Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Happy Land

Caught about the last two-thirds of this flick the other night on TCM.

It seems like a farly typical "home front" movie from the middle Forties; Don Ameche is a druggist in a little Hollywood-typical WW2-era town (Normal, Kansas, let's call it). We meet him as he's getting the telegram informing him that the Secretary of the Navy regrets that his only son has been transported to Valhalla on the end of a Japanese "Long Lance" torpedo. He's stricken, and the remainder of the movie is a long flashback/valedictory to his child, as discussed by the father and the ghost of his own dead father, who attempts to make the poor man see that his son a) already had a rich, full life and b) died so that all the other sons in his country might live.

Today, the celebration, muted and obscure as we have made it, of the Armistice that ended the killing of the sons of the mothers and fathers of 1918, has made me a little reflective of war and the central obscenity of wars: that, while in peace sons bury their fathers, in war fathers bury their sons. And that, in turn, made me think back to this little film.

It was all very sad, though Ameche did his best to blunt the sadness by confusing "tranquilized" with "grief-stricken" and sleepwalking his way through the role. I didn't tear up until the very end of the flick when an insanely young Harry Morgan shows up as the dead Rusty's shipmate. Colonel Potter is amazing: shy, quiet, tragic, really, in that he's clearly half of a buddy team that is now gone forever. I'd forgotten that Harry could be a hell of an actor when we wanted to - he tightens the movie's shot group into a single point: the loss of this young guy and the effect it has on everyone who knew him.

I ended up with a bunch of thoughts all tangled together, and I just wanted to lay the skeins out and see what you could pick out of them. So...

1. It still amazes me that people in 1943 would go to a theatre to see movies like this. This wasn't romance, drama or escape: they were living this movie. It was a WORLD war - probably 90% of the audience had kids, parents, brothers, uncles who were in the same situation as the son, risking their lives, hideously injured, or already dead, or the parents; mourning a young life gone and a future forever lost. In some ways the people of the 1940s were a very different people than most of us are today, and this flick is kind of an artifact of that.

2. It's been so long since the U.S. had fought a peer foe that the notion that the Navy was a dangerous and difficult place to be in a war seems freakish to me, like hearing about a Forest Ranger nibbled to death by squirrels or dry-gulched by rabid chipmunks. But in 1943 the victory at sea didn't seem as inevitable as it looks in retrospect. Japanese cruisers and destroyers hammered the hell out of the Allies around Guadalcanal in 1942(when this movie was being written and plotted out), Midway would have been just yesterday, and the days when being a sailor would be a happy condition faaaaar away from angry German landser were several years in the future.

3. I can't remember feeling the difference between "The Good War" and the current wars so strongly as while watching this. The whole flick was permeated with a sort of optimistic sadness, if you will, and a sense of universal calling. The writers, actors and directors clearly felt that this was an "American" story; the audiences must have seen it as something to be shared. They were grieving, see, but they were all in this together and the grief was a burden they shared with each other, even with others they didn't know. The Harry Morgan character ties it all up, as I mentioned; he's saddened and hesitant and almost...lost, as if this huge piece of himself has been ripped out of him by the sinking of his ship and the loss of his shipmates, especially his friend Rusty. And the father, bereft as he is by the loss of his son, is touched by this and responds to it, even though he's met this young man only through his son's letters. And the movie clearly expects the audience to respond, too, positing this as a sort of "everyman" situation that a typical American viewer of 1943 would respond to as well...

Today we are a nation and a military apart in so many ways. The Army I served in already thought of itself as a force apart from the weak, womanish civilians (even as 20 percent of us or more were female..!) and their emo, random habits. I can't imagine that fighting a war largely ignored by the public outside of the sort of frivolous displays of meaningless patriotism symbolized (for me, at any rate) by the ubiquitous magnetic automobile yellow-ribbon stickers has done anything but widen that distance. Most of us have little or no idea of the soldier's, sailor's or airman's life, little knowledge of the average GI, who he or she is, what he or she thinks...a movie like "Happy Land" would be almost unsellable today, or would be warped into a pseudopatriotic chest-beating exercise or a maudlin Lifetime Network tearjerker.

Today I don't want to say anything about politics and Terror and war and ideas and ideals. I just want to regret that we have fallen so far from, and forgotten so much of, the ideal that our Founders and forefathers had; to avoid standing armies and fighting little wars in faraway places for imperial purposes. They'd had enough of that in 1715 and 1747, and they had learned that when you had an Army that wasn't "of the People, by the People and for the People" then the bonds that held the Soldiers to the People - that forged the kind of tie that could make perfect strangers sit in a darkened theatre and weep for the pain of a fictional man and e death of a sailor they never knew - were broken, that there was a real risk that the care and thoughtfulness that we should take before sending our young people to fight and die might just possibly Perish from the Earth.


walternatives said...

Thinking of you and your service to our country today, Chief...


sheerahkahn said...

I have on my blog a picture taken by David Duncan Douglas which shows a Marine with a thousand yard stare...here, I'll quote it for you...

winds uknown to most mortals
never - forgiving
hurrican ferocity
(chill factor unknown)
- 40 F.

Somewhere South
Yalu River
North Korea
9 December 1950 ... dawn

I asked the rigid Marine

(age also uknown)
teenager or grandfather

idiotic or sacrilegious
under normal circumstances
quite normal there

I were God
what would you want
for Christmas?

His answer took almost forever

"Give me Tomorrow"

David Douglas Duncan

Anyway, he wrote an article for NYT...um...hmm, lemme see if I still have it...


Lisa said...

Poignant observation on the difference between then and now.

Almost every family was touched by WWII. Today, almost no one I know post-Vietnam age has a family experience with wartime service. For them, camos are a fashion phenomenon and soldiers make for interesting action flicks. They are exotic, macho, Rambo sorts. Certainly not the guy next door, which as you point out, used to be the case.

I see estrangement all 'round. Greed and selfishness are overriding themes. I'm not sure how you return to the idea of Union. Perhaps the leaders need to model the idea of shared sacrifice. We'll see about that.

Lisa said...

sorry--Happy Veterans Day and thank you for your service, then as now!

FDChief said...

W, Lisa: Thank you. In the light of my thoughts and reflections of the difference between my own service and all the young men who left home to fight and defeat the truly frightful and deadly enemies of 1943 I feel very inadequate indeed.

But for this relief, much thanks...

Sheerah: Thank you for that. As much as it wasn't "the Good War", the sufferings of our young men in Korea were like nothing we've seen since, and their calvary just as long and steep. Yeah, "Tomorrow" must have seemed like a hell of a gift, and one that, sadly, many of them never received.

Lisa: I do see them, the sad little family groups on the inside page of the "Metro" section of the local paper, burying young men (and occasionally young women) in the little towns; Scio, Timber, Clackamas, Riddle. Looking very alone and lost amid the flag-bearing bikers and anonymous troopers in their badly-shaped berets and greens. It just seems that much more wrong that you have to grieve alone in a crowd that is fighting the home front war by shopping.

I recall that in the early years of the Iraqi-American War (or "Third Gulf War" - I refuse to use the moronic "Operation Iraqi Freedom" newspeak that DoD tagged it with) there was a brief, rather sad attempt to recreate the "Gold Star Mothers" of WW2. It founded on the very differences, alienation and estrangement you describe.

Meghan H said...

I'm watching "Body of War", a documentary about a young guy who was wounded and paralyzed in Iraq. He grew up in the suburbs of KC not far from where I did. It's disgraceful how little help the VA is giving these guys now. A lot of morphine, sure, but real physical therapy and constructive treatment? Too expensive, apparently. I am hoping an Obama administration will prioritize helping guys like him.

FDChief said...

Meghan: The VA is overwhelmed by these guys, who are living through injuries that would have killed troopers as recently as the Second Gulf War (i.e. Kuwait 1991-92). I don't really blame them, other than being Organization Men unwilling to scream bloody murder at the difficulty they're facing.

But, as I mentioned in the post above, the real problem is that WE are not at war - the Army and Marines areat war - and imperial wars are a bad idea in a democracy without a genuine tradition of Empire. Bad for the soldiers (as you point out) and, I would emphasize, bad for the democracy.

But I suspect we won't argue about that.

Ael said...

Hey folks,

Remember, a lack of a peer foe in a knock down, drag out fight is a *good* thing.

Sorta the whole point to veterans day, really.

Today, we have our own challenges and they won't be solved via total war.

Rick98C said...


You hit the nail on the head as usual, but I really can't blame the general public for not feeling a personal stake in a war that didn't make much sense from the get-go. And when the President tells them it's their duty to "go shopping", well, that pretty much tears it.

A few of my buddies are leaving for their first tour in Iraq in a couple of months, and even they are talking about it more like an extended AT than a major military operation. They may speak differently after they get there, but that depends on their assignment. Very few of the troops over there are actually doing any direct contact with the enemy work. Just heard from a fobbit who wants us to send her quaker oatmeal bars because she likes to eat them before she goes swimming. Swimming????? Glad she has some creature comforts but damn. The grunts must be mightily aware of the lifestyle differences.

Not really total war.

Another side of the current situation which makes it completely uncomparable to WWII is that all you have to do to avoid involvement in the war is not voluntarily join the military.

FDChief said...

ael: Point well taken, and I'm VERY happy we're not looking for or finding anyone as scary as Imperial Japan or Nazi Germany.

I do wish that we'd get over what seems to be an affection for imperial adventuring, though...

rick: I think yout last point is the crux of the biscuit: we've had a small, volunteer Army before, but we never tried to use it for overseas service much, other than the sort of colonial wars we fought in the PI at the turn of the century and in Latin America in the 20's and 30's, but those were different times and we were a different people (and so were our opponents...).

When we create mass armies, whether it's for a civil war or the industrial wars of the 20th Century, we tend to make our wars crusades and our soldiers are the crusaders/heroes/kids-next-door. The fight is always do-or-die and the prize is always liberty, freedom, Truth and Justice.

Imperial wars don't work that way. You go out and slay and improsion and break the natives so you can accomplish your imperial objectives. Those objectives needn't be WRONG - you might be halting slave-trading, or genocide, or, as in the case of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, fighting to destroy an active enemy. But the sort of fighting is different, the end is different and to make it a popular crusade is nearly impossible and usually a mistake.

So IMO we need to do one thing or another: either we need to get out of the business of fighting land wars in southwest Asia (and, if you have womething that needs doing you do what smart imperials have done since Clive's day - coopt the locals with bribery, force or fear and use THEM to fight your wars) or we need to develop the mindset of an Imperial Power, and quit fretting about the relatively tiny losses imperial troops always sustain while bashing wogs. If that's the case (and I don't agree that it is) then the point isn't the cost in lives but the value of the bashing.

My problem is that we're spending money we don't have and borrowing it from our rivals to pay for our very expensive colonial excapades. When you look at it that way the game doesn't seem worth the candle.

The moral implications are another matter entirely. I speak only of the practicalities at this point.

Lisa said...


Yes, one sees the sad little groups buried on the inside pages, sometimes. I wonder how these sad tableux affect that average reader? Around here, they've taken to showing recruitment photos of the soldiers in their prime, along with a little mention. So much tidier that way.

And most people are just skimming on their way to the sport stats, anyway.