If there is a forgotten theater where American troops fought in World War II, it is most definitely the Aleutians. The Japanese took Attu and Kiska, islands in the Aleutian chain, in June of 1942, to forestall the Aleutians being used as a base for a move on the Japanese Home Islands from the Aleutians. Due to the rugged weather conditions, the US had never seriously entertained using the Aleutians as a staging area for future offensives. However, Attu and Kiska were American territory, and national pride, as well as alarm from the Alaskan territorial government, made inevitable an American campaign to take back the strategically worthless islands. Continue reading
Probably the most realistic depiction of World War II combat put to film, The Battle of San Pietro, in the public domain, is now considered a minor masterpiece. At the time of its release in 1945 it was intensely controversial. Fought between December 8-17 in 1943, the assault of the 143rd Infantry of the 36th Division was filmed by Captain John Huston, who was making films for the Army, a rare case where the Army actually made use of the civilian expertise of one of its soldiers. Huston’s film shows war in all of its unglamorous horror. After the Hollywood depiction of war during World War II it came as an unpleasant revelation for viewers. Army brass were concerned about the film having a depressing effect on the morale of the troops. Army Chief of Staff, General George C. Marshall, however, came to the defense of the film, thinking that it would make a good training film, underlining to troops why they had to take their training seriously. The film was used in training and Huston was promoted to major.
He had been to touch the great death, and found that, after all, it was but the great death. He was a man.
The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane
I recently was watching The Red Badge of Courage, (1951) and I was struck yet again by what a forgotten masterpiece it is. Filmed in stark black and white, the film has almost a documentary feel to it, as if a World War II era newsreel camera had magically transplanted itself to the Civil War. The combat scenes are highly realistic depictions of Civil War combat, and the actors speak and act like Civil War soldiers and not like 1951 actors dressed up in Civil War costumes.
As one critic said at the time, watching the film is like watching a Matthew Brady photograph of the Civil War come to life.
It was a stroke of genius for director John Huston to have as star of his film Audie Murphy, as the youth who, in Stephen Crane’s unforgettable novel, has his first taste of combat in the Civil War. Murphy looked like a typical Hollywood “pretty boy” but he was anything but. From a family of 12 in Texas, Murphy had dropped out of school in the fifth grade to support his family after his father ran off. His mother died in 1941. In 1942 he enlisted in the Army at 16, lying about his birthday, partially to support his family and partially because he dreamed of a military career. By the end of the war, before his 19th birthday, he was a second lieutenant and had earned in hellish combat a Medal of Honor, a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, a Legion of Merit, a French Legion of Honor, a French Croix de Guerre, a Belgian Croix de Guerre, two Bronze Stars and three Purple Hearts. He was the most decorated soldier of the US Army in World War 2.
Murphy’s co-star in the film was also an Army combat veteran, Bill Mauldin, the famed cartoonist who drew the Willie and Joe cartoons in Stars and Stripes, the Army newspaper, during World War II. Continue reading
to care for him who shall have borne the battle
During World War II director John Huston produced three films for the US government. Let There Be Light was shot for the Army Signal Corps. It covers the treatment of 75 US soldiers traumatized by their combat experiences in World War II. The film is narrated by Walter Huston, the academy award-winning actor father of John Huston. The Army brass did not like the finished product, thinking that its focus on men who suffered psychological damage from their service could be demoralizing to the troops, and banned the film on the grounds that it invaded the privacy of the soldiers featured in the film and that the releases they signed had been lost. (This reason was pretextual, but as a matter of law I would not place any reliance on a release signed by someone undergoing mental treatment standing up for an instant in court.) Continue reading