergman decides to go off with her husband, Henreid. “We’ll always have Paris.” And not a dry eye in the house.

In direct contrast we have Mrs Miniver. Although the film was very British in concept it was actually made by MGM in 1941 before Pearl Harbour was hit. It came from a long running diary in The Times which became very popular in America. It showed how one family, the Minivers, played by Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon, weathered the gathering storm. It was said by Winston Churchill that the film had done more for the Allied cause than a flotilla of battleships. It, too, had a Nazi interloper who comes to a sticky end at the hands of the fragrant Garson while hubby Pidgeon is away in his little boat saving the army at Dunkirk..

As the war wore on and it became only a question of time before the Allies won, other types of film began to appear. Now it was possible to depict some of the worries that servicemen had about what their footloose wives might be doing on the home front. Waterloo Road (1943) was a good example. Cuckolded John Mills receives a letter from his sister saying his wife is having it away with a local spiv, played by Stewart Granger. Mills, about to be sent overseas, goes AWOL, sorts his rival, Granger, out in a fist fight which is one of the longest ever filmed, regains the loyalty of his pretty wife and goes to sea happy in the knowledge that Granger has gone to jail for draft-dodging. In the same year a film came out which was very bold for the time. Pressburger and Powell’s film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Roger Livesey plays Blimp bringing all the tenets of previous conflicts with him to the Second World War. It spews up all the arguments about patriotism and the futility of war without really getting anywhere. A daring departure from the norm in bomb-cratered Britain.

High up on my personal list of great films is Laurence Olivier’s Henry V. Forget Harry’s great speech on the eve of battle. The bit that bites is the cavalry in full panoply, line abreast, at first slowly, then gradually increasing the pace until they are charging full tilt at the French. Marvellous! I suppose it was a bit awkward that it was the French our ancient lads were mowing down but Shakespeare wasn’t long on Germans. In Hollywood, John Wayne, who was never to hear a shot fired in anger or wear a regulation service uniform, began his rise to WW2 Hero Supreme with Flying Tigers. True he was a sort of semi-official mercenary and he was fighting against the Japanese in the China cause – but it was a start. Back in England rumours were growing of a Second Front. Pay back Time! American GIs were over paid, over sexed and over here. But the English tradition of making the common people the heroes of the war continued with offering such as Millions Like Us. Pat Roc is a girl drafted into a munitions factory when she really wanting to be in uniform. The object of the film was to drive home the message that not everyone could have the glamour of dying on some distant field. Somebody had to stay at home and be atomised by a bomb down the chimney. But don’t worry. Each does his or her bit to save the world.

The war done and dusted the studios turned away from war and went silly with films showing the rebuilding of the nations. Ealing Studios did a particularly good job of this with films such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, a study by Dennis Price in how to murder the same person, Alec Guinness, eight times and find a get out of the noose card at the eleventh hour. There was also Whiskey Galore! and Passport to Pimlico to raise the spirits before returning to the day to day life of rationing, lung festering fogs and war torn streets.

Ad – content continues below

The Americans also thought it was time to get away from war and the memories of war. William Powell indulged in a little puff of froth with Mr Peabody and the Mermaid (1948) before moving on to more serious stuff with Bogart, Bacall and Robinson sweating it out on Key Largo while a hurricane threatens to blow their hotel into the sea. Great performances from all concerned. Orson Welles followed this up with The Third Man, on location in war torn Berlin, hiding out in a giant Ferris Wheel, and being enigmatic. As the world began to settle down, in the hiatus between World War 2 and the Cold War, films began to get more mercenary. What else could have spurred the furore about Guiseppe De Santis’s Bitter Rice with the curvaceous Silvano Mongana up to her thighs in a paddy field?

As the Forties faded into history, cinema made a big discovery. Colour was an extra dimension. and it was needed to combat the inroads black and white TV was making into the cinema’s grip on world entertainment. Colour had been around almost as long a celluloid – but in the Fifties it was coming of age. Big time!

Ingrid Pitt writes every Tuesday at Den of Geek; you can read her last column here.