• In the rear, in World War II films

  • Many a movie has been made about WWII, both during the war and in more rccent years. Even in a century full of horrifying calamities, WWII can stake its claim as one of the major disastrous events of the 20th century. It killed millions of people, tore families apart, created floods of refugees, and otherwise destroyed the lives of countless others. The war left its blood-stained mark on everyone who lived through it. Its importance for both the collective memory of mankind, and as a source of gripping stories that so many people could relate to, inspired filmakers during the war and has molded many filmmakers ever since.WWII is a vast subject, and can include films on many different themes.I’m no fan of the blood and guts type of movie – of soldiers and battlefields and glory and tragic deaths. Films about the Holocaust can be very powerful, while also being great works of art, but they can also be very difficult to watch, as they speak about the most unspeakable of horrors. Other WWII movie themes include romances in war-torn Europe and Asia, spy stories, life in Britain during the blitz, and many others. My favorite WWII films, however, are those films that focus on the homefront and tell smaller, more personal stories of how the war affected the lives of individuals, films that tell the warm quieter tales of interpersonal relationships and the impact that the war had on them. I was a baby boomer, born in the mid-fifties, so I never experienced the war directly and I only discovered these films a good fifty years after the war had ended. Although I’m no expert on such films, I do have a few favorites that I’d like to share. I’ll begin by discussing a couple of very well-known works, films that have earned Oscars and justly deserved rankings on lists of Hollywood classics. First,  Mrs. Miniver, which won Oscars for Best Actress, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture, and stars Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon, and Teresa Wright. Second, The Best Years of Our Lives, which won Oscars for Best Actor, Best Director, and Best Picture, and features performances by Fredric March, Teresa Wright and Dana Andrews. Then I’d like to share a gem that I had never heard of until I had the good fortune to stumble upon it in a video shop. It stars Ginger Rogers, one of my favorite actresses, and Joseph Cotten, and is called I’ll Be Seeing You. Mrs. Miniver (1942), was made during the war. It boggles my mind to think about such films being produced, even as the events of the war were unfolding, with neither cast nor audience knowing how much worse the war could get, when  or how it would end, which side would win, and whether or not they’d ever get to see their loved ones again. Mrs. Miniver tells the story of a comfortable middle class family living in southern England and how the start of the blitz shattered their cozy, pristine world. Sure, the characters and sets are a bit too glamorous and picture-perfect to ring true but, as the war escalates and its tragic events unfold, the reality of the war hits far too close to home. I don’t want to give away any more of the plot for those who’d like to see the film, because it’s well worth seeking out.While Mrs. Miniver’s final scene serves as a wake-up call for American audiences to mobilize to fight the war, this film is not alone in using this tactic. I know that other films, such as Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent, and Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, have received criticism for making dramatic speeches at their ends, speeches which blatantly reflected the filmmakers’ feelings. In my opinion, though, they’re all both understandable and forgiveable, given the desperate nature of world events at the time and the need for America’s involvement in the war. Watching these films now, I find them intriguing because they remind me that these people were actually  experiencing the war, living through the horrible news that each new day brought and seeing the war’s ever-expanding scope, even they while making the films.The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), starring Fredric March, Myrna Loy, Dana Andrews and Teresa Wright, tells the interwoven stories of three war veterans who return to small town life after the war. One is a bank manager trying to find his place in a family that he’s been away from for so long. His son and daughter have literally grown up in his absence and his relationship with his wife is tentative and uneasy at first. The second character is a handsome war hero. He was a hotshot in a plane during the war but finds that he must now return to his own particular brand of reality, because in civilian life he’s an unskilled loser, saddled with a flamboyant wife who loses interest in him once he’s out of uniform. The film’s third male lead is a young man who has successfully adapted to the wartime loss of his hands, but who doesn’t believe that his loved ones can learn to deal with it. The Best Years of Our Lives is a wonderful movie. It’s touching and tender, and deserving of the label « classic. »The final film that I’d like to discuss is called I’ll Be Seeing You (1944). Ginger Rogers plays a woman on leave from a women’s prison. Joseph Cotten is a soldier recovering from shellshock. These two damaged people, both feeling isolated and out of sync with the hectic wartime world, find solace and strength in each other. It’s a simple story, beautifully told, and the atmosphere in the home of Ginger’s aunt and uncle is warm and inviting. There are no villains here, it’s simply a pleasant home full of nice people trying to treat each other decently, although they don’t always succeed in this. Actors Spring Byington and Tom Tully bring a real warmth to the family scenes and you’ll even find a teenage Shirley Temple.These and many other films made during or just after the war offer us a special glimpse into the era, as they present scenes of life at that time. Watching them now, from a vantage point of more than sixty years after the war’s end, it’s impossible to see them as they must have been seen at the time, because members of the audience would have brought with them their own personal traumas, dramas and fears for the future. Still, these movies offer us some heartfelt emotions, vicarious experiences and nostalgic glimpses of the lives of our parents, grandparents, or great grandparents, and we’re all the richer for it.
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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

    Visit Barbara Freedman De Vito's shop at http://www.cafepress.com/giftstshirtsmug/2869019 for t-shirts, magnets, mugs, and other gifts and clothing that are decorated with reproductions of genuine US government posters that were made during WWII.
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