Tag Archives: Lewis Milestone

The Purple Heart (1944)

In April of 1942, the United States aircraft carrier Hornet, three cruisers, and seven destroyers sailed to within 750 miles of the Japanese mainland. On the deck of the Hornet were 16 long-range, B-25 bombers, stripped down, and loaded with a much fuel and as many bombs as they could carry. Although the “Doolittle Raid” caused only minor damage to a few industrial and military installations on the outskirts of Tokyo, Yokosuka, Nagoya, Kobe and Osaka, the psychological effect was considerable. Only 4 months after Pearl Harbor, the United States Navy had hit the Japanese mainland. Of the 80 men who began the raid, 69 made it safely to nationalist held areas of China, or to the Soviet Union. Three were killed over Japan. Eight were taken prisoner by the Imperial Japanese Army.

The Purple Heart is a fictionalized drama about the 8 crew members of the Doolittle Raid who went missing in action. Made in 1944, before anybody knew that 3 were executed and 1 died in a prisoner of war camp, Lewis Milestone’s film is a bloodthirsty, racist, genocidal exercise in propaganda designed to justify the murder of Japanese civilians. It is also, along with Robert Aldrich’s brutally cynical film Attack, the best American movie about World War II. While the Japanese characters in The Purple Heart are depicted in such a demeaning, bigoted manner that you can barely understand what they’re saying half the time, Milestone’s film embodies the contradictions of the American war against Imperial Japan in a way that’s true to history. In 1944, the United States was a democracy. Imperial Japan was a fascist abomination bent on conquering all of East Asia. Yet by 1945, after the American government murdered hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians in the Tokyo fire bombings, and in the nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, very little moral difference remained between the two belligerent countries.

The Purple Heart takes place entirely in a Japanese courtroom. Eight American airmen commanded by Captain Harvey Ross, played by Dana Andrews, are on trial, not as POWs, but as common criminals, accused of machine gunning Japanese civilians at schools and hospitals. The trial is a mockery of justice. Newspaper reporters from friendly nations like Germany are admitted. Journalists from neutral countries like Portugal and the Soviet Union suddenly find that their press credentials are no longer valid. The 8 men are assigned a “defense attorney” who never consults with his “clients,” or cross examines witnesses. The prosecuting attorney is a sadistic Japanese army officer named General Mitsub. The “judge” isn’t a judge at all, but a Japanese warlord. Captain Ross is not allowed to meet with either the Red Cross or the ambassador from the Swiss embassy. The verdict is a foregone conclusion. Captain Ross and his seven crewmen will be found guilty.

“So why have the trial at all?” the viewer wonders. “Why not just line Captain Ross and his men up against the nearest wall, and call the firing squad”

While Lewis Milestone’s depiction of the Japanese is not only racist, but genocidal, his depiction of their politics is surprisingly realistic. The only reason Captain Ross and his 7 crewman are on trial at all is a bureaucratic squabble between the Japanese Army and the Japanese Navy. General Mitsub, an army officer, wants the Americans to swear under oath that the 16 bombers came from an aircraft carrier. For him, it would be a loss of honor if they came from occupied China. The Japanese Navy, on the other hand, denies that an American carrier got within 1000 miles of the Japanese mainland, even though the United States cruiser Nashville had sunk a Japanese picket boat that got too close to the Hornet’s task force.

In other words, if General Mitsub cannot prove that the Doolittle Raid came from an aircraft carrier, he’ll have to commit seppuku. If he succeeds in extracting a confession from Captain Ross, and his men, then the Emperor will put the blame on the navy. One by one he calls up the members of Captain Ross’ crew out of their cell, and tries to torture them into admitting the 16 bombers came from the Hornet. There’s Sergeant Jan Skvoznik, a big Polish American football player. He loses his mind. There’s Lieutenant Angelo Canelli, and Italian American painter. They break his hands. There’s Sergeant Howard Clinton, a teenager from the south. After he refuses to talk, they cut out his vocal chords. Finally, there’s Captain Ross himself. As the senior officer, he’s tortured psychologically, not physically. “I worked on a fishing boat out of Sante Barbara,” Mitsub says. “I mapped every inch of your coastline from San Diego to Seattle.”

The climax of the Purple Heart comes when the judge offers the Americans a deal. As soldiers “just following orders,” they don’t even have to admit they came from an aircraft carrier. All they have to do is name their commanding officers. When Captain Ross asks for a recess, General Mitsub is confident that he’s won. But the American commander has something up his sleeve the Japanese of Lewis Milestone’s film will never understand, radical democracy. Mitsub, like all authoritarians, had hoped to beat the enemy by divide and conquer, by isolating the weakest link in the chain. Captain Ross decides that he can not only win, but he can win playing by Mitsub’s rules. The military chain of command is suspended, he announces during the recess. He won’t order any of the men to stay silent against their will. They will take a vote. What’s more, the vote will be decided, not by majority rule, but by consensus. He holds out a vase and passes it around the room. Each man will drop his wings inside, broken if he votes to talk, unbroken is he votes to say silent and die. Mitsub comes into the room to announce that the recess is over. Captain Ross hands the vase to the judge. If there’s even one pair of broken wings inside the vase, all eight men will tell the court what they want to hear.

Needless to say, in a pro-war propaganda film like The Purple Heart, there won’t be any broken wings. There aren’t. One by one, the judge counts them out. One by one, they’re unbroken. When he reaches the eighth unbroken wing, he looks both enraged and dismayed. “Is this your answer?” he says in disbelief. Captain Ross stands up and gives a defiant speech that’s both ridiculous and inspiring. “This war won’t be finished until your dirty little empire is wiped off the face of the earth,” he says. We hear a gunshot. General Mitsub has committed suicide. Democracy has beaten fascism. As odd as it may seem in a pro-war, racist, genocidal work of propaganda, that’s the message. Democracy is good. Torture is bad. Real men stand up for democracy against torture, kangaroo courts, and fascist intimidation.

Whether or not Lewis Milestone – a Russian Jew making a racist film, even as Hitler was gassing Jews in Eastern Europe – genuinely believed his genocidal depiction of the Japanese is beside the point. Nobody believes it today. There’s anti-Japanese, and anti-Chinese bigotry in the United States of 2015, but even the most hard core racist would find the depiction of the Japanese in The Purple Heart almost comically dated. On the other hand, Lewis Milestone raises issues, kangaroo courts behind a wall of censorship, torture, the electronic surveillance of prisoners and the denial of counsel to the accused, that are sadly relevant to the United States of The Patriot Act.

Everything Lewis Milestone accused the Japanese of in 1944, anybody could accuse the United States of in 2015. Everything that General Mitsub did to Captain Ross and his crew, George W. Bush and Barack Obama have done to Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, and Jeremy Hammond. No American can honestly watch The Purple Heart in 2015 and say he’s like Captain Ross or Lieutenant Wayne Greenbaum, Ross’s second in command, an educated Jewish American from New York, a CUNY graduate who can quote the Geneva Convention from memory. On the contrary, if General Mitsub presides over a mockery of justice based on divide and conquer, surveillance, torture, and arbitrary executions, we all remember how George W. Bush said “the Constitution is only a piece of paper,” or how Alberto Gonzalez called the Geneva Convention “quaint,” or how Barack Obama declared Wall Street to be above the law, and then went on to prosecute journalists and whistle blowers.

What’s more, even in 1944, Milestone’s propaganda was full of holes. While the Doolittle Raid bombed only military targets, by 1945, the United States Air Force under Curtis LeMay was committing crimes against Japanese civilians far and away worse than machine gunning a schools and hospitals. LeMay’s air force burned Tokyo to the ground, killing over 100,000 people and displacing over a million. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were two of the greatest war crimes in history. Indeed, the American mass murder of Japanese civilians along with the internment of Japanese Americans based on nothing but the color of their skin gives the lie to the idea that “we” were fighting for democracy against the Japanese. On the contrary, we were fighting for empire. Whatever his intentions, Lewis Millstone gets it all up on screen, the democratic, multicultural ideal of Roosevelt’s New Deal America, and the genocidal racism that made it impossible.

All Quiet On The Western Front (1930)

Last month, President Barack Obama went to Flanders and gave a speech about the First World War. As is typical for him, his words were phrased so carefully that they aspire to an ambiguity that, if achieved, would render them almost meaningless. “And so this visit, this hallowed ground, reminds us that we must never, ever take our progress for granted,” he said, laying a wreath on the graves of three American soldiers. “We must commit perennially to peace, which binds us across oceans.”

Does this man ever take a clear, principled stand on anything?

“Here, we also see that no soldier — and no nation — sacrificed alone,” he continued, honoring Brave Little Belgium. “I’m told that this is one of more than 100 cemeteries tucked into the quiet corners of this beautiful countryside. It’s estimated that beneath about 50 square miles there rest hundreds of thousands of men — Belgian and American, French and Canadian, British and Australian, and so many others.”

The First World War, which, until 1945, was usually known as “The Great War,” is one of the most written about, yet, at least in the United States, one of the least understood events of the 20th Century. President Obama hints at some of the scale of the conflict, but he deprives it of its meaning by depriving it of its meaninglessness. To argue that the French and Belgium ruling classes made a brave stand for democracy and civilization by sacrificing a generation of their young men against the German ruling class may work as a veiled threat against the Russians in Ukraine, but it does nothing to increase our understanding of the Holocaust that took place in Western Europe between 1914-1918.

All Quiet On the Western Front has such a distant, luminous aura that it seems as much a part of the history of The Great War as it does a film about The Great War. Based on the novel of the same name by the German novelist Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet On the Western Front is the first Hollywood movie to win simultaneous Best Picture and Best Director awards. Even though, or perhaps because it shows the Great War from the point of view of the front line German soldier, Joseph Goebbels organized an attack on its premier in Germany, setting off stink bombs and releasing white mice in the theater. Eventually, Carl Laemmle, Sr., the head of Universal, agreed to edit out so many of the passages attacking German militarism, most of the film was left on the cutting room floor.

Does All Quiet on the Western Front live up to its legend?

I suppose the answer would be “yes and no.” The technology seems crude by today’s standards, the acting almost wooden. As a piece of cinema, as drama, it falls far short of Jean Renoir’s Grand Illusion. All Quiet on the Western Front is overly long, and perhaps just a bit boring. It has no character as vividly drawn as Renoir’s sublime Captain de Boeldieu, an aristocratic French pilot who puts on a pair of white gloves, and sacrifices his life to help two comrades escape as casually as if he were ordering a bottle of wine at Maxim’s.

But perhaps that’s the point. Where The Grand Illusion showed us the Great War from the point of view of the elite, All Quiet on The Western Front tells us the story of the rank and file German soldier. We begin in a high school class in an unnamed German city. If it’s sometimes easy to forget that this is an American film, it’s little details like this remind us the film was produced in Hollywood, not Berlin. There were of course, no general public high schools in imperial Germany. There were Gymnasiums, schools for the university bound elite. There were realschules, oriented towards a more technical, practical curriculum. There were apprenticeships and less prestigious institutions for the working class. Kantorek, the “high school” teacher who gives the speech that opens All Quiet on the Western Front stands in front of a blackboard where we can see several foreign languages, one of them Latin, so it’s probably a gymnasium, but the class he exhorts to enlist and serve the fatherland resembles a classic American World War II infantry platoon in its diversity.

There’s Joseph Behm, a quiet, nervous young man who’s less enthusiastic than the rest of the class, and who would later be the first of their group to be killed. There’s Peter Leer, a ladies man and talented mathematician. There’s Fredrich Müller, a quiet bookworm who brings his own pair of boots to the front, boots of such high quality that the rest of his platoon covet them after his death. There’s Paul Baumer, the book’s hero, an aspiring writer, and clearly a stand in for Remaque himself. The novel, and the movie, ends with Baumer’s death, and, for the most part, sees the war through his eyes. Baumer is a familiar character in American war movies. He’s Charlie Sheen’s Chris Taylor from Platoon. He’s Mathew Modine’s James T. “Joker” Davis from Full Metal Jacket. He’s Lieutenant Henry from A Farewell to Arms. He’s the representative young man for whom the war is his coming of age, the sensitive, intelligent every man who represents the nation as a whole.

Unlike The Grand Illusion, there are no senior officers or members of the elite. All Quiet on the Western Front is a savage indictment of German militarism, but we don’t get to see the Prussian general staff. There are no millionaire arms manufacturers. There’s one junior officer, Lieutenant Bertinck, an intelligent company commander who’s largely respected by the rank and file soldiers under his command, but, for the most part, the only authority figures we see are the same authority figures we all see. There’s Kantorek, the stupid elderly high school teacher who foolishly brainwashes Paul and his class into signing up at the beginning of the war in 1914, then, just as foolishly, keeps giving the same speech 4 years later, even after millions of corpses have piled up. There’s Corporal Himmelstoss, a postman in civilian life. Himmelstoss represents everything that’s rotten about imperial Germany. A strutting little martinet, he abuses his men during their basic training. He cheats them of their leave, pulls rank instead of earning their respect, and later, when he goes the front, proves himself to be first a coward, then a fool.

Above all there’s Stanislaus Katczinsky. Katczinsky, or “Kat,” is a 40-year-old veteran who serves as a mentor and father figure to the 18 and 19-year-old recruits. He’s a rough looking man who worked as a cobbler in civilian life, but who’s a natural leader, and model of the kind of NCO soldiers in every army genuinely respect. He doesn’t pull rank. He doesn’t bully. He never gives speeches about the fatherland. Kat is only concerned with what the soldiers are concerned with, staying alive, and getting enough to eat. The food in the Imperial German Army, like the food in any big, industrial institution, isn’t of the highest quality. What’s more, Germany, in 1914, was subject to a British naval blockade that made food even more scarce than it would have been.

All Quiet on the Western Front was released in August of 1930, which was almost a year after the stock market crash in 1929. I’m not exactly sure when it was filmed, or exactly how much of a role the struggle for food plays in the book, but clearly the images of soldiers trying to make a coveted loaf of bread last, or Kat stealing a whole pig from a supply truck, would take on greater significance as the United States, and Europe, slipped further and further into the Great Depression. Kat would become, not only the veteran soldier. He might also be the veteran hobo who knew how to avoid the police, or the resourceful father figure who knows how to keep his children alive in spite of all the poverty and despair.

All Quiet On The Western Front — I’m talking only about the film. I haven’t read the book — may not have an explicitly leftist agenda, but, clearly, Stanislaus Katczinsky represents the organized working class, and Corporal Himmelstoss the proto-fascist petty-bourgeoisie.

All Quiet On The Western Front would also set the template for dozens of American films about the “futility of war.” Baumer, the aspiring writer, is confronted by nothing but absurdity. There’s young man with the fine, imported leather boots who has his leg amputated. There’s the petty, tyrannical cook who refuses to serve dinner because he cooked for 150 and half the company had been killed during a ferocious battle. He can’t dish out any more than he’s allowed to by regulations but he can’t throw the extra food out either because that’s also against regulations. There are the men themselves, as thankful for the extra food as they are sorry about the 75 dead comrades. There’s the incessant war with the French for a blasted landscape nobody wants anyway. There’s the French soldier who takes forever to die. There’s the shelling of the graveyard that digs up long dead corpses and sends splinters of wooden coffins flying through the air. There’s Baumer’s futile attempt to carry Kat to a hospital for a broken shin. Kat gets hit in the head by shrapnel while Baumer has him slung over his shoulder. There’s Baumer’s absurd death only a few hours before the war’s end. Nothing in All Quiet On The Western Front is glorious or heroic. There aren’t any gallant individual gestures as in Grand Illusion. Everything about the Great War is dirty, rotten, meaningless. There are no heroes and cowards, as Baumer tries to make clear to his old high school teacher and new students while he’s home on leave. There are only living men and dead men. The only goal is to stay alive. Since the war is so absurd, it’s not even easy to want that.

If the Great War is not well-understood in the United States, and if President Obama’s speech about “Brave Little Belgium” seemed to characteristically fatuous and glib, it’s entirely due to the absurd nature of the Great War. Unlike the United States Civil War, which was about ending slavery, or the wars of the French Revolution, which were about bringing democracy, or the Second World War, which was destroying fascism, or the Spanish Civil War, which was about destroying fascism and bringing democracy, the Great War of 1914 was about absolutely nothing. The French, German, and British ruling classes were equally rotten, the Russian and American ruling classes probably worse. All Quiet On The Western Front would eventually be overshadowed by a flood of movies about World War II. The idea that war is hell and only hell never quite made sense when you were fighting Hitler. The template would finally come to fruition after the United States War in Vietnam. The real successors to All Quiet On The Western Front are films like the unjustly neglected Boys in Company C, not the hyper stylized Full Metal Jacket. But even the War in Vietnam had good guys, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese, and bad guys, the United States. For sheer amoral, politically neutral absurdity, nothing ever quite matched The Great War.

All Quiet On The Western Front may drag, may not be an enjoyable film to watch, but unlike Barack Obama, it gets everything right.