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Wartime Stars, Genres, and Production Trends - Hollywood’s On-screen Conversion, The War Film, THE WORLD WAR II COMBAT FILM

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On 8 December 1941, a Warner Bros. story analyst filed a report on an unproduced play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s.” The story centers on the American expatriate Rick Blaine, whose café in French Morocco is a haven for European war refugees, and whose life is disrupted by the unexpected arrival of Lois Meredith, the wanton American beauty who, years before, had broken up Rick’s marriage and family and cost Rick his law practice in prewar Paris. The story analyst considered the property a “box-office natural” and a suitable vehicle “for Bogart, or Cagney, or Raft in out-of-the-usual roles and perhaps Mary Astor.”

A few days later, the report reached the desk of the Warners production chief Hal Wallis, who was encouraged to purchase the property by his savvy story department head, Irene Lee. In light of Warners’ current hit, THE MALTESE FALCON , Wallis agreed that “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” had potential as another near-A, offbeat thriller. But Wallis had bigger plans for the project, seeing it as an ideal Á-class vehicle for his own move to unit producer and for Warners’ conversion to war production. Weeks later, when Wallis signed a new contract giving him first crack at the studio’s contract talent and story properties, he designated “Everybody Comes to Rick’s” as the first project for his production unit. He tapped Michael Curtiz to direct and assigned several top writers to overhaul the story, strengthening both the political and romantic angles. He also entered negotiations with David Selznick for the services of his fast-rising contract star Ingrid Bergman, to costar with Warners’ own emerging star Humphrey Bogart."

The result, of course, was CASABLANCA , Hollywood’s seminal wartime “conversion narrative.” The conversion of studio operations and the retooling of established story formulas into war films were crucial factors, but the key factor in this conversion was the narrative itself. The love story was recast in terms of wartime separation and duty by reworking the female lead: the American seductress Lois was transformed into an innocent European refugee, Ilsa, whose commitment to the French Resistance leader Victor Laszlo actually motivated her earlier betrayal of Rick. And the signal conversion, finally, is Rick’s. Early on, Bogart’s Rick Blaine is very much the hard-boiled Warners hero: cynical and self-reliant, repeatedly muttering, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” But in the course of the story, he rediscovers his own self-worth, along with his love of woman and country. Rick’s final heroics—sending Ilsa away with Laszlo, killing the Nazi officer, and leaving Casablanca to join the Free French—crystallized the American conversion from neutrality to selfless sacrifice.

In a more general sense, CASABLANCA signaled the wartime conversion of Hollywood’s classical narrative paradigm. As Dana Polan suggests in his study of 1940s film narrative, Hollywood’s classical paradigm, with its individual protagonist and clearly resolved conflicts, underwent a temporary but profound shift to accommodate the war effort. 3 The two most fundamental qualities of Hollywood narrative, one might argue, were (and remain) the individual goal-oriented protagonist and the formation of the couple. During the war, however, these two qualities were radically adjusted: the individual had to yield to the will and activity of the collective (the combat unit, the community, the nation, the family); and coupling was suspended “for the duration,” subordinated to gender-specific war efforts that involved very different spheres of activity (and conceptions of heroic behavior) for men and women.

Actually, Hollywood always had found conflict in its contradictory conception of the idealized male and female—the untrammeled man of action and of few words (and with well-concealed sentiments) who’s “gotta do what he’s gotta do,” and the supportive, sensitive but stoic Madonna whose natural (even biological) destiny is to tame that freespirited male for the higher cause of civilization. The resolution of the classical film narrative invariably involved the overcoming of that contradiction in the lovers’ final embrace. But the war effort created radically different requirements, indefinitely postponing the climactic coupling while celebrating the lovers’ dutiful separation and commitment to a larger cause—the lesson learned from Rick in the final moments of CASABLANCA .

By the time CASABLANCA was released in late 1942, Hollywood’s wartime transformation had been under way for nearly a year. Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, and with the Senate propaganda hearings only a few months past, Hollywood shifted from outspoken denial of any overt promotion of U.S. involvement in the war to active on-screen support of that involvement. By mid-1942, about one-third of the features in production dealt directly with the war; a much higher proportion treated the war more indirectly as a given set of social, political, and economic circumstances.

Predictably enough, Hollywood’s initial response to the war and to FDR’s implicit call to arms was to convert established stars and genres to war production. Abbott and Costello stopped doing their service comedies in late 1941, in deference to the gravity of the military recruiting and training effort. That turned out to be a singular exception; the vast majority of stars and genres underwent just the opposite progression, converting to cinematic war production as soon as the United States entered the war. As the war and Hollywood’s treatment of it progressed, the fit between various genres and the war conditions became clearer. Spy, detective, and crime thrillers, for instance, were easily reformulated (perhaps too easily) into espionage thrillers or underground resistance dramas in the early war years. The musical and woman’s picture were recycled for war production as well and remained enormously effective throughout the war. The backstage musical was recast to depict groups of entertainers putting on military shows “for the boys,” while working-girl sagas and melodramas of maternal or marital sacrifice were ideally suited to war conditions.

Hollywood dealt more directly with the war in combat dramas, documentaries, and newsreels. As the war progressed, in fact, the interplay of fiction and nonfiction war films became increasingly significant and complex, with war-related features evincing a documentary realism by 1944-1945 that was altogether unique for Hollywood movies. Meanwhile, film noir , a stylistic countertrend, developed; this 1940s period style expressed the bleaker side of the American experience during (and after) World War II. Thus, the war era represents a particularly complex and contradictory period in terms of Hollywood’s production trends and on-screen accomplishments. Remarkably few canonized film classics were produced during the war, and yet Hollywood’s social impact was more pronounced and more profound than ever before. Never in American film history had the relationship between cinema and social conditions been so direct and so politically charged; never had Hollywood films constituted so distinctly a national cinema. While Hollywood stopped short perhaps of functioning as a state-run propaganda agency, clearly the cinema’s role as a culture industry was different during the war than at any other time in its history.

The War Film

The dominant wartime production trend, of course, centered on the war itself. Early on, the term “war film” actually was little more than a useful generalization as Hollywood injected war themes into a wide range of genres and formulas. In time, however, the movie industry dealt with the war more directly and effectively, particularly in combat films and documentaries, which provided, in Lewis Jacobs’s provocative description, a “vast serialization” of the American and Allied war effort. 60 And remarkably enough, Hollywood’s treatment of World War II ended almost as abruptly as the war itself, with combat films and other war-related cycles—military musicals, prisoner-ofwar films, home-front dramas, postwar rehabilitation films—disappearing from movie screens soon after V-J Day. Thus, the war film was doubly exceptional: on the one hand, it emerged virtually by social mandate and was refined in direct response to social and historical conditions; on the other, it followed a historical trajectory that coincided almost identically with the events it depicted.

Various studies have charted Hollywood’s war-related film production. One conducted by Russell Earl Shain, among the more exhaustive studies, provides these figures on the industry’s war-related output from 1940 to 1947:

Shain notes that during the sustained peak in Hollywood’s war-related output from 1942 to 1944, one-fourth of all features (312 of 1,286 releases, or 24 percent) dealt with the war. According to Shain, Hollywood released 340 war-related features during the four war years, or 20 percent of the industry total. Shain’s figures cover only films dealing directly with World War II, not films about World War I or the Spanish Civil War, for instance. Studies that examine all war-related films indicate an even heavier overall output. Dorothy B. Jones of the OWI’s film reviewing and analysis section, for instance, found that over 28 percent of Hollywood’s total output from 1942 to 1944 (376 of 1,313 releases in her sample) were war-related.

Despite the overall decline in the annual output of war-related films from 1942 to 1945, these films remained a viable box-office staple throughout the period. In fact, their stock steadily improved during the war. In 1942, 19 of the 101 films that returned at least $1 million in rentals were war-related. The number and proportion of war-related hits more than doubled in 1943, when they comprised 41 of the 95 releases returning $1 million or more. 62 Moreover, the top two hits in both 1942 and 1943 were war related: MRS.MINIVER and YANKEE DOODLE DANDY in 1942, THIS IS THE A ARMY and FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS in 1943. The war-related films’ box-office currency peaked in 1944, when they comprised 11 of the 19 releases returning $3 million or more. For the entire wartime period, a remarkable 32 of the 71 $3 million releases were war-related—including 10 musicals, 9 combat films, and 6 home-front comedies or dramas.

Actually, what Hollywood termed “war themes” were likely to show up in any number of genres during the war era. Meanwhile, the term “war film” took on steadily narrower connotations as Hollywood refined specific war-related formulas. The dominant formula was the combat film, although espionage films and home-front dramas involving the training of soldiers and/or the day-to-day experiences of wartime Americans were significant cycles as well. Among the more interesting developments in Hollywood’s war-film production, in fact, was the prominence of spy, espionage, and war-related crime thrillers in the early years of the war, especially 1942, and the subsequent surge in home-front dramas and combat films in the later war years. As these figures from Shain’s study clearly indicate, by 1944-1945 the combat film was by far the dominant war-related type:

The year 1942, particularly during the first six to eight months after the United States entered the war, was a singularly odd, exceptional period in terms of war-film production. Because Hollywood had been fairly tentative in its treatment of the war until Pearl Harbor, and because top features took nine to twelve months to produce and release, very few A-class war films depicting U.S. involvement were released in 1942. (CASABLANCA , for instance, was optioned within weeks of Pearl Harbor and went into immediate preproduction, but it did not go into general release until January 1943.) Thus, most of the war-related A-class films released in 1942 were initiated in 1941, and they tend to take one of three tacks: they focus on the British war effort (MRS.MINIVER, THIS ABOVE ALL ); they depict Americans or “good” Europeans dealing with enemy aggression (Nazis in To BE OR NOT TO BE, DESPERATE JOURNEY, and THE PIED PIPER; Japanese in SOMEWHERE I’LL FIND YOU and ACROSS THE PACIFIC ); or they feature American fliers fighting for other nations (England in EAGLE SQUADRON; Canada in CAPTAINS OF THE CLOUDS).

There were B-grade versions of these trends in 1942 as well, such MGM’s JOURNEY FOR MARGARET , mentioned earlier, and Republics FLYING TIGERS , in which John Wayne leads a group of fighter pilots assisting the Chinese against Japan. The majority of B-grade war films in 1942, however, had little in common with Hollywood’s A-class treatments, nor were they prone to historical accuracy or the depiction of actual combat. Their penchant for exploitation and ability to make their low-budget films rapidly enabled B-class producers to scoop their A-class counterparts in terms of war-related topicality; in fact, on-screen references to Pearl Harbor began turning up in  films within weeks of the Japanese attack. 64 But these were invariably jingoistic celebrations of American heroism and superior know-how, depicted in terms of B-movie formula rather than the conditions at hand.

Hollywood’s rapid conversion of various B-grade series to war production in 1942 was actually quite remarkable. Espionage and sabotage films dominated, not only because of genuine public concern but because they were easy reformulations of low-grade crime formulas. B-grade G-men and undercover cops simply turned their sights from gangsters to foreign agents; the trappings of the story—props, sets, costumes, cast, and plot structure—remained much the same. A few A-class features in 1942 dealt with spies and sabotage and did give the formula a certain legitimacy, notably Hitchcock’s SABOTEUR . But shrill, jingoistic B-grade thrillers were far more prevalent. Gangster and spy formulas were refitted in pictures like SABOTAGE SQUAD , UNSEEN ENEMY , and COUNTER -ESPIONAGE, while Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson were updated into wartime sleuths in and SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE VOICE OF TERROR HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON. B-Westem series were recruited in films like Republics VALLEY OF HUNTED MEN, in which the Three Mesquiteers battle Nazi spies, and Monogram’s COWBOY COMMANDOS, in which the Range Busters pursue Nazi saboteurs. 65 Even the Universal horror film was converted to war production in INVISIBLE AGENT; Jon Hall’s “invisible man” took on both Nazi and Japanese spies.

Many 1942 B-grade spy and crime thrillers also exploited the American public’s anger about Pearl Harbor and anxieties about the Japanese threat—as evidenced by such titles as A PRISONER OF JAPAN, MENACE OF THE RISING SUN , DANGER IN THE PACIFIC, and REMEMBER PEARL HARBOR. These and other 1942 B’s demonized the Japanese and embellished the “stab-in-the-back” thesis which was haphazardly applied to all Japanese—including Japanese Americans, in some cases.

The OWI grew increasingly alarmed by these trends; its September 1942 report openly criticizing Hollywood’s B-grade war films received extensive coverage in the trade press. The OWI asserted that “the emphasis of the entire industry is still too much on the exciting blood-and-thunder aspects of the war.” The report noted that 31 warrelated espionage and sabotage pictures had been released in the previous six months, a number that “tended to give the public an exaggerated idea of the menace.” 66 In October, the OWI’s Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) reported that 70 of 220 pictures released in the preceding six months were war-related, but that few of these substantially advanced the war effort. A Variety headline in November blared, “OWI Frowns on ‘B’ Types,” and the subhead noted the agency’s “Drive to get the studios to lay off cops-and-robbers formula.” That story noted that whereas six “saboteur-spy type” war films were released in October 1942, there were none in the OWI’s “all-important ‘The Issues—What Are We Fighting For’ category.”

This latter refrain would persist throughout the war years as Hollywood continued to avoid dealing with the conflict in sophisticated social or political terms. As the OWI’s Dorothy Jones pointed out in a 1945 assessment of Hollywood’s war-related films, no more than fifty or so had “aided significantly, both at home and abroad, in increasing understanding of the conflict.” Jones accused the Hollywood community of thinking only in terms of escapist entertainment, asserting that “when faced with the task of making films which would educate the public about the war, most Hollywood movie makers did not know where to begin.”

The industry’s defense, of course, was that the primary obligation of commercial filmmakers is to make pictures that sell. Walter Wanger, then the Academy president, outlined that rationale in Public Opinion Quarterly: “Film with a purpose must pass the same test that the escapist film more easily passes. Theater-goers must want to see the picture.” Convinced that the kind of pictures the OWI espoused “can effect no purpose except to empty theaters,” Wanger argued that any “truths” about war-related issues “had better be skillfully integrated” into the drama.

By early 1943, when Wanger’s article appeared, a growing number of films actually supported his view. While Hollywood would never quite satisfy the OWI, there was a clear improvement in the overall quality of war films as the ambitious first-run features made after Pearl Harbor finally reached the theaters in late 1942. Among the first and most important of these was WAKE ISLAND, a Paramount near-A released in August 1942; starring Brian Donlevy, William Bendix, Macdonald Carey, and Robert Preston, it dramatized the devastating defeat (in December 1941) of a marine contingent on a remote island outpost near Hawaii. As Jeanine Basinger suggests, WAKE ISLAND was a watershed release and in many ways the first true World War II combat film. While incorporating many traits of earlier war films, WAKE ISLAND also “begins to relate the meaning of these ‘old’ devices directly to World War II.” Key factors, according to Basinger, were its focus on an actual U.S. military battle and on the combat unit, “that unique group of mixed individuals, so carefully organized to represent typical Americans.” 70 The film also established the conventions of the World War II “last-stand” drama. In WAKE ISLAND and later films such as MANILA CALLING (1942) BATAAN (1943), a small, isolated unit of American soldiers fights to the death against impossible odds, with the narrative invariably concluding just before the last American is killed.

The popular and critical response to WAKE ISLAND underscored its watershed status. Returning $3.5 million in rentals, it was among the top box-office hits of the year and scored four Oscar nominations, including best picture. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times called WAKE ISLAND “a realistic picture about heroes who do not pose as such,” and Newsweek called it “Hollywood’s first intelligent, honest, and completely successful attempt to dramatize the deeds of an American force on a fighting front.” 71 Made in cooperation with the Marine Corps and endorsed by the OWI, WAKE ISLAND clearly established the viability of the violent, downbeat, hyperactive combat film, while toning down the jingoistic flag-waving, blatant racism, and gross historical distortions of so many previous B-grade war films. This is not to say that these qualities were eliminated altogether Most of Hollywood’s wartime combat dramas were set in the Pacific, and most of them depicted the Japanese enemy as not only uncivilized but essentially inhuman—a view that pervaded the American media and colored the mindset of the public as well. As the war correspondent Ernie Pyle wrote: “In Europe we felt that our enemies, horrible and deadly as they were, were still people. But out here [in the Pacific] I soon gathered that the Japanese were looked upon as something subhuman or repulsive.”

In 1943, Hollywood’s wave of A-class war-related films hit the nation’s theaters with enormous impact. These included big-budget musicals like THIS IS THE ARMY and STAGE DOOR CANTEEN ; resistance dramas like WATCH ON THE RHINE and THE MOON IS DOWN ; and wartorn romances like CASABLANCA FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS . There was also a marked increase in both the quantity and quality of A-class combat films, including AIR FORCE, ACTION IN THE NORTH ATLANTIC , BATAAN , GUADALCANAL DIARY , THE IMMORTAL SERGEANT , SO PROUDLY WE HAIL , CRY HAVOC , and SAHARA. Moreover, a number of British war films were released in the United States in late 1942 and early 1943—notably IN WHICH WE SERVE , THE IMMORTAL BATTALION (British title THE WAY AHEAD ), THE INVADERS (British title 49TH PARALLEL ), and ONE OF OUR AIRCRAFT IS MISSING All were critically well received, and Noel Coward’s IN WHICH WE SERVE also was a solid commercial hit.

Critics and the Academy responded enthusiastically to the 1943 surge in A-class warrelated films. The National Board of Reviews top ten selections for the year included seven war-related pictures, and the Academy’s ten nominees for best picture likewise included seven war-related films, with the Oscar going to CASABLANCA. And in the Film Daily poll of over 400 critics, every film on the top-ten list was war-related (including RANDOM HARVEST , with a World War I story, and FOR WHOM THE BELL TOLLS, its Spanish Civil War context).


The combat film saw significant advances in both quantity and quality of output in 1943. Two key films were AIR FORCE and BATAAN , which solidified the essential conventions of the World War II combat film while establishing its two dominant variations. AIR FORCE, an early 1943 release shot on location (at a Florida air base) and made in cooperation with the Army Air Corps, won critical praise for its semidocumentary style. The story focuses on a group of men isolated within a powerful warship—an authentic B-17 “Flying Fortress”—that was involved in air-sea battles in the Pacific during the early months of the war. The men learn both the value of group cooperation and the finer workings of their bomber, which gradually emerges as the crew’s mother, lover, and sacred vessel. The finale of AIR FORCE is relatively upbeat, with the warship taking part in the Battle the Coral Sea (in May 1942)—one of the first important Allied victories in the Pacific.

BATAAN also involves an early battle campaign in the Pacific theater, but it is a more stylized, studio-bound production, and considerably more brutal and downbeat as well. The story centers on a combat unit of thirteen men in an isolated jungle outpost on Bataan, which is being overrun by invading Japanese troops. The unit is assigned to destroy a bridge and prevent the Japanese from rebuilding it; in carrying out that assignment, the men are killed, one by one, by the relentless, faceless enemy. The consummate last-stand picture, BATAAN ends with the unit leader and lone survivor (Robert Taylor) throwing curses at the swarming Japanese and swinging his machine-gun fire directly into the camera for the film’s powerful closing image.

These two types, centering on the warship and the infantry unit, steadily coalesced into Hollywood’s standard, war-issue combat formulas. The group dynamic and celebration of technology of AIR FORCE recur in all manner of warships, from submarines and ships to tanks and aircraft, while the infantry films grimly trace the horrors of combat and the psychopathology of soldiering. For Basinger, AIR FORCE and BATAAN “contain the new genre” of the World War II combat film. “In fact, they are the new genre. They are the two most important films … because they are the first that are totally in and about World War II combat.” She contends, however, that the infantry variation is “the truest and purest combat format,” because it is so relentlessly “about” actual fighting. While the bomber can take its crew back to the relative security and domesticity of the barracks, and even the submarine has its social and hospitable attributes, the infantry film offers “no relief from the war.”

Basinger considers BATAAN “clearly the seminal film” of the World War II combat genre for three reasons. First, unlike all of the preceding combat films made during the war, BATAAN provides no “denial” of the war through furloughs, returns home, or other noncombat situations but focuses only on soldiering and combat. Second, the nature and composition of the combat unit in BATAAN became a veritable paradigm for subsequent films, along various social and cultural lines—the ethnic, racial, and religious background of unit members; their ideological, economic, and class-related status; their geographical and regional origins; and their military rank, experience, and professionalism. As Basinger notes, BATAAN set the standard not only for the composition of the group in infantry combat films but also for the structure of authority, the likelihood of death, and even the order in which the unit members are killed.

Third and perhaps most important, BATAAN integrated these conventions into a dramatically compelling narrative—and thus into effective propaganda. The group constituted what Lewis Jacobs has termed “a national collective hero,” although Basinger aptly notes that the unit’s “democratic ethnic mix” necessarily included a leader “who is part of the group, but is forced to separate himself from it because of the demands of leadership.” 76 Those demands generally include a military objective (in this case the bridge) related to a specific military campaign, as well as dealing with the inevitable internal conflicts of the group. Meanwhile, the individual group members partake in the myriad rituals of infantry life, the articulation of what they are fighting for, and the necessary horror of fighting and dying. With BATAAN , asserts Basinger, “the foundation of the World War II combat film is in place”; the various “generic requirements” of the form were “firmly established and repeated” in the films that followed, as was readily apparent by late 1943 in films like and SAHARA , GUADALCANAL DIARY , CRY HAVOC, DESTINATION TOKYO.

The infantry and warship variations of the combat film were not altogether distinct from one another, and in fact a few war films effectively combined the two. Among the most notable of these was SAHARA, a late-1943 Columbia release starring Warners loanout Humphrey Bogart as the leader of a disparate band of Allied soldiers (Dan Duryea, J. Carrol Naish, Rex Ingram, Lloyd Bridges) crossing the Libyan desert aboard a U.S. tank who eventually make a stand at a desert well against an entire Nazi division. One of the more underrated combat films of the war era, SAHARA is noteworthy on several counts—particularly the warship and the military unit involved, the deft blending of the warship and infantry variations, and the heightened realism of the production.

SAHARA opens with the tank commander Sgt. Joe Gunn (Bogart) and his two-man crew crossing the North African desert alone in their tank during the chaotic retreat after the fall of Tobruk. At a bombed-out military hospital, they come across a British medical officer and five infantrymen: two Britons, two Australians, a South African, and a Frenchman. Gunn offers them assistance, but the British dismiss the tank as an “old scow” and a “tin hearse.” Gunn takes offense, not only extolling his tank but romanticizing and feminizing it in the process. “She’s an M-3 air-cooled job that can cross 200 miles of desert as easily as you’d walk around in that Piccadilly Circus of yours,” he says. “When I go into Berlin I’ll be riding that tank, the same one that’s standin’ there with the name Lulubelle on her.” With no real choice, the soldiers climb aboard, riding atop the tank while Gunn and his crew (a radioman and a gunner) ride inside.

SAHARA is clearly a star vehicle, with Bogart’s Sgt. Joe Gunn another wartime synthesis of rugged individualist and team player. Yet Joe’s conversion to the collective war effort has long since been made, and he is presented as the ideal leader; in fact, the ranking British officer readily cedes authority to the American tank commander early in the film. The soldiers eventually are won over by the Lulubelle, of course, as are a black British-Sudanese soldier and his Italian prisoner (a sympathetic figure with relatives in America) who join the ragtag unit in its desert journey. Lulubelle’s efficiency is further evinced when the crew shoots down a German fighter plane and captures the pilot, adding a dedicated Nazi to the group. Thus, the group, a diverse amalgam of eleven Allied soldiers and their two Axis prisoners, is complete; it is one of the more remarkable units in any wartime combat film and clearly represents the principal combatants in the Atlantic theater in microcosm.

The first half of SAHARA delineates these various characters—and the varied stakes and views of the nations they represent—as they search with increasing desperation for water and fuel. The group discovers water at a modestly fortified well, where they decide to dig in and try to hold off a division of some five hundred parched Nazis en route to El Alemein. Shifting to a last-stand drama, the Allies are killed one by one by the Germans, who themselves die in massive numbers in their repeated assaults on the well. The two prisoners also are killed, each under tellingly symbolic circumstances. The German pilot murders the Italian for defaming Hitler and Nazism, and then while trying to escape he is killed in a desperate hand-to-hand struggle with the black Sudanese—an obvious comment on Aryan superiority. Eventually the Allied force is down to only two men (including Gunn) and low on ammunition. But the Germans, succumbing to thirst and, because of Gunn’s successful ploys, unaware of the Allied numbers, suddenly surrender. Thus, SAHARA veers from last-stand drama to an upbeat, updated version of SERGEANT YORK, and its positive outcome is underscored as the two survivors and their Nazi prisoners are met by Allied troops who inform them of the victory at El Alemein.

Despite its star-vehicle status, careening patchwork plot, and upbeat resolution, SAHARA is an altogether effective war film—in large part because of the style and visual treatment of the narrative by a production unit which was nearly as diverse as the military unit in the film. Of particular note are the director Zoltan Korda and the cinematographer Rudolph Maté, two Hungarian-born émigrés to Hollywood from wartorn Europe (Maté via Germany and France, and Korda from England, where he had worked with his brother, the producer Alexander Korda). The two treated soldiering and combat in a quasi-documentary style, while bringing a stylized poetic realism to the depiction of the otherworldly desert milieu. Maté‘s camera work was nominated for an Oscar, and the critic James Agee wrote of SAHARA’S distinctive style: “It borrows, chiefly from the English, a sort of light-alloy modification of realism which makes the traditional Hollywood idiom seem as obsolete as a minuet.”

As Agee suggests, the realism in SAHARA can be attributed in part to European influence, which came not only from the filmmakers directly involved but from the growing number of émigrés working in Hollywood and from the British films showing in the United States at the time. Equally important, however, was the documentary influence that became increasingly pronounced in Hollywood’s combat films of the later war years.


Crucial to the combat film’s 1943 surge were the massive advances in news coverage of the fighting overseas, not only in the print media and on radio but in motion picture newsreels and documentaries as well. Roughly 80 percent of all newsreels in 1942 were devoted to the war at home and abroad, and in 1943 that total rose to nearly 90 percent. 79 As Thomas Doherty notes in , the six newsreel companies vastly improved their coverage in 1942-1943, moving beyond a headline-service role to provide timely and graphic depictions of military action. This improvement was facilitated by the easing of military restrictions on the filming of actual combat in late 1942 (at FDR’s behest) and by rapid improvements in the technology and logistics of combat reporting. 80

Documentary film coverage improved as well, as in-depth nonfiction war films—both shorts and features, many of them created by top Hollywood filmmakers in the military—became standard screen fare in 1943. Several British war documentaries enjoyed widespread U.S. release and favorable critical response as well. In fact, the Academy Award for best documentary feature in 1943 went to DESERT VICTORY, a British-American coproduction on the Allied campaign in North Africa, while the award for best documentary short went to John Ford’s THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY.

Advances in nonfiction war coverage encouraged Hollywood filmmakers not only to dramatize combat but to do so with a greater degree of verisimilitude and historical accuracy. In the process, the narrative and dramatic emphases of combat dramas, as well as the number of Hollywood filmmakers doing documentary work, clearly influenced nonfiction war films. Thus, by 1943 fiction and nonfiction war films were entering a stage of remarkable symbiosis, with combat dramas providing a (belated) fictional counterpart to the newsreel and documentaries, all of which not only depicted major military engagements but also defined and dramatized the war experience for millions of Americans at home.

Regarding the symbiotic interplay of fiction and nonfiction war films, a number of coincidences and parallels are worthy of note. The breakthrough combat film WAKE ISLAND was released in 1942 within weeks of Ford’s BATTLE OF MIDWAY, which itself was precedent-setting on several counts. It was the first document of an actual U.S. military engagement, and it was the first to use 16mm Technicolor photography. Moreover, it was the first battle record by an established Hollywood director; in fact, Ford’s hand-held camera work would set the early standard for first-person combat coverage. In 1943, as other Hollywood filmmakers became involved in documentary production, they introduced dramatic qualities and narrative strategies somewhat similar to their fictional counterparts.

Consider William Wyler’s film treatment of bombing runs over Germany from a Flying Fortress in MEMPHIS BELLE (1944), and John Huston’s treatment of fierce infantry fighting in the Liri Valley in Italy in THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (1945). Among the more important and critically acclaimed wartime documentaries, both films effectively integrate fiction and nonfiction techniques. They extend and intensify the first-person technique of THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY, and as hourlong documentaries they develop strong narrative and dramatic lines to delve the human as well as the military stakes involved. Moreover, the two are documentary versions of Hollywood’s dominant combat trends—the specialized unit operating (and confined within) a high-tech warship; and the isolated, interdependent, war-weary infantry unit trudging from one deadly engagement to another.

As documentarians like Ford, Wyler, and Huston dramatized and humanized their wartime subjects, fictionalized accounts of combat developed a more pronounced documentary realism. In 1944-1945, interestingly enough, the number of fictional and documentary combat films released was almost identical (sixteen and fourteen, respectively), and many critics and historians have argued that these two forms of combat film can (and should) be considered manifestations of the same genre. 82 In fact, James Agee named SAN PIETRO and a dramatic feature, THE STORY OF GIJOE , as the best films of 1945, and for essentially the same reasons: their direct, unsympathetic, anti-romantic portrayal of professional soldiers in combat, and their gauging of military conflict and outcome in human terms.

Released in October 1945, THE STORY OF GIJOE , directed by William Wellman, was the dramatic counterpart of Huston’s SAN PIETRO ; a grim depiction of an American unit in the Italian campaign, it stars Robert Mitchum as the reluctant unit leader and Burgess Meredith as the war correspondent Ernie Pyle (who had been killed in combat a year earlier). For Agee, THE STORY OF GIJOE was “the first great triumph in the effort to combine ‘fiction’ and ‘documentary’ film”—an effort he had been tracing since the release of AIR FORCE in 1943. Besides Wellman’s direction, the “great triumphs” of the film also included its “anti-histrionic casting and acting,” which Agee considered crucial to this kind of war film. Indeed, Agee’s one misgiving about the otherwise effective OBJECTIVE BURMA (1945) was that, for him, it could never quite overcome the onus of being an Errol Flynn picture—a criticism which could be leveled at SAHARA (and Bogart) as well.

Remarkably, both THE STORY OF GIJOE and SAN PIETRO were regarded as antiwar films by some critics, because they were so downbeat in their portrayal of men at war and so sensitive to the psychological and physical trauma involved. THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO , in fact, so concerned military officials in Washington that it was withheld from distribution until the end of the war in Europe, and then it was released only in an abridged version under the (also abridged) title, SAN PIETRO . 85 Agee noted the debate that had arisen over the antiwar issue in his October 1945 review of THE STORY OF GIJOE , and his own take was appropriately ambivalent:

Nobody [in the film] is accused, not even the enemy; no remedy is indicated; and though every foot of the film is as full an indictment of war as I ever expect to see, it is clearly also demonstrating the fact that in war many men go well beyond anything which any sort of peace we have known, or are likely to know, makes possible for them. It seems to me a tragic and eternal work of art. (Reprinted in Agee on Film [New York: Grossett and Dunlap, 1958], vol. 1, p. 174)

Two other fictional war films released just after the war, THEY WERE EXPENDABLE (December 1945) and A WALK IN THE SUN (January 1946), also displayed the documentary-style realism of THE STORY OF GIJOE , as well as its tone of grim resignation and weary professionalism. Few critics gauged these as antiwar efforts, however. As Roger Manvell points out, the Ford-directed THEY WERE EXPENDABLE clearly accepts “the fatalism bred of combat conditions,” while it also “brings out the ancient ethos of war, the aspiration to heroism, a profound acceptance of self-sacrifice for the ‘cause’ of the nation, the near-worship of the charisma of military authority implicit in such terminology as high command and supreme command.” 86 At the same time, these films are willing to consider both the possible breakdown of the group cohesion as well as the price—in both individual and collective terms—of military victory.

Ultimately, the more realistic and somewhat disillusioned combat films of the later war era marked a significant departure from infantry dramas like WAKE ISLAND , BATAAN , SAHARA, and GUADALCANAL DIARY. While sharing many qualities with their flag-waving, heroic, and aggressively prowar antecedents, the differences in style and tone of the later combat films clearly set them apart. Again James Agee offers a useful distinction. In his review of BATAAN, Agee termed the film a “war melodrama” much like WAKE ISLAND , and he went on to describe it as “a small triumph of pure artifice,” constrained as it was by its star, its obvious studio setting, and its utterly predictable heroic posturing. While Agee found this anything but “realistic,” still he recognized the power and appeal of films like WAKE ISLAND and BATAAN: “We may not yet recognize the tradition, but it is essentially, I think, not a drama but a kind of native ritual dance. As such its image of war is not only naive, coarse-grained, primitive; it is also honest, accomplished in terms of its aesthetic, and true.” Hollywood continued to produce this type of ritualized war melodrama with films like DESTINATION TOKYO (1943), WINGED VICTORY (1944), GOD IS MY CO-PILOT (1945), and BACK TO BATAAN (1945)—all sizable hits. And while critics praised the documentary-style combat films, audiences clearly preferred the energetic hokum of war melodramas like A GUY NAMED JOE over the grim realism of THE STORY OF GIJOE.

As noted earlier, Hollywood’s production of combat films ended rather abruptly after the war, owing mainly to the industry perception that audiences were no longer interested in them. 88 By late 1945, exhibitors and studio executives alike had developed a firm conviction that for a war-weary populace—not to mention the millions of returning veterans—the war film’s appeal ended with the war itself. So as the government and the military rapidly dismantled the nation’s vast war machine, the movie industry began reconversion as well, mustering out the war-related themes and formulas that had prevailed for the past four years. This was most evident in the combat film, but the home-front drama also underwent a postwar decline as Hollywood shied away from stories of returning vets, postwar rehabilitation, and the domestic “return to normalcy.”

The World War II combat film hardly disappeared altogether, of course. After lying dormant for fully three years, the genre would undergo a remarkable, unexpected resurgence in 1949, keyed by three major hits: BATTLEGROUND , TWELVE O’CLOCK HIGH, and SANDS OF IWO JIMA . The genre’s currency would continue for decades to come, since the American (and Allied) experience of World War II provided a curious parallel to cold war-era films involving U.S. military conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. Despite its later resurgence, however, the World War II combat film could never be the same—nor, for that matter, could the home-front drama. From 1942 to 1945, Hollywood created a parallel universe for a nation at war, an odd amalgam of information and entertainment, of fact and propaganda, of realism and collective national fantasy. Thus Hollywood’s warrelated output represents a collective cultural experience altogether unique in American film history.


AIR FORCE and SINCE YOU WENT AWAY provide excellent examples of the combat film and the home-front drama. They reflect other significant wartime trends as well: the relationship between the military and the studios; the increasing authority of top talent and independent producers; the efforts of the OWI as well as the PCA to regulate movie content; and the pronounced wartime distinction between male action films and women’s pictures, a function of the marketplace as well as the narrative and thematic qualities of the films themselves. Despite these obvious distinctions, AIR FORCE and SINCE YOU WENT AWAY display a number of significant similarities as well.

The most basic similarity between the two films is their mutual celebration of distinctive American "fortresses"—one a Boeing B-17 bomber and the other a two-story brick colonial home—while valorizing the occupants and the special wartime rites of each domain. AIR FORCE presented the saga of a B-17 Flying Fortress and its crew, whose training flight of 6 December 1941 across the Pacific becomes an odyssey of the disastrous early months of the war—but then culminates in the Battle of the Coral Sea. SINCE YOU WENT AWAY is an epic of a different sort, dedicated in its opening credits to “the Unconquered Fortress: the American Home.” It charts a year in the lives of a woman and her two daughters, beginning in early 1943 with the departure of the husband and father for active duty. The lives of the three are transformed by the war effort and war-related experiences at home, as well as by the fate of the absent patriarch—who is reported missing in action midway through the year (and the film), and whose reported return to safety provides the story’s climactic moment.

AIR FORCE was one of many top studio productions initiated immediately after Pearl Harbor. It was made at the behest of Gen. Henry “Hap” Arnold, head of the Army Air Corps and a personal friend of Jack Warner. In early 1942, Arnold began looking to Hollywood for on-screen support, and Warner played a key role in this effort. Warner was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the Army Air Corps in April 1942 and assigned as a public relations officer based in Los Angeles. He helped set up the First Motion Picture Unit, a nonfiction production unit housed at the Hal Roach studios that made training films and documentaries for the Air Corps and other military branches. Later in 1942, Warners gave the Air Corps use of its Vitagraph Studios in New York. Jack Warner also took on AIR FORCE as a personal and professional project, with assurances from Hap Arnold of full Army Air Corps support.

While Warner monitored the project, AIR FORCE actually was produced by executive-turned-unit producer Hal Wallis and the freelance producer-director Howard Hawks, whose new contracts with Warner Bros. in February 1942 specified AIR FORCE as among their initial projects. (Because both contracts also stipulate producer credit, AIR FORCE is introduced as “A Howard Hawks Production” yet Hal B. Wallis receives producer credit.) 90 While Warner and Wallis lined up the production, Hawks signed the screenwriter Dudley Nichols in March 1942 to do an original script based, at Arnold’s suggestion, on an actual incident. The Mary Ann , a B-17 training plane, was separated from its flying group while heading toward Hickham Field in Hawaii on the morning of the Japanese attack. In the course of the film, the Mary Ann sees action in several of the major military engagements during the early stages of the Pacific campaign. Nichols completed the script by early summer, shortly after the Battle of the Coral Sea in May, a spectacular air-sea battle and an early Allied victory which provided an ideal culmination to the story.

AIR FORCE was an ambitious production by Warners’ standards but scarcely a star vehicle; it featured the rising star John Garfield and an ensemble of (available) male feature players, notably Harry Carey. The real star of the film was the Mary Ann , an authentic Flying Fortress supplied by the Army Air Corps, along with its facilities at a training base in Florida. Filming on location made the picture a wartime rarity, pushing its cost to about $2 million, and allowed Hawks to work without direct studio supervision—and without interference from Wallis and the front office.

The minor problems that Warners ran into with the PCA over language and violence were adjusted (or negotiated away) easily enough. The OWI, however, was then in the midst of its campaign to upgrade the accuracy and curb the blatant racism and xenophobia of war films, and the agency was severely critical of the film. In October 1942, with AIR FORCE in postproduction and nearing release, the OWI complained that virtually all Asians in the film, both enemy soldiers and “friendly” civilians alike, were depicted as treacherous, bloodthirsty savages. (The Japanese were referred to as “stinldn’ Nips,” “buck-toothed little runts,” and so on.) The film also suggested that Japanese sympathizers and saboteurs were in some ways responsible for U.S. defeats in Hawaii and the Philippines. Despite these complaints, however, the filmmakers did little to mollify the OWI—particularly after receiving approval from the Army Air Corps and the PCA.

AIR FORCE was released in early 1943 with considerable fanfare and widespread promotion, including Grossett and Dunlap’s publication of John O. Watson’s “novelized” version of Nichols’s screenplay. The picture returned $2.7 million and was Warners’ fourth-biggest hit among nine 1943 releases which earned at least $2 million (seven were war pictures). Critical response was mixed: the film’s authenticity and semidocumentary style were often praised, while its war melodrama formulaics were routinely criticized.

Any sense of realism in AIR FORCE results from three factors: the use of an actual B-17 as the principal set for the picture; the story’s depiction of actual war-related events; and the incorporation of newsreel footage at various points in the film, notably in the climactic Battle of the Coral Sea. The story and characters, on the other hand, are standard Hollywood war issue. AIR FORCE presents a group of disparate individuals (and two outspoken individualists) who gradually coalesce into a unified, efficient, gung-ho fighting unit. The group hails from all points of the social, ethnic, and geographical map; it includes a Jew, a Pole, an Irishman, a Minnesota farm boy, a Texan, a streetwise New Yorker, and so on—all distinctions that purposefully become meaningless by the end of the film.

Like most combat films, AIR FORCE is a conversion narrative; its conversion theme operates on several levels. In a general sense, the Mary Ann herself is converted from a training ship into a fighting machine, and the crew members into functional components of that machine. In terms of human drama, the story focuses on two converts: Winocki (John Garfield) is a surly loner and flight school washout who eventually accepts his role as a team player and gunner; in fact, he is credited with inventing the tail gun for the B-17. Tex Rader (James Brown) is a professional loner, a pursuit pilot forced to ride in the Mary Ann when his fighter is shot down. Tex initially denigrates bombers (while the crew, in turn, dismisses his “pea shooter”), but he eventually takes command of the plane after the pilot is killed and the copilot wounded.

The trajectory of AIR FORCE takes the crew from one major Pacific battle to another—from Honolulu to Wake Island to the Philippines. Each stage takes the Mary Ann and her crew deeper into the war experience, and each stop is punctuated by a hospital scene which underscores the point. The first involves a nurse at Hickham in Hawaii who is the copilot’s sweetheart and the sister of one of the crewmen; she has been wounded during the Japanese attack, indicating the enemy’s brutal disregard for helpless women and children. At Wake, the crew visits the wounded base commander, who despite his condition insists on staying with his fliers and the doomed marines trapped on the island. He urges the Mary Ann’s crew to proceed to the Philippines, where they encounter heavy combat. The Mary Ann is shot down, and Winocki heroically crashlands the plane after the crew has bailed out and the pilot, Quincannon, has been mortally wounded. The third hospital scene depicts the death of Quincannon, their pilot and leader, and is perhaps the most dramatic moment in the film. Scripted by William Faulkner during production, the scene features the dying pilot hallucinating a final takeoff in the Mary Ann , going through the various verbal procedures as the crew, at his bedside, assume their respective roles as well. This deathbed experience gives an emotional edge to their individual responsibilities as well as to their “family” unity and motivates the crew to return their warship to action.

Inspired by Quincannon’s death, the crew literally rebuilds the plane overnight under the supervision of the crusty, paternal crew chief (Carey), assisted by marines awaiting the imminent Japanese attack. They complete the job just as the enemy swarm the airfield; the Mary Ann miraculously escapes and joins the Allied air armada over the Coral Sea just as it intercepts the Japanese fleet en route to Australia. The Mary Ann asserts her superiority in the ensuing battle, taking the lead in the attack and sinking several enemy vessels—thus marking an early turning point in the war and also the successful conversion of the Mary Ann and her crew into a professional fighting machine.

In precise counterpoint to AIR FORCE, David O. Selznick’s SINCE YOU WENT AWAY presents an idealized portrait of the fight waged by women, individually and collectively, on the home front. Unlike many women’s pictures and home-front dramas which invoked the war more indirectly, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY was quite clearly a war film, tracing the conversion of home and family—the American community in microcosm—to the war effort. Indeed, it was Hollywood’s wartime woman’s picture par excellence , focusing directly on the American female’s experience of World War II. And thus, it was quite a bit different from the “American Mrs. Miniver” which Selznick set out to produce. Whereas that 1942 MGM film depicts the initial impact of the war on a fully intact British family, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY charts the experiences of a woman and her two daughters in 1943, with her husband overseas and the nation’s wartime conversion well under way.

The film was based on a wartime memoir by Margaret Buell Wilder, “Since You Went Away—Letters to a Soldier from His Wife,” which had been serialized in Ladies’ Home Journal and was awaiting publication as a book when Selznick purchased the rights for $30,000 in early 1943. He brought Wilder to Hollywood from her home in Akron, Ohio, where the story was set, and started her to work on the adaptation while he prepared production. 95 Just as AIR FORCE relied for its authenticity and primary setting on the Flying Fortress, so too did Selznick’s production rely on its earthbound domestic fortress—a two-story, seven-room brick colonial. Rather than seek out an appropriate location in some Ohio suburb, however, Selznick had a full-scale house constructed (along with a sizable stretch of its city street) as a standing set inside his studio.

In contrast to the nonstar ensemble in Warners’ AIR FORCE, Selznick’s production featured three top female stars: Claudette Colbert as Ann Hilton, the stalwart matriarch; Jennifer Jones (a sudden star after THE SONG OF BERNADETTE ) as the 17-year-old daughter, Jane; and Shirley Temple as the 14-year-old “Brig” (Bridget). Colbert, significantly enough, had just starred in SO PROUDLY WE HAIL, a story of nurses serving in the battle-torn Pacific and a rather odd admixture of women’s weepie and wartime action picture. James Agee, in The Nation , dismissed SO PROUDLY WE HAIL as “probably the most deadly-accurate picture that will ever be made of what the war looks like through the lenses of a housewives’-magazine romance.” 96 This perspective may have accounted for the film’s popular success (it earned $3 million and was the twelfth-biggest box-office hit of 1943), as well as for Selznick’s decision to cast Colbert in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY.

In the three important male roles, Selznick cast Joseph Cotten as Tony Willett, the longtime friend of the Hiltons who for years has been carrying a torch for Ann (from a discreet distance); Monty Woolley, reprising THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER, as the autocratic curmudgeon Colonel Smollett, who rents a room in the Hilton home to help the family make ends meet; and Robert Walker as Corporal Bill Smollett, the colonel’s estranged grandson and Jane’s love interest. (Walker and Jones were married at the time but would separate during production, with no apparent effect on their portrayal of the innocent young lovers.)

Ever the “creative producer” with a blockbuster mentality, Selznick’s creative role and personal stake in SINCE YOU WENT AWAY was exceptional, even for him. The film marked his return to active production after a four-year hiatus; at a cost of $2.78 million, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY was Hollywood’s most expensive production since GONE WITH THE WIND. Selznick also had developed a close personal relationship with Jones (whom he would later wed after she had divorced Walker and he had divorced Irene Mayer Selznick), and he recently had added Shirley Temple to his stable of contract stars. He was adamant that the film redefine the screen image of both stars, as Tones looked ahead to more mature romantic roles and Temple entered her teen years.

Selznick’s creative involvement began with an overhaul of Wilder’s screenplay, which he began to revise immediately after her return to Ohio in August 1943—only weeks before the picture went into production. Selznick’s rewriting continued throughout the 127-day shoot, primarily to keep the picture as current as possible with war conditions and to build up Jones’s role. He eventually rewrote enough of the script to warrant sole screenplay credit, despite Wilder’s appeals to SWG. (The film’s writing credits read: “Based on an adaptation of her book by Margaret Buell Wilder,” and later, “Screen Play by the Producer.”) The director John Cromwell tolerated Selznick’s last-minute revisions and also his insistence on seeing a camera rehearsal of every scene before it was filmed. Selznick was unhappy with the camera work and lighting, however; he replaced George Barnes (who had won an Oscar for REBECCA ) with Stanley Cortez, and he later replaced Cortez with Lee Garmes, who finished the shoot.

Production closed in February 1944 after five months of principal photography, and Selznick immediately began editing with Hal Kern while Max Steiner composed the score. The completed picture, with its 205 speaking parts and meandering narrative, runs two hours and fifty minutes—long even by wartime standards, though a half-hour shorter than GONE WITH THE WIND . SINCE YOU WENT AWAY was released in June 1944 to uniformly respectful but somewhat tepid reviews. Bosley Crowther, for instance, admired the film but considered it “a rather large dose of choking sentiment.” 97 Meanwhile, the public took to it in droves; the picture returned rentals of $4.9 million and was one of the biggest hits of the war.

As a sentimentalized portrait of America’s wartime women and the domestic front, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY was enormously effective. Indeed, the film’s ardent sentimentality is firmly and effectively established from the very outset. The titles play over a shot of the “home fires” in a hearth, followed by a fade-in on an exterior shot of the Hilton home, framed by a leafless tree in a dark, driving rainstorm. A series of dissolves takes the viewer closer to the home, then closes in on a downstairs window, and finally inside. A long tracking shot surveys a cozy, well-appointed den, moving from an empty leather chair to a bulldog on the floor, then across a desk revealing a calendar (it is January 1943), a telegram (Timothy Hilton, USN, has been ordered overseas), and a memento of Tim and Ann Hilton’s honeymoon (they were wed in 1925). The shot continues, sweeping past bronzed baby shoes, a picture of Ann and her daughters, and finally back to the window, as Ann returns home after seeing off her departed soldier-husband. Crucial to the emotional impact of the scene is Steiner’s score: the “Since You Went Away Theme” flows subtly, seamlessly into strains of standard American tunes—"You’re in the Army Now," “Here Comes the Bride,” “Lullaby and Goodnight,” and so on—with each transition precisely cued to the visuals. (Steiner’s score was the lone Oscar winner among the half-dozen nominations.)

This efficient narrative exposition establishes both the back story and the tone of SINCE YOU WENT AWAY , and Ann’s subsequent arrival and voice-over reverie immediately set the dramatic stakes and plot trajectory as well. “This is the moment I’ve dreaded,” says Ann to herself, “coming back to our home—alone.” The remainder of the film charts Ann’s efforts to confront and eventually to overcome that dread, which intensifies midway through the film when she learns that Tim is missing in action. But in the final moment of the film, a full year after the opening, Ann learns of Tim’s imminent safe return—the consummate reward for her sacrifices and efforts in his absence.

While Tim Hilton’s departure and return to safety define the film’s overarching narrative development, the more immediate dramatic concerns involve the adjustments of the Hilton women—and the household in general—to the war. 98 In that sense, SINCE YOU WENT AWAY represents a consummate wartime conversion narrative. Not only the Hilton females but virtually every other character in the story, as well as the family home and the community at large, are utterly transformed by the war.

The emphasis is on the home, of course, which is a clear equivalent to the Mary Ann in AIR FORCE —a safe (almost womblike) haven which gives definition and meaning and a sense of unity to its occupants. Significantly enough, when Selznick revised Wilder’s story and script, he decided to upscale the Hiltons socially, from a modest middle-class to an upper-middle-class family. This change both amplifies and further idealizes their sacrifices—giving up the master bedroom to the crotchety Colonel Smollett; doing without their devoted housekeeper, Fidelia (Hattie McDaniel), although she does find a way to return part-time; planting a victory garden while giving up meat, eggs, and other staples; and so on.

The conversion of Ann, her daughters, and her household to the war effort dominates the first third of the film, providing what Koppes and Black describe as “a virtual compendium of OWI-approved vignettes of American life as changed by the war.” 99 This first movement of the story culminates in a dramatic episode which recasts the conversion in a larger social context. Hoping to meet Tim briefly before he ships out, the women embark on a long train ride from Ohio to Washington. Their effort to find Tim proves futile, although it provides an opportunity for the Hiltons (and the viewer) to relate their situation and their sacrifices to those of other Americans—from complaining businessmen and dismembered veterans to relocated workers and other self-reliant wartime women. Aptly enough, the excursion concludes in an intimate and distinctly feminine moment, as a woman lets Brig sleep on her breast and explains to Ann that her own daughter, an army nurse, has been missing since Corregidor.

Shortly after the women return home, Tim Hilton is reported missing, thus initiating the second major movement of the story. As Ann copes with the news, the story shifts focus somewhat to daughter Jane, who takes a job as a nurse’s aide (caring for disabled veterans), and who experiences first love with the painfully self-effacing Bill Smollett. The two youngsters mature rapidly in the next few months, and they are considering marriage when Bill is sent overseas—to Salerno in Italy, where he is killed a short time later. Jane’s grief gives way to stoic resolve, inspired and reinforced by her mother’s example. This section of the story ends with Jane dramatically confronting a longtime family friend and self-centered social matron, Emily Hawkins (Agnes Moorehead). Jane forcefully berates Emilys failure to cooperate with the war effort and her criticism of those who do, clearly articulating the role and responsibilities of the female “recruits” serving on the home front.

The film’s final section returns the focus to Ann, who begins training as a welder and begins to accept the prospect of life without Tim, all the while keeping the vaguely amorous Tony Willett (Cotten) at bay. Her devotion is rewarded on Christmas Eve when she opens a gift which Tim had left and then, alone with her thoughts of her missing husband, she receives word that Tim has been found and is safe. The emotional crescendo and dramatic climax here provide an apt finale to the tearstained, three-hour saga, underscoring both its appeal as a wartime anthem to the home-front warriors and also, in retrospect, its quite remarkable sentimental excess.

The film’s unabashed celebration of the attitudes and ideals of wartime America, and its total immersion in the experiences and conditions of the era, may account for the failure of SINCE YOU WENT AWAY to elicit much critical or popular interest over the years, despite its wartime success. As Koppes and Black suggest, “The symbolism and sentimentality of Since You Went Away help explain why the picture was a topical smash but suffers badly out of context.” 100 They help explain, too, why the combat films of the era, especially those devoted exclusively to warfare, have sustained greater historical and popular interest. Jeanine Basinger states that AIR FORCE “is a great film, still powerful today. In it, one sees the visual strength a genre must have to endure.” 101 The enduring appeal of the war film is indeed a function of its distinctive iconography, which has not changed significantly over the past half-century, as well as the timeless rituals of male bonding and the prospect of death in a threatening, alien landscape.

Ultimately, however, the similarities between AIR FORCE and SINCE YOU WENT AWAY are as illuminating as the differences. Both films, most fundamentally, are conversion narratives which trace the adjustments and sacrifices American women and men necessarily had to make for the war effort to succeed. Both redefine family and community, positing a new (albeit temporary) kinship system based on mutual need and commitment to the task at hand. Both depict epic journeys, although of a very different sort: the men in a Flying Fortress, traveling through space and externalizing their warinduced anxieties by fighting and killing; the women in an American domestic fortress, traveling through time and internalizing their anxieties by loving and nurturing—and waiting. Both films end in triumph, although these were only momentary triumphs which could not begin to resolve the larger social and military conflicts the characters still faced. Thus, both AIR FORCE and SINCE YOU WENT AWAY reinforced the basic idea that only when heroism became routine could the war itself finally be won.

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