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.