Quick Vids: Views from the Front (Part I)
Handman, Gary, American Libraries
In a sense, the movies and modern warfare grew up together and were made for each other. Once the pure novelty of moving-image technology faded, early picturegoers began demanding increasingly lurid spectacles and more emotionally engaging stories for their nickel. What better subject to appease the audience's voracious appetite for cinematic thrills and fantasies than battle? From the Spanish-American War to the present day, wars have furnished the kind of high drama, romantic heroism, and stirring calls to duty perfectly suited both to fictional "motion picture plays" and nonfiction film reportage. War, in short, has always been good box office. It took the military similarly little time to add movies to its arsenal, a weapon of unparalleled power for explaining and selling war to the troops and to home-front viewers.
Wars and the public perception of them have changed substantially and irrevocably since Teddy Roosevelt's 1898 charge up San Juan Hill. The films that chronicle and comment on war, such as those discussed below (and in the next installment of Quick Vids), have both mirrored and influenced those changes in fascinating and instructive ways.
The Battle of San Pietro. (contained in Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films). $69.95 DVD. 1945. 32 min. Most home-video distributors.
It's not difficult to see why the Army sponsors of John Huston's Battle of San Pietro almost prevented it from being distributed. Huston's documentary on the 5th Army's internecine December 1943 campaign to seize control of the strategically critical Liri Valley in central Italy is unlike any other film of the era in its unflinching, unsentimental, and brutal view of battle. (Huston wrote and delivered the hard-as-nails narration.) Even in today's anesthetized world, the intense close-ups of men falling and fallen in action are shocking. Huston claimed that his film was the first time "real infantry combat conditions, involving Americans, had ever been seen on the screen." Audiences must have been stunned by the experience.
Listen to Britain and Other Films by Humphrey Jennings. $24.99 DVD. 1940-1951. 182 min. Most home-video distributors.
Of all the redoubtable filmmakers to come out of the British Documentary Movement of the 1930s and 40s, Humphrey Jennings was perhaps the most brilliant and visionary. …