A tracking shot is a moral act

Or, how did we get from this ~

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(Lewis Milestone’s own hand giving an Oscar-worthy performance at the end of ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT)

To this ~

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Dana Andrews observe’s a dead German’s hand in A WALK IN THE SUN. “Nice ruby. Wonder where he stole it.”

But to begin, here’s a quote from Richard T. Jameson’s fascinating piece on Lewis Milestone from Richard Roud’s Cinema: A Critical Dictionary. The subject is Milestone’s Exhibit A claim to greatness, ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT ~

One army defends its trenches as another charges across the empty waste of no-man’s-land. The defenders spray the advancing enemy with machine-gun fire, and Milestone’s camera tracks relentlessly across the attackers’ path. As each enemy solider is brought into camera range, he falls: it is as though the camera eye were synchronized with the mechanized pattern of gunfire, meting out death with an awful inevitability. And when, somehow, the attackers succeed in overrunning the trenches, drive out the defenders, and then become defenders themselves, with the first army counter-attacking to regain its own ground, Milestone repeats the visual device: another ‘machine-gunning’ camera chops down the soldiers on that side. The machinery of war devastates both armies with chilling impartiality, and Milestone’s structure eloquently defines the tragic absurdity.

Or would have, if it hadn’t been violated at midpoint. For as the enemy’s second wave reaches the defenders’ trenches, Milestone’s camera performs yet another tracking manoeuvre, this time aiming down into the trenches as it moves along. And as the camera arrives at any given point on its course, so to does another attacker, leaping into the ditch and engaging in hand-to-hand combat with his opposite number. Technically, the device is impressive; conceptually, it is loathsome. Unlike the camera-as-machine-gun, there is no inherent logic in it. The co-ordination of the camera’s arrival with that of an enemy trooper bespeaks no necessity beyond the director’s design. A scene about the impersonal horror of war becomes a balletic speciality number.

I like that Jameson is so passionate about the ethics of technique, and I get what he’s saying. I also think he’s slightly crazy, here. But he has a point, though I might phrase it differently and identify the problem elsewhere. I think I could defend Milestone’s middle shot on the grounds that it shows the men fighting as if they were parts in a machine, their movements stylized and synchronized to dehumanize them. It’s also obvious that part of the sequence’s immense power is its momentum, created by a series of fast-moving shots which often do not follow the moving men but move perpendicular to them, creating an imminent sense of violent convergence. For the battle sequence’s sheer impact, this plan is essential — and impact is something else than merely technique.

The more valid objection might be the wider one that by turning war into a giant choreographed spectacle, by making the audience excited at the action and noise and evoking the surge of adrenalin, Milestone is repackaging armed conflict as entertainment. A Hollywood film, even one as grim and unrelenting as ALL QUIET, is an entertainment of a sort. But can’t he be defended on the grounds that no evocation of warfare, if its goal is to educate those who haven’t had the experience (who are sometimes apt to be over-enthusiastic about something they know nothing about), can ignore the rush, the thrill, the camaraderie or the other aspects that make soldiers enjoy war, which they often do.

all quiet on the western front

If ALL QUIET was Milestone’s only war movie, his reputation would probably be higher. But it isn’t, and perhaps as a result his 1930 film enjoys more respect than he does.

As America entered the war, Milestone put together this documentary with Joris Ivens, using material shot by Russian cameramen at the Eastern front. All part of Milestone’s “premature anti-fascism” which would cause him some trouble later.

Then he embarked on a series of war pictures. THE NORTH STAR and EDGE OF DARKNESS have already been discussed here — they deal with the conflict in Russia (more trouble later) and Norway and are very impressive. It’s immediately troubling that they use many of the same techniques — the lateral tracking shot in particular — as ALL QUIET, and use them to create excitement, celebrating battle and triumph, in scenarios where our reaction to the fighting is an uncomplicated one of cheering on the goodies. Even the deaths of sympathetic characters are swept aside by the overwhelming charge to victory.

As problematic as these films are in some respects (only in some, be fair: they’re very good films), they’re easy to take compared to THE PURPLE HEART (1944).

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Why is he dressed as a wizard?

I told a friend on Skype I was watching a WWII propaganda movie full of Chinese actors playing Japanese roles (since all the Japanese actors were interned).

“Is Richard Loo in it?”

“He is!”

“[Talk show host] Dick Cavett used to do an impression of him. It wasn’t very good, but he would do it at any opportunity. ‘A chain is only as strong… as its weakest link.'”

“He says that in this movie! This is the movie that’s from!”

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Zanuck may be writing the dialogue and the cheques, but Milestone is calling action. On the plus side, the film is at times sincerely emotive, the cause was at least a better one than WWI (can’t accuse a man of hypocrisy for decrying one war and supporting another), and the technique is often impressive. But those Sino-Chinese baddies are nasty pieces of caricature. Since neither the writers nor the directors nor the actors know very much about Japanese culture, and since the intent is melodrama, it’s not surprising that the effect is crude. What’s always disturbing about these films is that the propaganda is delivered on racial rather than strictly political lines. I don’t actually mind the racist terminology of the heroes (“nips,” “monkeys”) since I think it’s realistic. It’s the film’s attitude that counts.

The flick deals with two US air crews shot down and captured by the Japanese and put on trial in a kangaroo court. In this way it combines war film (a little action in flashback) with courtroom thriller. A little extra violence is supplied by the Japanese tendency to commit hara-kiri when things don’t go their way.

As a flagwaver, the film is often a touch embarrassing. But do we like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, or are we happy they were defeated? If so, we presumably recognize the value of propaganda to the Allied cause. But that doesn’t make it good art. Then there’s the film’s racism, exaggerated by Chinese actors playing Japanese characters, and by Darryl Zanuck’s storyline. Ironically, the film’s attempt to portray the Japanese as culturally psychotic is derailed when the American characters choose “a noble death” in a way that seems little different from the honour suicides derided in their enemy captors.

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As usual with Milestone the film is extremely well-crafted: the paddy field set at night is striking, and the hexagonal reinforced concrete prison block makes for striking compositions. Milestone has some good actors, and Farley Granger.

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A WALK IN THE SUN came after the European conflict was over and it’s a far more nuanced and interesting film. Two of the stars, Dana Andrews (sad iguana stare) and Richard Conte (crocodilian grin) return, along with Norman Lloyd (hooded cobra eyes) and, surprisingly, Sterling Holloway, who would later play an animated snake for Disney but really looks like Tenniel’s Mock Turtle. It’s the most reptilian bunch of grunts you ever saw, and the “plot” has them land in Italy and attempt to walk to a farmhouse to blow up a bridge. Along the way they grouse, bum cigarettes, philosophise and die. Robert Rossen’s poetry-of-the-streets dialogue is really amazing — contrived as heck yet evocative of some kind of life. The underrated Conte is particularly good at snapping it out.

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Milestone’s war films suffer when the location material is interrupted by studio stuff or rear projection or stock footage, but that problem is minimized here (and in PURPLE HEART which is all studio save some time-lapse clouds). Russell Harlan’s photography is outstanding (he was making the transition from B pictures to major films for Hawks and Blake Edwards), and Milestone’s knack for filming group shots is fully exploited (he storyboarded everything so he could concentrate on performances on set). There are some interesting narrative devices — a recurring ballad, most effective when it unexpectedly segues into a blues tune for a scene of the men simply waiting for the next life-or-death situation — and a VO read by Burgess Meredith (star of OF MICE AND MEN) which isn’t associated with any one character and sometimes made me think of Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE. I liked the VO better than the ballad but both are useful.

The whole thing is semi-real and semi-mythic. It doesn’t go as far into abstraction and existential angst as Mann’s MEN IN WAR, but it hints in that direction twelve years early. The ending is triumphal again, but in 1945 it was probably always going to be.

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Milestone could have left it at that, honour somewhat salvaged, but in 1950 Zanuck had him celebrate the marines with HALLS OF MONTEZUMA. The lateral tracking shots are back, and by now we’re wondering why this inventive filmmaker, who came up with new and inspired stuff on almost every film, insisted on repeating himself so much in his battle scenes.

Milestone has an excellent bunch of actors and Robert Wagner. Richard Widmark is at his most attractive as a sergeant who doesn’t plan on surviving. He’s suffering terrible migraines, and has his doc chum (Karl Malden) supplying him with powerful painkillers.

“These aren’t a cure. They’re temporary.”

“So am I.”

We’re in colour this time, bright Pacific colour. The mission is to take an island, capturing Japanese prisoners for information. Korean-American Philip Ahn, a Milestone regular since THE GENERAL DIED AT DAWN, is one of these. The dialogue isn’t as good as Rossen’s but the patriotism is more muted than Zanuck’s. Characters are maimed, killed, driven crazy (somebody always goes crazy in Milestone’s war films, which is something I give him credit for). Jack Webb delivers a rousing, religiose speech at the end and makes everything alright. But there’s some sharp observation of war’s absurdity and despair. Is that cannon fire or the sound of cake being simultaneously eaten and had?

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THEY WHO DARE (1954), a British production made during Milestone’s blacklist trouble, is worthless. It doesn’t have the lateral tracking shots, but it doesn’t have any other visual interest either, save for the attractive colour in Wilkie Cooper’s lensing of Greek landscapes. Akim Tamiroff is back — an actor who spans Milestone’s career from ’30s to ’60s. Dirk Bogarde and Denholm Eliot in the same unit, in Greece, seems like an invitation to innuendo, but let’s resist.

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The most intriguing bit is a superimposed boulder wobbling in the foreground of a shot, (above, on the left) apparently inserted in post to cover a mistake. It’s enormously distracting, since the shot isn’t quite stable, causing the vast rocky overhang to bobble about as if full of helium and jounced by a breeze. Whatever it’s concealing must have been insanely inappropriate to merit such an extreme and unsuccessful cover-up.

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Directorially, the only familiar moment is the director’s fondness for including caricatures of his cast. Here’s a swashbuckling Dirk, as one of his comrades-in-arms pictures him.

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PORK CHOP HILL (1959) deals with Korea. In A WALK IN THE SUN, Norman Lloyd is always going on about “the Battle of Tibet” which he predicts will be fought in 1956. He was almost right. The lateral tracking shots are trotted out one more time. The futility of war — symbolized by the taking of one insignificant hill — is undercut by producer Gregory Peck adding a VO at the end to explain the strategic import of the victory. The ching-chong-chinese soundtrack (by Leonard Rosenman! What was he thinking?) is a disastrous miscalculation too, but there are some very good actors, and Gregory Peck.

Under the credits, we see what appear to be negotiations breaking down between the Americans and the Koreans — one has to assume this started life as an actual scene, depicting the causes of war, and that Gregory Peckory decided nobody cared about that stuff and so chose to slaister music all over it, drowning out the dialogue. He could have cut the whole sequence, but waste not want not — better to have it here, serving no coherent purpose, apparently. The whole re-edit job is so clunking and inefficient — a title comes up to identify the location AFTER a whole establishing scene — that it’s easy to see where the interference has happened. Things improve once the action starts, and it never lets up. An American unit has to conquer a completely worthless hill, with none of the promised support, and they’re decimated doing it. The peace talks footage becomes part of a rear-guard action by Peck the producer to prove it was worthwhile.

Some of the stock characters might as well come with targets on their backs, but there are also welcome bursts of interest from a juvenile Harry Dean Stanton, a baby Robert Blake no bigger than a man’s hand, and a daringly cast Woody Strode as a malingering coward (for which read a guy who mainly wants to survive: I was on his side). And he gets whole scenes with the intense Roscoe Lee Browne. That’s right: two black guys talk to each other, and both roles could have gone to white actors. And it’s 1959.

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The campaign is a catalogue of blunders by command, and the propaganda broadcast by an oleaginous Chinese Lord Haw Haw (I call him Lord Run Run Haw Haw)  figure is notable for the fact that everything said against the war is demonstrated to be true by the action of the film itself. So it’s arguable that Peck’s interference merely imposed inefficient Hollywood bookends on the film, the way so many subversive films from the golden age come packaged in conservative platitudes. The real meat is inside.

Oh, and the photography is rather wonderful at times, with a misty pre-dawn advance and some intense spotlit stuff and a world of dust and death. Sam Leavitt was responsible and his credits are IMPRESSIVE.

This was Milestone’s last statement on war, and it ends with Peck’s stuffy VO: “Because of their sacrifice, millions now live in freedom.” And yet, the true last word is probably still contained in ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT, Milestone’s millstone. Let it serve as coda:

“We used to think you knew. The first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country it’s better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?”

All Quiet on the Western Front (Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy)
Halls of Montezuma
Purple Heart
The North Star
TCM Spotlight: Errol Flynn Adventures (Desperate Journey / Edge of Darkness 1943 / Northern Pursuit / Uncertain Glory / Objective Burma)
A Walk in the Sun (Restored and Uncut)
Pork Chop Hill

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12 Responses to “A tracking shot is a moral act”

  1. See I’ve always avoided A Walk in the Sun the many times it’s been on TV because I first heard about it from Samuel Fuller’s famous letter to Milestone.
    ““Why a man of your calibre should resort to a colonel’s technical advice on what happens in a platoon is something I’ll never figure out,…When colonels are back in their garrison hutments where they belong I’ll come out with a yarn that won’t make any doggie that was ever on the line retch with disgust.”

    Maybe we’ve got Milestone to thank for The Big Red One

  2. Interesting… Of course, I’m not qualified to critique the film’s realism, except insofar as it uses blatant stylisation of dialogue, music, framing. But in the fact that most of the film consists of characters simply trudging from one place to another, complaining, it seemed very credible. I can’t judge the military details.

    Milestone’s military experience was from the previous war, and was mainly filmmaking, but he certainly saw carnage. All Quiet is the only film in his career or Fuller’s to really hint at that.

  3. I recall seeing ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT not long ago, and while I thought it was a well-crafted film I found I much preferred Raymond Bernard’s WOODEN CROSSES, which deals with the same subject matter and was filmed around the same time as ALL QUIET. Also, it would’ve been interesting to have had Fuller’s STEEL HELMET in the mix here. Another I saw not long back that I thought was good, engaging.

  4. Yes, also Fuller mentions in the letter that he really liked All Quiet on the Western Front, so for him A Walk in the Sun was a major disappointment

  5. It’s that difference between direct experience and imagination. Imagination is very powerful for those who haven’t been there, but it’s likely to offend those who lived it. I doubt Fuller would have liked Saving Private Ryan, even though Spielberg was able to show the gore that Fuller had to censor.

    Wooden Crosses is stunning. Still to see Pabst’s take on the war, Westfront 1918, but the Bernard is my favourite for now. EVERYBODY on that movie was a veteran of the Great War, and it shows.

    I’ve come to admire the strange, disjointed plotting of these war films, and think it could teach modern filmmaking a thing or two.

  6. I found A WALK IN THE SUN very moving the one time I watched it, and I always remember that a friend of mine who had served in the US National Guard and Army Reserve was surprised I’d seen it. It was one of his favorite films, but he felt it was obscure. Then again, he also loved ARMY OF DARKNESS.

  7. I felt it was a film I knew something of, but then realized I didn’t really know anything about it when I finally ran it. It’s maybe more celebrated in the abstract than actually watched or considered. In other words, “an American classic.”

    I would think people with military experience would at least recognize some of what goes on in it — it seems convincing on group dynamics and comradeship.

  8. I suppose it’s telling that there isn’t a high quality DVD release, let alone Blu Ray. My copy is part of a cheapo WWII Movies collection with two other movies that I’ve never watched and don’t know anything about.

  9. Robert Keser Says:

    Around the world, Pabst’s WESTFRONT 1918 and ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT both touched a public nerve but from different angles. (In Europe, Pabst’s film played in theatres six months before Milestone’s, but in America it was the Hollywood production that created a sensation six months before the German film was seen.) Milestone’s film recounts the progressive loss of youthful ideals, from the initial indoctrination of nationalist patriotism in the schoolroom to the last breath on the battlefield. War is the problem: the final message suggests that without war’s intrusion, life for its naïve schoolboys would proceed satisfactorily. In WESTFRONT1918, however, the war exists as just one symptom of a corrupt bourgeois society that is gripped by economic injustice and out of control. Even in its censored condition, Pabst’s film remains a darker statement.

    I noticed your Errol Flynn box contains Walsh’s UNCERTAIN GLORY, which I highly recommend, if you haven’t seen it: a war film without combat, but featuring a very tricky and ultimately quite moving plot.

  10. Sad about the DVD situation. I guess it’s because Dana Andrews isn’t the kind of star one can build a box set or a solo release around. But what an actor!

    At least it’s available.

    Must see that Walsh film. And I have a lot of Pabst to catch up on.

    Wooden Crosses is incredibly uncompromising: it’s bleak finish makes Milestone’s poetic death scene seem sugar-coated. Of course, I’m biased, having devoted a documentary to its producer.

  11. Siegel’s Hell Is for Heroes is the movie which really flattened Pork Chop Hill for me. (On checking my archives, I see I waved the same stick at Saving Private Ryan.)

    I’m completely with you on Edge of Darkness, though: http://www.pseudopodium.org/ht-20000623.html#2000-06-28

  12. Thanks — you do a great job of unraveling that film’s weird contradictions.

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