Tag Archives: WWII

“It is a shameful thing to win a war”

In one of the bonus features on the Cohen DVD of “La Pelle” (The Skin, 1981), writer-director Liliana Cavani (The Night Porter) contends that Curzio Malaparte (1898-1957, né Kurt Erich Suckert) was a reporter — indeed, a great reporter — rather than a novelist (though Kaput (1944) is somewhat fictionalized). She noted that even the most grotesque events in The Skin were accounts of things that occurred, indeed, recurred in Naples after the Nazis left and the Americans took over. In (1983) essay “The Tragedy of Central Europe” novelist Milan Kundera, focused on Kaputt, wrote: “It is strange, yes, but understandable: for this reportage is something other than reportage; it is a literary work whose aesthetic intention is so strong, so apparent, that the sensitive reader automatically excludes it from the context of accounts brought to bear by historians, journalists, political analysts, memoirists.”


(Malparte in internal exile on Lipari, 1936)

The Skin (first published in 1949, quickly added to the Catholic Church’s Index Librorum Prohibitorum) has lots and lots of dialogue in French. The scenes go on and on and on and do not seem to cohere into even a baggy novel. The dialogue between liaison officer Malaparte and the naïve colonel, Jack Hanmilton, who is eager to be a good guy, include many lectures about human nature in general and that of a starving conquered people in particular. The welcome of “liberators” was short-lived, and without selling their flesh and that of their children (Cavani only shows boys being pawed over by Moroccan soldiers; Malaparte wrote about very young girls as well as boys being sold for food or a few liras.) I don’t think the boyish colonel from Cleveland ever grasps that the Neapolitans regard him and the soldiers expecting cheap thrills regard their new rulers as not very different than the Nazis who ruled Naples before the Americans arrived or the fascists who ruled before that. Each successive regime required resourcefulness from those wanting to survive—and acquiescence to the prostitution or rape of women and children. Lecturing the Johnnies-come-lately, Malaparte said “You’ve no idea what a man will do, what deeds of heroism and infamy he can accomplish, to save his skin . . . They think they are fighting and suffering to save their souls, but in reality they are fighting and suffering to save their skins, and their skins alone.”


The movie replaces the colonel with 3-star general Mark Cork (a slight variant on Mark Clark), a publicity-eager commander of the 5th US Army annoyed by the arrival of the wife of a Massachusetts senator. Deborah Wyatt (Romanian-born Alexandra King in the only role in IMDB) is a pilot who flies her own plane in from Sicily. Malaparte plays Vergil to her Dante (though Malaparte is the one who writes about the post-apocalyptic reality).

Malaparte is urbane past the line of cynicism, but with compassion for the Americans as well as for the Neapolitans. Wyatt is another American unwilling to recognize the reality of either the locals’ desperation or the rapaciousness of the GIs. After she boards a truck filled with GIs and is manhandled she has had enough of occupation reality and goes home, much to the relief of Gen. Cork.

Malaparte shrugs in the Mastroianni manner. He has his villa on the coast of Capri and noble friends including the Principessa Consuelo Caracciolo, a mostly wasted Claudia Cardinale. (In none of the bonus features does Cavani comment on Cardinale’s reduced part. She enthuses about the graciousness and helpfulness of Mastroianni and Lancaster, however.)

Villa Malaparte

(Villa Malaparte, Capri)

Captain Jimmy Wren (Ken Marshall [Krull]) falls in love with the professional virgin (who displays her intact hymen to lines of soldiers for a price collected by her father) and retains some of his good cheer and eagerness to help Maria Concetta (Liliana Tari) and her light-fingered younger brother.

Malaparte does not call out hypocrisy, even while showing the deleterious effects of American naiveté mixed with self-righteousness: “No one on this earth save the Americans can move about with such easy, smiling grace among people who are filthy, starved and unhappy. It is not a sign of insensibility: it is a sign of optimism and at the same time of innocence,” he explains. “The Americans are not cynics, they are optimistic and optimism is itself a sign of innocence. He who is blameless in thought and deed is led not to deny that evil exists, but to refuse to admit that evil is inevitable and incurable. The Americans believe that misery, hunger, pain and everything else can be combatted, that men can recover from misery, hunger, and pain, that there is a remedy for all evil. They do not know that evil is incurable.”

Both book and movie show the American soldiers going all out to aid Neaoplitans after Mount Vesuvius erupts and a cloud of ashes fall on Naples. There is a great bit in the book in which American planes attack a could of molten particles before it can blow over the city. There is something crazy about machine-gunning a cloud so that it will drop what it is carrying, but the real folie de grandeur is plane that approaches too close, is sucked in, and explodes. The explosion results in the fall of the molten material over the sea. Before the advent of CGI, I assume that the scene was too expensive to try to film.

Concerned that American audiences would not accept a portrayal of “the greatest generation” as anything less than noble (well after “Catch-22” and “M*A*S*H”) led Warner Brothers to back out the contract to release “The Skin,” which never had a US theatrical release (though eventually receiving a splendid 2014 DVD with a commentary track and various bonus feature interviews of Cavani and set designer Dante Ferretti).

Not least for scaling back the portrayals of African American sex fiends and libertine homosexual communists (admittedly a switch from blaming fascism on homosexuals), but also in bringing out narrative lines, I think the movie is better than the book. I still think the greatest portrait of desperation in “liberated” Naples is the section of Roberto Rosselini’s “Paisa” in which an African American’s shoes are stolen and he follows the young thief to the cavern where hundreds of Neapolitans are living. Malaparte also reported the hunting of horny African Americans to rob, and with a greater taste for Grand Guignol, what Malaparte wrote fit with Norman Lewis’s more detached (and less probing) Naples 44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (1978) and John Horne Burns’s more sentimental 1947 American best-seller The Gallery. (It seems to me that Malaparte was less harsh about the Americans than Burns, btw.)

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Aside from the universal practice of post-dubbing dialogue rather than shooting with sound (so that even the Italians’ lines are out of synch with lip movement; Mastroianni allegedly spoke English in scenes with Lancaster and Marshall), there is the oddity of lines in Italian being translated (by Malaparte) into Italian. I don’t see why an international release could not have had the Americans speak English and the Italians speak Italians (it’s not like “The Leopard” in which Lancaster was playing a Sicilian character…).

Malaparte, who had marched on Rome with Mussolini in 1922 and had official backing from various periodicals, was ejected from the Fascist Party in 1933, and jailed and/or sent into internal exile multiple times before landing a position as Italian Liberation Corps Liaison Officer to the American High Command in Italy from November 1943 to March 1946. Consistently sympathizing with authoritarians, he flirted with the Roman Catholic Church and the Italian Communist Party (though continuing to look askance at homosexual communists) and at the time of his death was enthusiastic about Mao, who was engaged in the famine-productng disaster of “the Great Leap Forward.” Malaparte’s will left his villa on Capri to the PRC, though his family succeeded in contesting the will.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray


A slog across northern Burma ad majorem gloria of US Army generals

If ever there was a unit that needed a nickname it was the “5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)”! If Brigadier General Frank D. Merrill (1903-55) was as hands-on slogging through the jungles and over the mountains of Burma as Jeff Chandler (1918-61) portrays him in the 1962 Warner Brothers celebration “Merrill’s Marauders,” that moniker was apt. ((The “provisional” indicates that the unit is formed for a special mission or operation and will be disbanded after its completion… and there were only 103 soldiers of the original three battalions of 3000 volunteers left to be reassigned.)


Merrill trained them and led them on a 90-day trek behind enemy (Japanese) lines to attack the Japanese after which they were to be relieved by British troops (and disbanded). Gen. “Vinegar Joe” Sitwell, commander of the relatively minor US forces in the western front of the war with Japan flies in and orders the exhausted and malaria-riddled 5307th on to attack Myitkyina in the far northeast of Burma (the Kachin state) a railroad hub as well as a hub for the road by which the Japanese planned to attack India. (In the movie, Merrill’s Marauders take Myitkyina by themselves in one swoop, though in reality there was a prolonged siege by Chinese (Kuomintang) and the British-Indian “chindits” were also involved.)

Director Sam Fuller had been an infantryman in Europe during World War II and wanted to film his own platoon’s story. He had already written the script for what many (18) years later would be “The Big Red One,” and made two of the best Korean War movies (Steel Helmet, Fixed Bayonets) and was not interested in making the jungle attrition movie in the Philippines. Though US Army officials had been very unhappy with the portrayal of US soldiers killing prisoners in “Steel Helmet,” Warner Brothers  received co-operation from both the US and Filipino armies in making  “Merrill’s Marauders.” (The US Army was displeased by the well-documented disregard for the health of the marauders and the failure to supply them with adequate rations, and succeeded in getting showing GIs shooting other GIs in the Shaduzup maze deleted.)

Gritty for its time, the movie shows Merrill’s determination and refusal to heed his attending physician’s (Andew Duggan) judgment that (he and) the men were not fit for combat. His protégé Lt. Stock (Ty Hardin) is in Merrill’s view too close to his men, though Stock soldiers on after Merrill refuses to relieve him of command of his vanguard platoon. Chandler was not just acting being in pain (Merrill had a second heart attack while on the mission) but was in pain from a back injury. Surgery (malpractice) on that killed him before the release of the movie.

In comparison to the two Korean War movies, I thought there was little characterization of the fragile cogs in the war machine. In common with many American war movies, it is a puzzlement that Japan conquered so much territory, including driving Merrill’s regular army unit out of Burma in the first place. Every direct encounter results in Japanese soldiers being killed with relative ease. There is only one in which the outcome is close (it involves a second American bayoneting the Japanese solider in the back). And on the scale larger than hand-to-hand combat, the Japanese flee from every attack. Even the Japanese snipers are easily picked off by a single US sharpshooter’s shot.

The movie incorporated battle footage from “Battle Cry.” Other than the censored Shaduzup maze (tank trap) sequence, there was nothing of particular visual note. On the other hand, there are none of the lapses of basic moviemaking competence that occur in most other Fuller movies. I don’t blame him for the music (Howard Jackson gets that), because I don’t think he had final cut authority. I’d like to think he wasn’t responsible for the epilogue, either.

There is one touch of Fuller black humor: Gen. Merrill is visiting the outdoor field hospital. The soldier being worked on opens his eyes and belligerently asks: “Who are you?” Merrill responds:”Merrill, who are you?” The feverish soldier asks “Did Lewinsky make it?” (I don’t remember his name and it isn’t in the credits.” He then drops back dead. Merrill a repeats the now-dead man’s question. The surgeon replies “He was Lewinsky.”

The movie provides no background on the politics that made Gen. Joe Stillwell to need an American contingent fighting in northern Burma. A British group passes through, but there is no indication that the British were involved in taking the rail depot at Shaduzup or that the marauders were not the main attack force at Myitkyna air field (that was the Chinese Expeditionary Force) on 15 March 1944 or that the the Japanese held on to the town of Myitkyna until 3 August (when 800 Japanese retreated from the town) long after the surviving marauders had been flown out. British troops were also involved at Myitkyna. The failure to show that there was anyone by marauders at Mytikyna is more than typical American ethnocentrism but part of a larger effort to valorize only the US military in winning World War II. It seems likely that the Mytikyna air field would have been taken if the exhausted marauders had not undertaken the arduous march across the Muzon mountains (the movie shows this being mostly swamps, though some Philipinne mountains do appear) and ended their expedition back at Shaduzup. They were exhausted, but Stillwell needed some Americans at the climactic battle (Myitkyna). Eighteen years later, Warner Brothers made it look like the remnants of the 5307th Composite Unit (Provisional)”! took Myitkyna. (That they were sacrificed for the ego of Gen. Stillwell and jockeying among Allied commanders does not detract from the heroism of the infantrymen who went on long past the point of exhaustion.)

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The epilogue celebrates the Special Forces marching on (actually the rows looked ragged to me!) is jingoism at its worst, encouraging the hubris of increasing US military involvement in Southeast Asia, first with the Special Forces who were particularly doted on by President John Kennedy (who, among other things, encouraged wearing of green berets, which had been banned, and began their combat involvement in Vietnam). Though the movie shows exhaustion and sickness felling US soldiers in droves, the end stresses a sense of omnipotence that encouraged more military adventures (even under the shadow of the stalemate in Korea).

©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Between a rock (Nazi occupiers) and a hard place (the Red Army)

There is a composer (played by Wladyslaw Sheyba in his screen debut) among the company that has been reduced to a platoon of the Polish Resistance 43 days in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 in “Kanal” (1957), the second of the trilogy of tragic movies about the Polish Resistance by Andrzej Wadja (between “A Generation” and “Ashes and Diamonds“). They stream by in the opening shot, with voice-over introduction that concludes with an exhortation to “watch them closely, for these are the last hours of their lives.”. Anyone with even a slight knowledge of the course of the Second World War knows that the Red Army had parked across the Vistula rather than aid the Poles’ insurrection against the occupying Nazis and waited for the Poles and Germans to kill as many of each other as they could. Those defending a bombed-out hill know that they are doomed as they take up positions with a small supply of ammunition.


“Doom” is an abstraction. They expect to die defending a position that cannot be defended (the hill I mean), but nothing so noble as a Polish Thermopylae stand is ahead of them. After they repulse an attack in which the romantic lead, Jacek Kortab (Tadeusz Janczar), whom I recognized from “A Generation”) is wounded in a brave venture, Lt. Zadra (Wienczyslaw Glinski) is ordered to retreat and escape through the sewer system, an order that particularly enrages the hard-drinking Sgt. Kula (Tadeusz Gwiazdowski).

Impending doom in a position that is certain to be overrun is sometimes represented in war movies (and I’d bet that Stephen Spielberg remembered some set-ups from “A Generation” in making “Saving Private Ryan”), but there is nothing remotely heroic about dying like rats (literally in a rat habitat) in a vain attempt to retreat. There is absolutely none of the exhilaration of the chase through the Vienna sewer system of “The Third Man” in “Kanal.” Life in the sewers is nasty, brutish, and short with sewer gasses, the ordinary (less toxic) stench, and muck (carefully applied, to that the eyes of the actors stand out alarmingly).

The group gets separated, so that there are three groups wandering around lost. The only one who knows the way through the sewers, Daisy (Teresa Izewska) drags and coaxes Jacek to the planned exit point, but wounded, feverish, and exhausted, he is unable to climb up the tunnel. Viewers unfamiliar with the geography/history may find where they go melodramatic, but those who know them know the implicit message of that scene. These two are not the only ones to have melodramatic endings for their journey. Most everyone goes mad to some degree. Wherever there is light there is danger and/or ignominy. The scope for heroism is reduced to almost (but not quite) nothing.

I know that some people survived, because the film is based on the experiences of Jerzy Stefan Stawinski, who had been 24 at the time of the Warsaw Uprising. The second half of “Kanal” is uncompromisingly bleak. The first half is a “war film” above ground, but that there is an armed insurrection being annihilated becomes indistinct with the primal absurdity of trying to find a way out of the muck and confusion of the sewers. This is not what those who enjoy war movies want, even those willing to watch “the good guys” be overrun and die fighting (300 Spartans, Go Tell the Spartans, They Died with Their Boots On, etc.). It is not really an antiwar movie, either. It is 1950s-stylized existentialist absurdism set in a then-recent historical debacle.

The uprising was based on mistaken assumptions that aid would come from the Allies, both by air form England and on the ground from the nearby Red Army. Wajda’s 2004 interview of Jan Nowak-Jezioranski puts the background in perspective without “spoiling” the plot of this particular movie. A courier between the Polish government-in-exile in London and the Home Army (Polish Resistance) at the time, Nowak-Jezioranski, a master dialectician, explains a lot and finds two silver linings to a very dark cloud.


I found the Wajda interview to the Criterion edition of A Generation useful for putting that movie in its historical context of how and when it was made. The Wajda interview (in which there are clips of the movie and some 2004 interview footage of Janusz Morgenstern (who was assistant director of “Kanal”), and critic Jerzy Plazewski in addition to Wajda) to the Criterion edition of “Kanal” is also very informative, but I would recommend watching it after watching the movie.

The Criterion transfer from the original negative is superb, allowing the viewer to see the clarity of Jerzy Lipman’s cinematography and seemingly infinite shades of gray. The (yellow) subtitles for the DVD are new and readable. There are also three galleries of production photos, publicity stills, and posters. It is another package for which Criterion deserves five stars.

The second half of the movie is so unpleasant to watch and the characters so much types rather than individuals (with the exception of the composer), that I’d be tempted to rate it a 3, despite Lipman’s bravura cinematography.

The movie is great for short-circuiting self-pity: Anyone who is able to watch a DVD is in as enviably good position in contrast to those in the movie!

BTW, I could not find even a hint of what the politics of the fighters was. “A Generation” was criticized for showing a leftist band (though, as I said in writing about it, in Lenin’s terms they were “infantile leftists” rather than disciplined revolutionaries). Polish viewers knew the Red Army was across the Vistula waiting for the insurrection to be put down, and a shot of the river was all the allusion they needed to remind them that the supposed “liberators” waited for the city to be destroyed and those who would rise up against foreign occupation to be eliminated. Somehow, Wajda was able to show one who had opposed Nazi occupation who engaged in a terrorist act against the Soviet-imposed regime in “Ashes and Diamonds,” another bleak but visually stylized portrayal of futility and absurd attempts at self-assertion.


©2018, Stephen O. Murray

Hell in the Sewers of Warsaw

Just out of film school in 1954, painter-turned director Andrzej Wajda‘s first feature film “Pokolenie” (A Generation), based on the novel by Bohdan Czeszko, who also wrote the screenplay) remains impressive. There are painterly chiaroscuro compositions, but also gripping action sequences, and strong characterizations. (And unlike Pasolini’s first movie, Accatone, there are well-done tracking shots and none of the lingering on scenes that are dramatically finished.)


A lot happens in the 83-minute running time of “A Generation.” Set in the outskirts of Warsaw in 1943, the movie starts with a group of young male slackers (just like “Accatone” does). Three of them jump onto a German train hauling coal toward the eastern front. Pillaging a bit is their form of resistance to the Nazi occupation. One is killed by a guard’s bullet and the film settles onto a shocked protagonist, Stach (Tadeusz Lomnicki), grazed by another bullet.

He stumbles into what seems to be a brick factory and (I think) perceived as being an opponent of the German Reich is taken on as an apprentice in a furniture-making factory. Being the most junior employee, he is run ragged. Sent off with a more senior one, Sekula (Janusz Paluszkiewicz), he receives a brief lecture on surplus value. (This might seem like elementary Marxist propaganda, but in the very informative Criterion edition interview with Wadja that I heartily recommend watching before the movie, I learned that the Polish authorities wanted this cut lest Polish workers think that they were still not receiving most of the value of their labor, though it was going to the state rather than to private owners.)

A very attractive young woman, whose code name the viewer will learn is Dorota (Urszula Modrzynska) distributes leaflets to the workers urging them to join the People’s Army, Stach is smitten both by her and by the glory of fighting the occupiers. He forms a band of freedom fighters (one of whom, Jacek (Ryszard Kotas) says he is already a communist, but is torn by the need to stay alive to support his father and engaging in high-risk actions).


There is a killing that the occupiers consider an act of “terrorism.” There is exemplary punishment, an extended chase (not as extended as in “Odd Man Out,” but even more stylishly shot), a carnival set up by the Germans just outside the walls of the burning Warsaw ghetto, a daring rescue operation, intrigues, romance, a Gestapo visit, a beating, and more. The ending looks like standard Soviet glorification of a band of anti-Fascists, though is open to other interpretations (not only from the tears in the eyes of the man making the rendez-vous, but in that he has now learned what these smiling partisans soon will about the costs of an insurgency against a military occupation).

Relatedly, I don’t think the movie pretends to provide a representative sample of the political factions in the Polish Resistance, or that anyone ever thought so. The band shown here was not doctrinally communist, and in Lenin’s terms are adventurers engaged in “infantile leftism. “A Generation” does not show the Soviet indifference to the crushing of the Warsaw Ghetto revolt or indicate that the future was trading one set of masters (from the Nazi empire) for another ((from the Soviet empire). There are hints of the latter, but giving the partisans of 1943-44 such foreknowledge would have been anachronistic. The idealism of the characters is tempered by seeing the high costs. Those who survive are not dewey-eyed!

In “On Becoming A Filmmaker” (the 2003 interview running 34 minutes), Wajda provides much interesting information on how a band of recent film school students (including the 6th-billed Roman Polanski; center in the still above) made it up as they were going along in location shooting and the despair at how the movie was transformed before its release by the cultural commissars. He thinks the film is valuable as a record of how things looked in war-devastated Poland, but there is much more of value in the fervently acted and impressively filmed movie.

The Criterion restoration is meticulous, and, along with “Andrzej Wajda: On Becoming A Filmmaker,” (which includes film clips and some explication of the milieu by critic Jerzy Plazewski as well as Wajda speaking) the disc includes the second of Wajda’s three student films, a 10-minute film. “Ceramics from Ilza,” and a gallery of 98 images of the production and publicity for the film. The subtitles are yellow, so do not disappear against white backgrounds.

“A Generation” was the first of what became a trilogy about anti-Nazi activities in Poland in 1943-44 with  “Kanal” (1957) and “Ashes and Diamonds” (1958) (in which it is an official being imposed by the Kremlin who is assassinated) twice. All show the destruction of a generation of young Poles with more enthusiasm for resistance than ideology or political analysis. “A Generation” and “Kanal” were shot by the brilliant Jerzy Lipman (who had shot “Ceramics from Ilza” and would also shoot the first feature directed by Roman Polanski, the very impressive-looking “Knife in the Water” (1962).


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

Flat Ishiguro detective story

When We Were Orphans (2000) Kazuo Ishiguro ’s fifth novel is not the incomprehensible, nightmarish (ersatz Kafka) mess that his previous novel, The Unconsoled 1995), was. But it is also far from returning to the mastery of an unreliable narrator (who does not understand what he is relating) of his superb Booker Prize-winning novel Remains of the Day, or his earlier, also quite accomplished The Artist of the Floating World. All three are set in the days just before World War II (which began earlier in China than in Europe). The earlier ones were set in Japan and England. A large (and not very interesting!) chunk of When We Were Orphans is set in England, but even there, the narrator (Christopher Banks, called “Puffin” for no discernible reasons) is preoccupied with the relationships of his childhood: relationships to his parents, both of whom mysteriously disappeared when he was ten, to the Chinese woman who cared for him (his amah), and to his Japanese playmate Akira.


Seemingly even before Akira and he began playing detective imagining resolutions for the kidnapping of Christopher’s father. In England he develops a reputation as a discerning sleuth, though this is asserted rather than credibly illustrated by Ishiguro. Inevitably, he returns to Shanghai to try to solve the mystery of the successive disappearances of his parents. To put it mildly, 1937 is a particularly difficult time to do this, as the Japanese invaders are fighting in the streets of the Chinese city of Shanghai (though leaving in place the international concessions where Christopher grew up).

The most vivid part of the novel involves getting to a house Christopher is convinced that it is where his parents have been held for two decades. However, it is on the front lines of the battle with first Chinese and then Japanese help. He also gets an earful about the Kuomintang’s greater concern with fighting communists than with fighting the Japanese invaders. .

The characterization is very poor; all the main characters seem cardboard. Certainly, Ishiguro has drawn unsympathetic protagonists before, but they are more interesting and more plausible than Christopher is. Although most of the loose ends are tied up (one irritatingly is not), at the close of the novel I have no clear idea about what Christopher felt about what he learned, or, for that matter, what he remembered from his childhood. “Uncle Philip,” the novel’s most interesting character seems to have prefigured Christopher in the role of male English spinster, and is indeed emotionally stunted, but at least he feels and communicates some emotions. Uncle Philip’s final scene is extremely melodramatic, but in it he almost comes to life, The reader is, however, given no indication of what Christopher feels about what he learns about the central mystery of his past.

I’m not sure whether he becomes more unreliable as the book progresses, though early on his dissent from the recollections of him at school are suspect. Even Christopher considers that he may have hallucinated some other Japanese soldier into a reunion with Akira in an hour of great need for both. (Why doesn’t he try to follow up and contact Akira’s son after the war?)

The other orphans (both females) are underdeveloped and implausible. Christopher’s behavior toward Sarah at the end of her stay in Shanghai and toward a driver and a KMT lieutenant who has aided him in getting close to the house he seeks are particularly ill-conceived and unlikely, or, at least, are badly executed. The expectations of what Banks can accomplish that are held by the Shanghai Europeans bewildered by the beginning of war are ludicrous, but not implausible. And what Ishiguro writes about the politcal economy of opium seems quite accurate. Although it gets hallucinatory, the background setting is mostly deftly drawn.


(Ishiguro in 2005, photo by Mariusz Kubiki )

Ishiguro’s masterpiece of an emotionally blocked, politically blind “unreliable narrator” is clearly still Remains of the Day. Although Ishiguro has a talent for recreating the 1930s and writes often limpid descriptive prose, I have found his work since Remains disappointing, particularly deficient in character development, which was what was most impressive about Remains.


©2000, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

Occupation and covert resistance

John Steinbeck (1902-68) was dismayed by the swift Nazi conquest of most of Europe and by the German propaganda he encountered in Mexico, where he was writing the screenplay for “The Forgotten Village “(released in September 1941). He wrote a short novel (112 pages in the current Penguin edition) before the US was jolted into WWII. The Moon Is Down was published by the Viking Press in March of 1942, the apogee of Axis success, with a confidence of their ultimate defeat that must have seemed quite optimistic at the time.


The novel does not name the conquerors as Nazis, though the invaders’ cult of the Leader makes them unmistakable. And the country that fell to the well-planned (with the aid of local traitors) is not specified. From having read the book closer to the time it was set than to the present, I remembered the setting as being Norway. Norwegians reading secretely published translation of the book thought so, too. But so did Danish and Dutch and French readers. The book was translated and the translations widely read despite the occupiers. The book was banned by Italian Fascists as well as by Nazis, but sold well, with the proceeds helping finance resistance organizations across conquered Europe.


A dozen local soldiers armed with rifles were cut down by machine guns. Three survived and went into hiding. The colonel in charge of keeping the coal moving from mines to ships, Lanser, urged the somewhat officious mayor to keep production orderly. A veteran of occupation of Belgium and France two decades earlier, Lanser hoped that indirect rule would avoid the need for killing. Passive aggressive responses to him begins with his first meeting with the mayor from the mayor’s wife and cook.26292P.jpg

Eventually, some of his officers are slain and the rules of engagement require reprisals, though Lanser knows they will not work, and that covert sabotage will continue. One of his officers advocates for a reign of terror, but Lanser is not a cartoon monster (like, say, the Nazi martinet Conrad Veidt played in what became the Oscar-winning best movie of 1942, “Casablanca,” a movie of reluctant resistance by someone who would have preferred to get along).

The novel has some recognizably Steinbeckian humor, especially the character of the cook: “The occupation did not improve her temper. Indeed, what for years had been considered simply a bad disposition suddenly became patriotic emotion.” And the mayor hs a best friend and counselor who is a physician, another version of Ed Ricketts.

The novel was criticized by some American reviewers (Donald Coers’s 1995 introduction to the Penguin edition singles out James Thurber and Clifton Fadiman) thought the book did not portray the Nazis as vicious marauders, but those in the occupied countries resisting Nazi domination were inspired by the reluctant heroism of the mayor and the widespread covert resistance portrayed.

Steinbeck had talked to many early refugees from Nazi Europe. What impresses me more than his understanding of how the conquered would behave is his insight into the frustration metamorphosing into fear of the conquerors and the effect of widespread and continuous hatred on the conquerors. The dynamic was recapitulated by attempts at indirect rule by the US military (I’ve been reading about the insane of Okinawa from 1945 to 1972, but Afghanistan during either the Soviet or the American occupations with nominal local puppet rulers could do as well.)

Steinbeck had first set the book in the US, imaging American passive resistance, but US propaganda officials did not like anything suggesting the possibility of the US being occupied by Nazis, though, then as now, there were some home-grown ones. The Norwegian Vikud Qusiling became the archetype (Corell provides a small-town version of wanting to be rewarded by the conquerors in the novel), which may partly explain my memory of the book being set in Norway.


It is easy to see the novel being adapted to the stage, which it quickly was. There was also a 1943 film version. In that the introduction, by the author of John Steinbeck as Propagandist: The Moon Is Down Goes to War, is mostly about the reception (domestic and foreign) of the book, I think it would have better been placed as an afterword.


©2017, Stephen O. Murray

John Steinbeck’s reporting on WWII

Once There Was a War gathers Steinbeck’s short dispatches (some multi-part) from England, Algeria, Italy, and PT-boats in the Mediterranean during 1942-43 provide often pointed impressions of Americans poised to land in Europe as the tide of war was turning against the Nazi empire. They are often insightful, and frequently funny (usually sardonic). Some can be a little too heartwarming, but there are some coolly analytic pieces, too. The one on why soldiers don’t talk about their combat experiences (because they do not remember the details) is particularly good. The one on collecting memorabilia )”souvenirs” too valueless to count as “loot”) is a perfect blend of slightly hyperbolic generalization and illustration. The one on the inappropriateness of amaryllises as flowers to hail parading soldiers cracked me up. The mock epic craps game is a bit O.Henryish, but adept. The volume ends with a multi-part comic story of misleading the Ventotene island garrison (of Italians and Germans) to surrender.


My primary interest was in the Italian campaign. The Italians are treated by Steinbeck as paisanos like the Mexican denizens of Tortilla Flat and other parts of Monterey County, which is to say with amused condescension as fun-loving, mystics uninterested in waging war or other disciplined pursuits. The references to Arabs (specifically Algerians) are entirely derogatory stereotypes of “wogs.”


The most interesting part of the volume is not the chronicling of adventures, but the introduction’s discussion of the ever-expanding demand for secrecy in the interest of maintaining morale. “We were all a part of the War Effort,” Steinbeck recalled in 1958. “We went along with it, and not only that, we abetted it. Gradually it became a part of all of us that the truth about anything was automatically secret and that to trifle with it was to interfere with the War Effort. By this I don’t mean that the correspondents were liars. They were not. In the pieces in this book everything set down happened. It is in the things not mentioned that the truth lies” (p. xiii). Whether he was fully aware that he was producing propaganda when he filed the dispatches (which were censored as well as self-censored), Steinbeck was candid: “We edited ourselves much more than we were edited. We felt responsible to what was called the home front. There was a general feeling that unless the home front was carefully protected from the whole account of what war was like, it might panic. Also we felt we had to protect the armed services from criticism, or they might retire to their tents to sulk like Achilles. . . . Yes, we wrote only a part of the war, but at the time we believed, fervently believed, that it was the best thing to do. And perhaps that is why, when the war was over, novels and stories by ex-soldiers, like The Naked and the Dead, proved so shocking to a public which had been carefully protected from contact with the crazy hysterical mess” (pp. xvii-xviii). It is particularly unfortunate that Steinbeck’s friend LBJ did not study these pages that comprise a history that he could have learned from, but instead repeated and intensified.

On combat amnesia: “I attended a part of that war, you might say visited id, since I went in the costume of a war correspondent and certainly did not fight, and it is interesting to me that I do not remember very much about it” (ix). “During the years between the last war and this one, I was always puzzled by the reticence of ex-soldiers about their experience in battle. If they had been reticent men it would have been different, but some of them were talkers and some were even boasters. They would discuss their experiences right up to the time of battle and then suddenly they wouldn’t talk any more. . . . Only recently have I found what seems to be a reasonable explanation, and the answer is simple. They did not and do not remember—and the worse the battle was, the less they remember” (198-99). “When you wake up and think back to the things that happened they are already becoming dreamlike. . . . You try to remember what it was like, and you can’t quite manage it. The outlines in our memory are vague. The next day the memory slips farther, until very little is left at all. A woman is said to feel the same way when she tries to remember what childbirth was like. And fever leaves that same kind of vagueness on the mind. Perhaps all experience which is beyond bearing is that way. The system provides the shield and then removes the memory, so that a woman can have another child and a man can go into combat again.


This was part of a writeoff I hosted on epinions for John Steinbeck’s 99th birthday

©2001, 2017, Stephen O. Murray