Entry from July 3, 2013

This summer I am presenting on behalf of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the Hudson Institute in Washington a series of six films on the general theme of Why We Fight: War Movies and War, Then and Now. The films are being shown at the Hudson Institute, 1015 15th Street N.W., Suite 600, and you can go to the EPPC or Hudson  websites for details or to register to attend. The series continued on Tuesday, July 2nd with a screening of The Train (1964) by John Frankenheimer, starring Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Albert Rémy, Suzanne Flon, Michel Simon and Wolfgang Preiss. Before showing the film, I spoke for a few minutes about it as follows.

It occurred to me only after the discussion about They Were Expendable had ended last week that John Wayne and General Douglas MacArthur have something pretty important in common. Not only were both of them at one time popularly regarded as icons of American heroism, but both are posthumously hated by some Americans far beyond what might be expected and out of proportion to their deserts — not for anything they have done or said or failed to do or say but precisely for the heroism that they represent, or used to represent, to other Americans. Happy the land that has no need for heroes, said Berthold Brecht, and there has always been a powerful strain of American thought and feeling that aspires to that kind of happiness — and that is always glad to point and to be pointed towards the feet of clay of the heroes we do have. During and immediately after World War II we didn’t see very much of this crypto-pacifist stripe in our American patchwork, whereas from the late 1960s to the late 1990s, the period of next week’s film, we saw little else. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, however, there was a bit of a transitional phase, during which some of the (mostly) unspoken certainties of the war era began to be called into question.

In Pork Chop Hill of 1959, for example, director Lewis Milestone (who also directed the original movie version of the pacifist German novel All Quiet on the Western Front back in 1930), gave us a very different take on the theme of They Were Expendable, since the men who took that legendary hill in Korea were seen as being expendable not because of the fortunes of war, as in John Ford’s movie, but because of the irresponsible dithering of politicians and diplomats — a kind of betrayal of their own men who were putting their lives on the line that was also to be the theme of many of the Vietnam-era movies. In The War Lover of 1962, the World War II bomber pilot played by Steve McQueen looked forward to the psychopathic killers that those same Vietnam-era movies also liked to find lurking behind official propaganda about “why we fight.” And in The Americanization of Emily of 1964, the Canadian Arthur Hiller and our own Paddy Chayefsky (adapting a novel by William Bradford Huie) anticipated another strain of the Vietnam-era thinking by depicting even “the good war” as an outbreak of madness that decent and sensible men and women would and should have as little to do with as possible.

Tonight’s movie, The Train by John Frankenheimer, also came out in 1964 and belongs to the same school of movie-making, though the doubt that it casts upon the older view of war and war-making and the justifications that it offered for fighting is of a more subtle kind than that in any of the movies mentioned so far. Its hero, a French railwayman named Paul Labiche, played by Burt Lancaster, is apparently as much of a skeptic and doubter about the war as James Garner’s Lt. Commander Charles Edward Madison in The Americanization of Emily. Asked by the Resistance on behalf of Mlle Villard (Suzanne Flon) of the Musée Jeu de Paume in Paris to stop a train carrying most of the museum’s treasures back to Germany ahead of the advancing allies’ entry into Paris in August, 1944, Labiche flatly refuses. He thinks it wrong to risk men’s lives for a bunch of paintings, however beautiful or valuable, or however much they may be a vital part of French culture held in trust for the world, as Mlle Villard says they are. Yet again and again, when confronted with a decision to knuckle under to the Germans or to fight, he goes against his own principles and fights — paying the price in human lives that he had sought to avoid having to pay.

You may remember last week I said that the key line of They Were Expendable was the Admiral’s to Robert Montgomery’s “Brick” Brickley about how, when the manager tells you he needs a sacrifice, you lay down the bunt and let somebody else hit the home runs. That’s what it means to be a professional. The analogy points us towards the fact that the sacrifices made by all the American forces in the Philippines when the Japanese invaded, professionals to a man or woman, both were and were not matters of choice. They did what they did out of a sense of duty and professionalism, which made following orders the only choice they had. Yet we are also meant to see them as having made a real choice to be professionals in the first place. In other words, all that they did was done in some sense willingly. They should not be seen as victims. In The Train, the comparable moments also come from minor characters. Charles Millot’s Pesquet says to Labiche, “You get caught up in something, you can’t leave it alone.” Likewise, Albert Rémy’s Didont says, “If the Germans want it so much, maybe we should do something.”

The point is that we must act just because the Germans are prepared to kill us if we do. Both men point us toward the self-sustaining nature of warfare, and both could be said to be making a similar point to the Admiral’s in They Were Expendable: namely, that once you make an initial choice to fight, rather than to give up, there are not many other choices left to you. Also as in They Were Expendable, we learn that it is in the nature of war for some to die in order that others may live, something that both those who die and those who live have to come to terms with in their own way. The difference between the two movies is that, while Ford never entertains the possibility of not fighting back against the enemy’s attempt to impose his will on our heroes, in The Train that possibility is always present, tantalizingly out of reach both for the fighting heroes and for us. And its presence makes all the difference, both between the two movies and between the two tendencies of American thought that I mentioned in the beginning. So long as we are allowed to think that fighting and dying may not be necessary, then the pacifist argument about war as an avoidable madness will be a powerful one — just as, that possibility not being allowed, the same argument becomes a meaningless irrelevancy.

There is no single point in the film where and why the mental conversion of Labiche from cautious non-involvement to unnecessary heroics can be seen as taking place, though a couple of candidates may appear to those of us prepared to stick around for a short discussion of the film after the screening. But even if we can agree that such a conversion is, if not a visible reality, a necessary postulate — and I doubt that we can —we may also want to agree with Paul Scofield’s Colonel Von Waldheim when he taunts Labiche near the end of the movie, saying that he himself doesn’t know why he does what he does.

Here’s your prize, Labiche. Some of the greatest paintings in the world. Does it please you, Labiche? Give you a sense of excitement in just being near them? A painting means as much to you as a string of pearls to an ape. . . You are nothing, Labiche — a lump of flesh. The paintings are mine; they always will be. Beauty belongs to the man who can appreciate it. They will always belong to me, or to a man like me. Now, this minute, you couldn’t tell me why you did what you did.

This takes us back to Didont’s suggestion earlier, “Paul, uh, have you ever seen any of those paintings on that train? I haven’t. You know, when it’s over, I think maybe we should take a look.” But neither Didont nor Labiche ever does take a look. Like many another soldier, at least in some accounts of the matter, Labiche has fought for what Michel Simon’s unforgettable Papa Boule has earlier called “the glory of France” without ever knowing what it is or even if it is.

The point is underlined for us in the final scene as the wooden crates containing the paintings, the German word OBEN indicating which side is up prominently displayed on them, lie unopened and scattered haphazardly about, like a child’s blocks, beside the tracks. The camera pans over them, and these images are intercut with those of the dead hostages, also lying beside the tracks, as a rather heavy-handed way of indicating what John Frankenheimer in his DVD commentary says is “the central problem” posed by his movie, namely: “Is a work of art worth a human life.” To me this is a disappointingly literal and unhelpful way to look at the film, even if it is the director’s own. In war, as we saw last week, things inherently much less beautiful or valuable than even a single painting by Renoir can be worth not just one but many human lives: a few feet of ground or a few minutes’ time, for example.

In a more important sense, therefore, the paintings on The Train are what Alfred Hitchcock called a McGuffin — that is, the object around which a cinematic conflict centers. It can be a stolen briefcase or a secret formula or a bag of money, but the thing itself is unimportant to us, the audience, except as it motivates the characters to do what they do. As a synecdoche for the ever-shifting objectives of opposing armies in war, it is all the more effective here in that so many of those who are prepared to give up their lives for these paintings don’t even know what they are. We might be reminded of the words spoken to Hamlet by a captain in Fortinbras’s army on its way to Poland:

We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name.
To pay five ducats, five, I would not farm it;
Nor will it yield to Norway or the Pole
A ranker rate, should it be sold in fee

Hamlet is inspired to one of his, and Shakespeare’s, greatest soliloquies by this spectacle of, as he says, twenty thousand men

That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain.

And, at the risk of climbing on my hobby-horse, what Hamlet concludes from this shaming example (as he puts it) is this:

Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake

Nowadays, of course, critics and scholars are inclined to regard this as further evidence of Hamlet’s disordered intellect, but it is a sober and realistic statement about the nature both of war and of honor as we have experience of their operation in the world as it is and always has been — as opposed to the pacifist’s Utopia, or No Place, from which both war and honor have long been banished.

But in 1964, neither Frankenheimer nor his audience was much inclined to see things the way Hamlet or Fortinbras did. One of the legacies of the Korean War — which, even as this film was being made was beginning to be disastrously applied in Vietnam — was this belief in a macabre calculus measuring the worth of human life against what, in place of honor, it was now deemed to be given for — usually a demonstration of America’s resolve or a slightly superior bargaining position in the inevitable “peace talks” that might drag on (as they did in Vietnam) for years. I think it was some such thinking that must have led to what we might call problem movies like The Train, or the contemporary ones that I mentioned earlier, where the calculus could be applied in the most high-minded of ways before concluding, as we must suppose Frankenheimer does, that, no, even these greatest products of civilization and the human imagination are not worth the human lives it cost to save them for the nation.

That, of course — I mean the belief that human life was itself the most valuable of human treasures — was the implicit moral of the flood of “anti-war” movies that lay just over the horizon in 1964 and into which we will be dipping a reluctant toe next week, but it is not really, oddly enough, the moral of The Train. The irony of the fact that, to so many of those who actually paid the ultimate price for the paintings, they or something they represented apparently was worth their sacrifice, even though they had no idea of the paintings themselves, seems to have passed Frankenheimer by. The moralist in him speaks with Burt Lancaster’s words to Jeanne Moreau: “Do you know what’s in that train? Paintings! Art! The national heritage! The pride of France!” And then, after a pause: “Crazy, isn’t it?” Yet its craziness doesn’t ultimately matter, either to his character or to the movie, which is what makes it the classic it has since become.

There are other ironies Frankenheimer is alert to, as for example that of a Nazi officer’s standing for the stateless republic of art — and an art which he himself acknowledges as “degenerate” — while the representatives of civilized (and defeated) France are made to stand for the nationalist principle. Another is the implied contrast between art and craft. Not only did Burt Lancaster, who started his career in show-business as an acrobat, do all his own stunts — as well as one belonging to somebody else — he also learned how to forge the bearing needed to repair the train after Papa Boule sabotages it, so that it would look realistic when we see him doing it during a long sequence early in the film — much too long for any present day director to get away with. Likewise, there is a long take near the end showing just his hands, and they are his hands, as they put in place the plastique explosive used to blow out a section of track. Again, he learned how this would have been done for real, in order to keep up the film’s illusion of reality. Here, we are meant to see, is a man with no time for “art” in the high-cultural sense, but who is himself a kind of artist as someone who can make things for practical uses. Perhaps this makes him more like a movie-director, or a movie actor, than a painter.

If so it might account for the apparent fact that Frankenheimer made a better movie than he knew. Insofar as he allowed himself the intellectual indulgence of moralizing, I think the picture would have been a failure. But he doesn’t allow himself much moralizing and what he does is adventitious — detachable from the movie, which succeeds because of his close attention to the film-maker’s craft of making a story look as much as possible like real life. That can be an immensely difficult thing to do, as it seems to have been in the case of The Train, which is full of expensively staged and spectacular visual effects, most notably that of the train wreck at Rive-Reine, produced by pure cinematic craftsmanship long before there was any idea of doing such things with computer-generated imagery. And that realism seems to have carried over into the representation of men at war as they really are, and not as the would-be intellectual in him thinks they ought to be. I don’t know if the result qualifies as a contribution to the artistic “glory of America,” to stand comparison with the glory of France, but as art goes in the days since those Impressionist and Modernist giants roamed the earth, I think it’s pretty impressive.

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