- All the King’s Men, Robert Rossen
- Battleground, William A. Wellman
- The Heiress, William Wyler
- A Letter to Three Wives, Joseph L. Mankiewicz*
- Twelve O’Clock High, Henry King
Well lo and behold, with the 1949 awards the Academy managed to put two strong years together in a row, though this year was marred by the inclusion of one desperately boring film and a Best Picture winner that, while a scathing and sporadically brilliant indictment of American politics, suffers from a weak script and weaker characters. However, the weak script is given a boost by some clever and experimental editing, and the very weak characters are given a leg up by some very strong performances…two of which won Oscars. It is one of only two films to win Best Picture and two acting Oscars, but not Best Director, and the other is…
Because not all trivia is fun.
Best Director, meanwhile, went to one of the most needless films ever made. But I’ll get to that. Even taking into account that waste of 105 minutes, strong performances were the real theme of 1949; it was the first of only eight years in the five-nominee/supporting acting era where every acting winner was from a Best Picture nominee.
This year’s crop is also notable for including the first postwar-era World War II nominees, Battleground and Twelve O’Clock High. Unlike the propagandistic fare we saw between 1939 and 1944, these two films each make use of the intervening years to cast an appraising, humanistic eye on the conflict, just as La Grande Illusion did for World War I in 1937. That said, they are not morally ambiguous by any means, but they both dug a bit deeper than films were willing (or permitted) to go when the war was still going on.
There’s plenty to say about these movies, so let’s not waste any more time…
A Letter to Three Wives is a movie about…well, that. The letter, sent by one of their cattier friends, informs them that said “friend” has skipped town and absconded with one of their husbands…but neglects to tell them which. Which is absolutely something a real human with a functioning brain would do, even if she wasn’t an unseen character in the world’s dumbest screenplay. As fate would have it, our titular wives are on a day trip with a youth organization, so they are left to quietly panic and have flashbacks to why the letter could only be referring to their hubby. What a mystery for the ages…what a high-stakes thrill ride that definitely kept me interested and invested in which bland, caricatured housewives would lose which bland, caricatured husband. You won’t believe the surprise ending…but only because it is even stupider than anything you are possibly imagining right now.
“Uh…and then they find $20!” –Joseph L. Mankiewicz in the pitch meeting, probably
Kirk Douglas is mostly tolerable as an impossibly easygoing high school teacher, but nothing else about this production has any merit and one can almost feel the brain cells dying as the film lurches from one cliché to the next with an almost gleeful abandon. I only watched it a few days ago, so it’s too soon to fully assess the damage it’s done.
It’s been a while on this project since I had to write a review of a movie I absolutely despised—that would be The Human Comedy at the 16th Academy Awards—and since I’m still in an era when I can mostly get away with it, I’m simply going to declare A Letter to Three Wives one of the worst films of the 1940s and move on. All’s I can say is, Mankiewicz better get his act together for All About Eve, next year’s winner.
Based on the above poster, I’m guessing that at the initial studio meeting, Battleground was pitched as an extravagant MGM musical comedy about a bunch of kooks and knuckleheads fighting the Battle of the Bulge. Then, some new personnel were hired, producers added and removed some ideas, the script went through some rewrites, backs were patted and heads rolled, and eventually they landed on the quiet, almost philosophical, study of the stresses of combat that is the finished film…but no one told the art department, and they never revised their original concept.
I was very pleased to find this film among the nominees, because it’s one of the first movies I have a memory of watching, way back in the mid-1990s, while I was preparing a school project about the experiences of the 101st Airborne at Bastogne in 1944. Battleground was a favorite of my grandfather, a WWII veteran who was able to confirm, in realtime, all of the tiny details the movie got right–as well as fill us in on a few that got left out (for instance, there were a lot more f-bombs amongst soldiers than Code movies would have us believe). Just about every scene in the movie reminded me of his stories, and of him.
Upon returning to the movie twenty years on, all I remembered was a pair of scenes involving a soldier who refused to sleep with his boots on, and the consequences of his boot-hubris.
Spoiler: they’re not good.
Battleground was directed by William A. Wellman, who, devotees will remember, directed the very first Best Picture winner, Wings. The film dramatizes the events of the Siege of Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge in 1944, wherein the 101st Airborne Division held the Belgian town for just over a week before being relieved by the Third Army under Patton. However, the film shows almost none of those “big” events, focusing entirely on the day-to-day lives and struggles of a single regiment as they try to cope with the weather (the Germans had worked out the timing of the offensive specifically for the bad weather that would prevent the Allies defending from the air), short supplies of food and matériel, and the constant threat of sneak attack from the dense, claustrophobic forest.
Here they are, enjoying the “gags and glory” promised by the poster.
One of the things I really like about the movie’s structure is that, since it never leaves the soldiers’ sides, the audience experiences the same disorientation, uncertainty, and disappointments that they do. We open on the regiment as they are ready to ship out to Paris for some well-deserved R&R…only to be sent to a tiny Belgian town they’ve never heard of, told to defend it at all costs, and soon find themselves surrounded by an unseen, ghostly enemy hiding in the foggy woods. Along the way, sporadic and often confusing news trickles in, which often only serves to isolate the troops more…just like it did for the real 101st.
Unlike most of the propaganda films made during the war, in which the soldier characters were merely moving scenery through which Western audiences could cheer the inevitable defeat of the Nazis, Battleground does the opposite: the war itself, its causes and outcomes, and even its purpose are unimportant next to the lives and minds of the participants. With the benefit of hindsight (and victory), the film was able to portray the human gripes, foibles, and even cowardice that the soldiers faced, and show that these were not only perfectly normal, but perfectly alright. In the heat of battle, any faults are secondary, and are quickly forgotten…even for Khan himself.
Years later, he would find Lt. Frank Drebin far less forgiving, but that’s another story.
Of course, as I said in the opening, the film is not morally ambiguous, nor does it resist the temptation for an upbeat ending, as we finish with all of the soldiers (the ones who survive, anyway) marching and singing in unison as fresh troops arrive to relieve them. The ending is reminiscent of that of Grand Hotel, as the protagonists leave and are replaced by new ones with just as many stories to tell. In the end, like La Grande Illusion before it, the film is hopeful without bathos, celebratory without propaganda, and tender without sacrificing objectivity. Nostalgia aside, it’s my favorite of the nominees.
Twelve O’Clock High, like Battleground, is a war film that barely shows any war, and, again like Battleground, features a very odd poster that I’m certain could have been improved with a little less (or maybe a little more) drinking. The tagline definitely could have been workshopped a bit more, and the copywriters must have been kicking themselves eight years later when they couldn’t use it for the gay porn parody 12 Horny Men.
Which was notable for reuniting all of the original cast.
Anyway, Twelve O’Clock High tells the story of a ragtag group of aviation misfits in the early days of American involvement in the war, the Eighth Bomber Command carrying out daytime precision strikes on Luftwaffe airfields and munitions factories from their base in Surrey, England. They are becoming undisciplined and careless, and it’s up to General Gregory Peck to whip them into shape. The unit is so undermanned and short of supplies that he is quickly forced to fly missions with them, improving their performance but earning himself some pretty severe PTSD in the process.
It’s an extremely well-made film, if a bit overlong (more on that later); the script is lean and the editing brisk, as befits a movie in this genre. We’ve seen quite a bit of Henry King amongst the Best Picture nominees–In Old Chicago (1937), Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1938), and The Song of Bernadette (1943)–and his strong eye for mise en scène serves the story well. One scene in particular is a masterclass in lighting, blocking, writing, and acting, a five-minute unbroken take of Peck mercilessly dressing down an errant officer. The fluid movements of both the camera and Gregory Peck raise and lower the tension perfectly.
Since this is a 1940s WWII movie, you’ve probably already guessed that, by the film’s end, this officer is the bravest, most capable pilot in the entire war.
As professionally made as the film is, it does run longer than it should, mainly because of an extended air battle sequence late in the film. The scene is partly comprised of actual aerial combat footage filmed by Allied and Luftwaffe planes during the war, though as far as I know they stopped short of having Gregory Peck fly missions (after all, the film was directed by Henry King, not Howard Hughes). However, the whole thing takes place well into the third act, and though I understand why it’s there, it feels jarring and out of place within the human drama we have been watching and which picks up again immediately afterwards. Because of this, I lost the tension and excitement of what should have been a pulse-pounding spectacle, which wouldn’t have happened if it took place earlier in the film’s runtime.
Although I enjoyed Twelve O’Clock High, and although it features great performances and more than a few classic scenes, I don’t think it succeeded in portraying the physical and mental toll of war as successfully as did Battleground. Aside from the opening scene, the tribulations of the men flying the missions are largely ignored, instead focusing on those of the General and his command staff. When the men are shown to be at their breaking point, the commanders–and, since we are seeing the men through their eyes, the film itself–treat them as cowards and slackers who need to be pushed even further, and this is never really resolved in the end. In fact, the moral of the story seems to be that, while it may tax the emotional stability of the commanding officers, pushing soldiers beyond their limit is what makes them good soldiers.
Future war films would disagree.
The film very briefly makes a halfhearted attempt at a better moral late in the film, as the squadron’s studious adjutant, Major Stovall–whose flashbacks from present day England bookend the film–remarks that he has dreams of all the men of the unit who have died, and how their faces all blend together, “and it’s a very young face.” It’s a powerful, understated moment…which is immediately laughed away by Peck and the others present, who brush it off as maudlin ramblings brought on by whisky–which, the film makes clear, it is. When Peck does finally snap in the next scene, it gives a little bit of weight to Stovall’s words, but he snaps back pretty quickly, so not a lot.
On the whole, Twelve O’Clock High is a good film, if not a great one. Dean Jagger won the Best Supporting Actor award for his role, though it was more of a “thanks for a great career” Oscar and for my money it should have been Ralph Richardson. In fact, aside from Battleground, there’s only one film this year that I would describe as “great”…and I’ll be covering that, and the year’s winner, next week in Part II!