by Bob Schneider
I had been excited to see it. What, I wondered, could have been better than watching a war movie in which the hero had, in real life, been awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for offing beaucoup Nazis? Once it had worked its way down the exhibition chain from Broadway to back in the world, I tore ass down to Delancey Street, where I caught it (in the kids section—vo den?), with a couple of my frummie friends.
I left the Loews bitterly disappointed. It should have been a really good movie, but it wasn’t. In fact, it sucked. In order to understand why, I compared it to a pair of war movies that had stuck with me, the aforementioned Attack and The Steel Helmet. Intrigued by their names, posters and stills on the Deuce, I had watched them on my DuMont. Both were in B&W, which meant they had lost nothing in the translation to my tiny tube other than image quality and the splendor of size, neither of which were, at the time, as important as the simple act of watching them.
Both movies were gritty, dark, death-filled; their heroes hard-boiled and battle hardened, informed by the wisdom of war, animated by a passion to see the men they led survive combat hell.
Attack’s pre-credit sequence, punctuated by a helmet rolling downhill to a dead stop by a lone flower, sets up the conflict—a war within the war—between the insanely intense Palance and his craven sluck C.O., Captain Cooney, whom he holds responsible for the deaths of an entire squad, slaughtered in a futile attempt to take out a Nazi pillbox. It ends with Palance dead on the floor of a rubble strewn basement—he had crawled out from under the treads of a Kraut tank, crawled across the floor toward a .45 the tittering Cooney kept kicking just beyond his reach, died before he could grease his douchenozzle commander.
The Steel Helmet ends in smoke and death in a Buddhist temple. Most of the squad that has set up an artillery observation post within is dead, killed during a North Korean assault. While Sgt. Zack lies in a semiconscious state of shellshock, the other three survivors—a black medic, an Asian sergeant (Tanaka) nicknamed “Buddha Head” and a bald, squeaky, ofay radio operator—lean against a pillar. Smoking seems almost too taxing; they’re famished as well as spent. When Buddha Head finally speaks, he sets the agenda: First we’ll eat, then we’ll bury them (this in a movie where the hero has threatened a mortally wounded enemy with the blissfully loopy line, If you die, I’ll kill you).
A patrol comes upon the temple and coaxes the survivors outside. They stand before the temple’s shoji screen doors, each face frozen with the same thousand-yard stare—a group portrait of undiagnosed PTSD.
The patrol leader, knowing something had happened there, not knowing what it was, has a Mr. Jones moment; he asks . . . What kind of an outfit is this?
But for this cat, curiosity is no fatal flaw. He drops the questions and orders the survivors to fall in. When they finally stagger off, Zack is self-possessed enough to limp over and exchange his eponymous, bullet-perforated steel helmet for the pristine one that sits atop the C.O.’s grave marker—an M1, bayonet fixed, staked in the ground.
Attack and The Steel Helmet were movies absent sun or sentiment, the very opposite of To Hell and Back, which was shot in Technicolor, shown in Cinemascope and amounted to nothing more than a lame exercise in the hagiography of heroism. Bookended by soldiers marching in formation on a parade ground, the movie is a
series of blackout scenes, a rudderless repetition of battle, bivouac, battle, bivouac, battle, R & R, turtle-ing its way to a climactic action sequence—Murphy, the baby-faced Ares, singlehandedly beats back an armored counterattack: First he calls in an artillery strike to take out the Panzers, then he hops on top of a burning Hellcat Tank and uses the mounted Browning 50-mm machine gun to mow down every Nazi in sight. In the final scene, a continuation of the first, the soldiers come to parade rest as Murphy’s medals are enumerated, culminating in his receiving the Medal of Honor. Tired and listless, the movie doesn’t end so much as it simply stops.
Attack was a black hat/white hat cautionary tale with the moral simplicity of a Snidely Whiplash/Dudley Do-Right I’ll save you, Nell encounter. In The Steel Helmet, Zack and the others at the temple ruin look like they just lurched off the set of I Walked With A Zombie. Both movies left me unsettled, frightened, left me with the feeling that there are no winners in war, just some guys kinda breathing. The only feeling To Hell and Back left me with was that I had just wasted my time, a rare response to my escapist indulgences. If an overbearing teacher had forced me to explain why I felt the way I did, and if I was scared less by him than by the movies, I probably would have said, with great conviction, Because I said so.
Day to day, week to week, you never knew what might show up on the Deuce—black hat/white hat shoot-em-ups, Axis-and-Allies blow-em-ups, Martin and Lewis triple features, furrin’ films, weepies, noirs, nudies, monster movies, or horror flicks; Freaks might even make one of its intermittent appearances on B-movie Boulevard.
The same was true of movies on the tube. Getting the Guide, bee-lining to, fine-tooth-combing through the movie listings, was always an exciting proposition because you never knew what much-sought-after cine-treasure might pop up on The Early Show or Million Dollar Movie. If a must-see appeared, you had to jump—if you mañana’d it, you might discover Tomorrow is Too Late, or Tomorrow is Forever, or Tomorrow Never Comes or, worst of all, that Tomorrow You’re Gone. In this fashion, I slowly, surely collected what to my mind amounted to a full set of movies.
To my primitive, auto-didactic way of thinking, this collection represented knowledge and understanding; they were the basic building blocks of an aesthetic as well as a weltanschauung; they were, in other words, reels of projected truth out of which I parsed a way of seeing, as well as a way of seeing the world.
© 2013 Bob Schneider