The spirits of Yasukuni are not the only ones with whom Mr Abe communes. After his election victory in 2012 he went straight to the tomb of his grandfather to make a promise. Like his grandson, Nobusuke Kishi rose to be prime minister, serving from 1957 to 1960. A fervent nationalist, he had nonetheless accepted, in the face of Japan’s surrender to the United States and its neutered post-war role as little brother, that the restoration of wealth had to come before the resumption of power. But—and Kishi was clear on this point—this was to be only a temporary expedient.
In 1965 Kishi argued that rearmament was necessary as “a means of eradicating completely the consequences of Japan’s defeat and the American occupation. It is necessary to enable Japan finally to move out of the post-war era and for the Japanese people to regain their self-confidence and pride as Japanese.” The words could have come from Mr Abe’s manifesto. The promise Mr Abe made by his grandfather’s grave was that he would “recover the true independence” of Japan.
This is not to say that Mr Abe is anti-American. Like his grandfather, he needs America to ensure his country’s security. He has strengthened the countries’ military alliance, agreeing to revised defence guidelines in April in the face of a rising China. But he feels deeply America’s role in “the history of Japan’s destruction”—by which he means not the physical devastation of the war, but the subsequent period of American-imposed order. He hates the war-crimes tribunal that sat in Tokyo: what hypocrisy to hang the Japanese leaders who conquered Asia at the same time as the Western powers were reasserting their rule in Asian colonies. He sees the constitution imposed on the country as constraining Japan’s legitimate ambitions. A left-wing conspiracy in education inculcates war guilt and an aversion to patriotism.
The role of that post-war order in the subsequent seven decades of peace, prosperity and democracy from which Mr Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party has been a great beneficiary is passed over in such analysis. Yet America is in no position to call Japan’s nationalists out on the grounds of double standards. It was, after all, General Douglas MacArthur who chose not to prosecute Emperor Hirohito for the crimes that were committed in his name and by a political system to which he was central, on the unprovable but implausible grounds that a crushed people would be more biddable with their emperor still in place. That decision made it harder for Japan to examine its actions, and make a full accounting of them, both to its victims and to itself. The cold war, for which America needed experienced, conservative allies in Japan, removed any lingering chance of such a reckoning. Almost immediately after the Tokyo tribunal handed down its first batch of sentences, the other people indicted for Class A crimes were released from Tokyo’s Sugamo prison and put in positions of authority.
Notable among them was the mastermind of Japan’s Manchurian puppet state, known as Manchukuo, in north-east China. By harnessing private capital to a heavily state-directed economy, he had turned Manchukuo into the engine of Japan’s war machine. Mark Driscoll of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has written of the system’s “necropolitical” vision of dehumanised Chinese labour. Yet the brutal human cost of this experimental, hyper-modern state is now largely forgotten, while its marriage of private capital and heavy state direction was a direct inspiration not just for Japan’s post-war development, but also, subsequently, for that of South Korea—and China, too. And the mastermind behind this? Nobusuke Kishi himself.
Mr Abe’s uncritical belief that his country’s essence is inextricably bound into the institutions of the Meiji Restoration and all that they went on to spawn is wrongheaded. But it is equally wrong to decry all aspects of continuity between Japan’s pre-war and post-war. On all sides ghosts are kept locked away. Instead they should be allowed to speak and also to listen—to hear and voice the complex truths of war, responsibility and victimhood.
Xu Ming remembers the first time she found herself outside without her mother holding her hand. She asked a group of children if she could play. “ ‘No’, said one. ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Because you’re a xiao riben guizi—a little Japanese devil.’ Then the tallest child intervened. ‘Okay’, he said, ‘You can play. But you have to be a dog. You must crawl between our legs and say bow-wow.’ So I did that. And then they started hitting me.”
Ms Xu was born in Heilongjiang province in north-east China, part of Manchuria, in 1944—three years after Kishi had been recalled from his position there to serve as industry minister in Tokyo. She was an only child brought up by loving and protective parents. And she was badly bullied. When she was seven her class were taken to see a war film that showed Communist troops in glorious battle against the murderous, evil Japanese. The children around her starting shouting “Down with the Japanese”. And then they were spitting at her. After the film the teacher held a roll call, but Xu Ming was missing. The teacher found her crouched under her chair, her eyes red with crying. She scolded the class: Xu Ming, she said, is only a child; and the film is only a film. That day, Xu Ming determined to be a teacher.
A year later an officer from the Public Security Bureau came to her house. Xu Ming was sent outside but craned to hear the conversation. The officer was shouting: “You had better admit it: the child is Japanese and you adopted her.” Her mother burst into tears. Xu Ming ran in to comfort her. Mother and daughter cried so much that the officer gave up any further questioning.
It was then that Xu Ming asked: “I’m Japanese, aren’t I?”
“Yes”, her mother replied, “you are.”
According to John Dower, there were over 6m Japanese stranded overseas when the war ended. Their story is strangely little told, even in Japan. Something over half of the stranded were servicemen, many wounded, malnourished or diseased. The rest were administrators, bank clerks, railwaymen, farmers, industrialists, prostitutes, spies, photographers, barbers, children. For them and for their families and friends back home, just as for conscripted and exiled Chinese and Koreans in similar situations, August 15th was far from a definitive end. A year after its defeat 2m Japanese had still not made it home. Many never did. A national radio programme, “Missing Persons”, was launched in 1946. It went off-air only in 1962.
The Allies took advantage of surrendered servicemen. The Americans used 70,000 as labourers on Pacific bases. The British, in a supreme irony, made use of over 100,000 Japanese to reassert colonial authority over parts of South-East Asia that had just been “liberated”. In China tens of thousands of Japanese fought on both sides of the civil war.
The worst fate was to be under Russian “protection”. The Soviet Union, which entered the war in its last week, accepted the surrender of Japanese forces in Manchuria and northern Korea. Perhaps 1.6m Japanese soldiers fell into its hands. About 625,000 were repatriated at the end of 1947, many having been sent to labour camps in Siberia and submitted to intense ideological indoctrination. Others were able to make their way south to the American-controlled sector of the Korean Peninsula. In early 1949 the Soviets claimed that only 95,000 Japanese remained to be repatriated—leaving, by Japanese and American calculations, over 300,000 unaccounted for.
In August 1945 there were also 1m Japanese civilians in Manchuria. Some 179,000 are thought to have died trying to get to Japan in the confusion and Soviet-perpetrated violence following surrender, or during the harsh winter of 1945-46. Children returned to Japan as orphans, the family’s ashes in a box hung around their neck. In Manchuria parents begged Chinese peasant families to take in their youngest children.
That is what Ms Xu’s natural mother had done. Her father, serving in the imperial army, had been dragged off to Siberia. Her mother thought Ming, the youngest of her daughters, would not survive the journey to Japan. She begged a couple to take the baby. When that couple later had more children of their own they sold Ming on to the Xu family.
In due course Ms Xu passed as a teacher. She qualified with flying colours that might have hinted at a stellar career. But the following years were spent teaching the children of loggers in dismal mobile camps deep in Heilongjiang’s forests. “There’s nothing you can do about it,” her professor had said: “You’re Japanese.” In the timber camps they ground up sweetcorn husks and tree bark for bread, but living in such remote places shielded Ms Xu from the worst madness of the Cultural Revolution. Back in her home town the ethnic-Japanese dentist, gentle and diligent, was dragged to the crossroad with a sign around her neck denouncing her as a Japanese spy. Every time she was asked whether she was a spy and denied it she was hit. Three days later she was dead.
In 1972 the Japanese prime minister, Kakuei Tanaka, visited China, initiating a programme of billions of dollars of bilateral aid for its former foe. Japanese people started coming to Heilongjiang to look for family members. A visiting journalist promised Ms Xu he would place advertisements on her behalf in Japanese publications so that she might find her birth family. An old soldier in Hokkaido responded to one, certain she was his daughter. In 1981 a visa was secured for Ms Xu. She was intensely excited to go to Japan; her meeting with the old soldier was emotional. Then a DNA test showed they were not related. The old soldier would have no more to do with her.
Japanese bureaucrats threatened to deport Ms Xu: Chinese court documents affirming her Japanese blood counted for nothing. While fighting through the courts to stay, she volunteered her help at a local NGO dealing with the “Manchurian orphans”. One morning, in a nearby café, two Japanese women on the way to the NGO asked whether they could share her table. Of course, Xu Ming said, in her still accented Japanese. The women asked whether she was Chinese and if so from where? Heilongjiang, Xu Ming replied. That’s where our mother left our sister, the women said. The coincidences grew: the town, the name of the family, Li, that first adopted Ms Xu, the Li home being right by the railway track. The three sisters were together again for the first time since 1945. For Sumie Ikeda, as Ms Xu now knew herself to be, the elation was tempered only by her learning that their mother had died just months before. But now her ghost, at least, could rest.
The lives scarred in the second world war are nearing their ends. The Asian history they are part of continues to shape the worlds of those people’s children and grandchildren, though. In some places it is distorted, in others denied. Some victims and some victors are commemorated. Others are forgotten.
In the 1960s a head priest at Yasukuni more liberal than today’s put up a tiny shrine in a corner of the grounds to pacify the spirits of fallen enemies. It is now surrounded by a high metal fence, and out of bounds to visitors. On its annual feast day in July a young priest unceremoniously places a bowl of fruit outside the shrine as an offering and shambles off. As for the Japanese victims of aggression—the young soldiers, let down by their generals, who died of hunger and disease in New Guinea jungles, the hundreds of thousands of civilians killed as the war came to the Japanese home islands: they are nowhere to be seen. Yasukuni remembers only glorious deaths.
“Who would miss the past,” asks Ms Wang, from her sofa in Chongqing. Who indeed? But the past is not just there to be missed.
I recently read Matthew Parker’s superb Monte Cassino. It provides an evocative account of the battle in the mountains south of Rome, after the Allies took Sicily, landed in Salerno, took Naples, then were fought to a standstill by the massive fortifications of the German forces’ Winter Line (in particular the Gustav Line). A protracted stalemate took place around town of Cassino.
So evocative is the book, it got me wondering – why aren’t there more, better, or better-known war films set during the Italian campaign? And why, in particular, has the monumental conflict set in and around Cassino not been fictionalised?
There are many films set in Italy during World War II, though perhaps the best are things like Roberto Rosselini’s Rome, Open City (Roma, Città Aperto, 1945), which maps the lives of ordinary civilians in Rome during the Nazi occupation in 1944. Rosselini shot the film mere months after the Nazis had left the city. I must admit here that I’ve not seen its companion piece, Paisà (Paisan, 1946), which might be something of a missing link for this essay, which is focussing more on the combat of the Italy campaign.
In terms of English language, international WWII Italian campaign films, which focus more on the experience of combatants, among the best from the early era – made during or just after the war – is Lewis Milestone’s A Walk in the Sun (1945). Milestone directed one of the best ever (anti-) war films, 1930’s WWI drama All Quiet on the Western Front, so in some ways his own bar is set too high. But A Walk in the Sun is still an interesting picture, presenting, philosophically, something of the uncertainty in ‘liberating’ a country that was not long before an Axis power. There’s a point in the film where Italian soldiers surrender to the protagonist US troops. For many of the Italian soldiery, the Allied landings in Salerno were a welcome end to their experiences, though the Italian situation is a complex one, and the soldiery will have of course represented the broad political spectrum of Italy itself.
Italy had been officially a Fascist state for longer than Germany. Benito Mussolini’s National Fascist Party (Partito Nazionale Fascista, PNF) was elected in 1922 – a full decade before the Nazi party achieved dominance in Germany, and 11 years before Hitler became Chancellor. So after the armistice of September 1943, Italian Fascists didn’t simply evaporate. And there was no possibility for a clear narrative of ‘liberation’. Many Italians were still Fascists, or at least sympathetic to the cause, which the Nazis were able to maintain via an Italian Fascist party power base in the north, with the PNF becoming the Republican Fascist Party (Partito Fascista Repubblicano, PFR).
Indeed, even after Mussolini’s killing in April 1945, and after the war, Fascism has remained a strong part of the Italian social and political landscape, albeit of a re-branded variety. It was not faced up to in the same way as it had to be in (occupied) Germany. Italy is a country without a vocal political centre, and through much of the 20th century extreme left-right tensions flared, notably in the years of terrorist attacks known as the Anni di Piombo, Years of Lead (1960s-1980s). Living in Rome today, I can tell you in no uncertain terms that extreme rightwing attitudes remain alive from the sheer amount of Fascist sloganeering and swastikas in graffiti and the tone of some posters, such as those with an anti-immigration message (“Immigrazione è invasione”).
Anyway, the point I’m making is that Italy was a mess in 1943-45, its war narrative is hugely complex. There was no simple case of the Allies arriving, and being welcomed, as they were in, say, Holland or Belgium. Within any village an abiding tension between left and right could potentially be found. Read, for example, Eric Newby’s Love and War in the Apennines (1971), an account of his time hiding in the mountains in northern Italy’s Po Valley, after he left his POW camp in 1943 – the Italian guards simply walking away after the armistice. Newby is frequently on the move, sheltered by various peasants, who live in fear of being shopped by neighbours. (See Addendum 3, below.)
This matter of the Italian soldiers leaving their posts as POW camp guards is seen on screen in Von Ryan’s Express(1968), a big, glossy film that combines elements of the escape and the combat film. It begins with Frank Sinatra’s Air Force colonel Ryan shot down and taken to a camp, which is mainly populated by British soldiers under a stuffy Major, played by Trevor Howard – an actor whose posh, stiff upper lip (and arguably slightly neurotic) version of masculinity hasn’t dated well in such roles. Especially since the story emerged that he wasn’t actually a war hero, as had been claimed: he was kicked out of the army for having a “psychopathic personality”. (Though I’d like to know the source of that info included at the bottom of this newspaper article.) Anyway, after the armistice, the camp’s commander, a Blackshirt, begs for his life, takes off his cap, spits on its Fascist badge. Later he’s saved by the Nazis, and realigns himself. He’s something of a caricature, but it’s easy to believe that in his period loyalties were indeed fluid.
American combatants are the focus of another of the bigger Italian campaign war films, released the same year as Von Ryan’s Express: Anzio. This was legendary Italian producer Dino Di Laurentiis’ attempt to produce something loosely comparable to things like the D-Day epic The Longest Day (1962). The Anzio landings, like the Battle of Monte Cassino, are a historically notable element of WWII, but again, even more so than was the case with Monte Cassino, aren’t easy to apply a heroic narrative to. Anzio, a port city in Lazio region, and nearby Nettuno, were the landing points for the Allied troops taking part in Operation Shingle, which was designed to break the deadlock of Monte Cassino, through the creation of a bridgehead further north along the shin of Italy. The American generals in charge, John P Lucas and Mark Clark, were, however, so concerned to fortify their bridgehead, they moved slowly, allowing German forces – who had in fact been caught on the hop – to dig in and create more formidable defences.
There’s the potential for a fascinating film there. Anzio, unfortunately, isn’t that film. The film’s starting point was apparently a 1961 book of the same name by respected war correspondent Wynford Vaughn-Jones, who took part in Shingle reporting for the BBC. It’s hard to believe it though, as the film descends into cliché, with the usually reliable Robert Mitchum plodding through much of the film looking bored as a cynical war correspondent ultimately forced to take up arms. Co-star Peter Falk, meanwhile, didn’t like the script and wanted to flee, but Di Laurentiis gave him the option to write his own dialogue (according to a Wikipedia reference to his autobiography). It doesn’t exactly shine through. I do like, however, how the film at least acknowledges Falk’s glass eye – after a brawl near the beginning he complains that whatever hit him in the eye felt like a “lead pipe”.
A film that manages to actually address something of the complexity of the Italian campaign, and the Italian situation, is a more recent affair, Miracle of St Anna (2008). Spike Lee undertook this project in an effort to redress an abiding issue in American WWII films: their lack of representation for African-American troops. This is an enormous and thorny issue, but the grievances are understandable when African-American troops died for a country that was still grotesquely segregated, two decades before the Civil Rights movement began to break down some the USA’s version of apartheid.
Lee was particularly riled by the absence of black faces in Clint Eastwood’s Iwo Jima diptych Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima (both 2006). I won’t go into their high-profile slagging match too much here either, but Eastwood accused Lee of not knowing his history, to which Lee replied “I know history. I’m a student of history. And I know the history of Hollywood and its omission of the one million African-American men and women who contributed to the second world war. Not everything was John Wayne, baby.”
His response was Miracle of St Anna, which tells the story of a group of soldiers from the 92nd Infantry Division, an African-American unit (though with white officers). The 92nd fought in the Italian campaign from 1944 to the end of the war, in the Apennines. I must admit when I first tried to watch the film, I struggled. I’m a fan of many of Lee’s films, but here I found the score too intrusive, and didn’t entirely buy the way the characters were written, they didn’t feel credibly of the 1940s. But on a second viewing, I got on with it much better – indeed, it’s safe to say it’s one of the best, most interesting Italian campaign films. Not only for how it puts black soldiers front and centre, but for how it engages with Italians, and the political complexities.
The heroes (played by Laz Alonso, Derek Luke, Omar Benson Miller and Michael Ealy) are stranded behind enemy lines in Tuscany, and hole up in a village. There, they meet partisans, whose leader (Pierfrancesco Favino) and best friend/right hand man (Matteo Sciabordi), have conflicting political backgrounds and agendas. The narrative is far from easy: the black heroes are fighting for white officers who (mostly) treat them with callous disregard, for a country that has cafés that will serve German POWs but not them, despite their nationality, their patriotism, their uniforms. The partisans they meet, meanwhile, should be allies, but one betrays their trust as he’s got insidious dealings with the Nazis.
There’s actually an interesting sub-sub-genre of WWII films that deal with the contributions to the conflict of non-white soldiers. You may know Windtalkers(2002), which featured Navajo soldiers deployed by the US Army for radio communications in the Pacific theatre: as the Axis forces couldn’t “break” their language. There’s also another film about Native Americans fighting in WWII called Thunderbirds(1952), though as far as I recall it never graced TV screens in my UK 1970s-80s childhood (where I first learned to love WWII movies), and it’s not surfaced on DVD, so I don’t know much about it, except that is does feature the soliders landing at Salerno for the Italian campaign.
Go For Broke! (1951) is from a similar era to Thunderbirds – perhaps in the early 1950s there was a crisis of conscience in America about certain ethnic groups who fought for the nation in WWII. This one was presumably to in some part try and compensate for the mistreatment of Japanese-Americans who were interned. Its protagonists, from the 442nd Regimental Combat Team – made up of Nisei, Americans born to Japanese parents – are natural heroes for a movie, as they were one of the war’s most highly decorated outfits. It’s a remarkable story. Some of the troops in the film are Hawaiian Japanese-Americans (there’s plenty of ukulele action) who have suffered from the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour attack. Others, mainlanders, get letters from home with news of mistreatment such as beatings and threats of lynching. “We’re good enough for German rifles, but not for picking sugar beet,” remarks Sam (Lane Nakano).
They’re not sent to the Pacific theatre unless they speak perfect Japanese (for intelligence work), as there’s a concern about friendly sniper fire, so instead they’re shipped to Italy. The film was shot in California, but uses stock footage of Naples and beyond, as the men – whose fellow Nisei in the 100th fought at Cassino – hike most of the way up Italy, their very white Texan lieutenant Grayson (Van Johnson) slowly overcoming his prejudices as they go, even to the point of slugging a fellow Texan who calls them “Japs”, rather than Japanese-Americans, Nisei or even “Buddha Heads”, their acceptable slang name.
It’s a pretty conventional film for the most part, with its various characters in the platoon, and uncomplicated portrayals of heroism, but the ethnic angle is fascinating. Even if the star is Johnson.
At one point in Go For Broke!, Grayson is fleetingly innamorato with an Italian signorina, who has a two-sided photograph, of her previous US lover on one side, and a prior German lover on the other. It’s a scene that recalls one of the very few Italian films I’ve seen that actually features Italian soldiers, where there are reversible portraits of Allies and Axis dignitaries. Il Due Colonnelli (The Two Colonels, 1962). This one isn’t actually set in Italy, it’s in Greece, where Italians and Brits vie for control of the same village, and the affections of its populace. It’s a broad, and distinctively Italian, comedy, which isn’t afraid to present the Italian soldiery as, by and large, foolish wastrels, though none is as bad as their commanding officer, a picolo Mussolini played by legendary Italian actor Totò, who apparently improvised most of his films.
It’s not just the US that has produced films that highlight the sacrifices of non-white troops in WWII. Another fascinating film that features non-white soldiers and has sections set in Italy is Indigènes (aka Days of Glory, 2006). This Algerian-Belgian-French-Moroccan co-production directed and co-written by French-Algerian Rachid Bouchare, like Lee’s film, follows many of the hoary war-film conventions, notably by following a squad of bickering, bantering, diverse brothers-in-arms, living and dying together. Plus, again like Lee’s film, it’s one of the many WWII films that followed the revitalisation of the genre by Saving Private Ryan (1998). However, here the focus is on forces that may well have never been seen in a WWII previously: Algerian Tirailleurs and Tunisian or MoroccanGoumiers, the “indigenous people” of the title. It’s a fascinating film, but not necessarily a good war film, feeling flat in places, and I know it’s probably not politically correct to say it, but I struggled with the presence of Jamel Debbouze. He might be one of France’s biggest stars of North African origin (and is a good presence in things like Amélie and Asterix at the Olympic Games), but unlike the film itself, I found it hard to ignore his paralysed arm – something that in reality would have prevented someone from becoming a soldier, let alone actually firing a rifle.
Tirailleurs and Goumiers played a major role in, for example, the worst of the fighting at Monte Cassino, and the efforts of Bouchare and Debbouze (star and co-producers) to use the film to address the issues of their rights are commendable. The film ends with a note that says the servicemen had their pensions frozen in 1959, three years after Tunisian and Moroccan independence and thee years before Algerian independence. But there are stories about the Goumiers in Italy that didn’t find their way into the film. One very different portrait of the Goumiers can be found in Vittoria De Sica’s La ciociara (aka Two Women, 1960). This film dealt with the Marocchinate– an Italian word loosing meaning “the Moroccans’ acts” and used to refer to the mass rapes and even killings allegedly perpetrated by Goumiers on villagers in the Ciociaria region of central Italy, after the Allies broke through at Monte Cassino. Parker deals with this subject diplomatically in his book.
Suffice to say, there are open wounds for both the Goumiers mistreated bythe French military and government and the Italians who suffered at the hands of the Goumiers. There’s truth to be found, doubtless, in both Indigènes and La ciociara; between the two films, the complexities of the circumstances in Italy during WWII are hightlighted.
To get back on firmer ground, one of the greatest ever war films is Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One (1980/reconstructed version 2004). It’s another film that utilises the classic squad format, and in other ways may be have been something of a template for Indigènes, notably in how it follows said squad through their experiences of various campaigns, a kind of bloody picaresque. Indeed, both films share the same trajectory: North Africa, Italy, France.
Although Fuller’s film looks and feels in some ways dated in an era when filmmakers like Spielberg can use CGI to fill the ocean off Normandy with ships, or give a gritty, graded realism to his footage of Omaha beach, replete with amputee actors ‘losing’ limbs to explosions, in other ways it’s a more authentic film than Saving Private Ryan will ever be. Why? Because Fuller himself was a highly decorated member of the Big Red One, the nickname for the US 1st Infantry Division, and did indeed see action in North Africa, Sicily, France and was at the liberation of Falkenau in Czechoslovakia in May 1945, setting for the film’s denouement. Furthermore, the film’s leading man, Lee Marvin, was also a veteran, who won a Purple Heart while fighting in the Battle of Saipan as a Marine.
The protagonists land in Sicily in July 1943, where one private loses a testicle to a mine. “You can live without it, that’s why they gave you two,” Marvin’s grizzled Sergeant tells him. It’s darkly humorous, at times farcical, such as when the squad captures a Hitler youth. When the Sergeant spanks him, his cries of “Heil Hitler! Heil Hitler!” turn into “Pappy! Pappy!”
The film is so episodic that much of it doesn’t take place in Italy at all, but its Sicily sequences capture something of the grimness and confusion of the Italian campaign. The squad in The Big Red One aren’t movie heroes per se, they just literally just solider on, from battle to battle. The only glory in war, according to Fuller’s stand-in character, Zab (Keith Carradine), is survival.
Survival, of course, being something that’s tantamount to impossible in Joseph Heller’s classic satire of war Catch-22, published in 1961 and adapted for the screen in 1970. The premise of the film is the ever-increasing number of missions its bomber crew protagonists must fly before they qualify to be sent home on leave. The number is so high that it exceeds the average life expectancy of missions. Which in itself is a catch, but the explicit catch of the book and film is that if a man applies for a psych evaluation to prove he’s insane, and can therefore be grounded, he’s clearly sane. The US airmen of the film are based on Pianosa, an island off the coast of Tuscany.
B-25s, the bombers featured in Catch-22, were among the aircraft involved with the bombing of Monte Cassino monastery and abbey on 15 February 1944. I can’t find out where the bombers that hit the monastery took off from, but it certainly wasn’t Pianosa, which, in reality, is too small for such a substantial airbase. The bombing of the monastery, remains, however, perhaps the most dubious episode in the Italian campaign, which as a whole was by no means straightforward – and as such, while it has produced a highly varied section of films, none of them are themselves straightforward combat films.
The Italian campaign is too hard to shape into the kind of neat black and white narrative; it’s harder to reiterate notions of a the “just war” or “good war” when one reads about Monte Cassino, which could be considered the focal point of the Italian campaign. It was a battle – or series of battles – that was mired in shame, folly, and terrible losses. Not only was the destruction of the monastery infamous, but the combat itself was as wasteful of human life as the most notorious battles of the World War I.
It’s not just an issue of how problematic the battles of the Italian campaign were, but also the very nature of Italy. By comparison, de Gaulle and co did an impressive job of creating an official version of WWII history for France, where the nation was occupied, brave French fought in the Resistance, and were extremely glad to be liberated by, well, not exactly the Allies, but by de Gaulle. The question of the French right wing and the infrastructure of collaboration was largely suppressed, and only articulated successfully after decades had passed, with such things are Marcel Ophul’s epic documentary The Sorrow and the Pity(Le chagrin et la pitié, 1969), which dared question the Resistance mythology, and reminded the nation of its anti-Semitism. Italy not only lacks any true classic WWII combat films, it has nothing comparable with Ophuls’ film (as far as I know). Instead, more recently, Italy itself has produced things like La vita è bella(Life is Beautiful, 1997) and Malèna (2000), which feature the experiences of civilians, and how they’re affected by the war.
Anyway, this was meant to be just a short-ish blog post responding to reading Parker’s book and considering a few war films, but it seem to expand somewhat. I’ve probably missed several films, and missed several points too, but hopefully it’s food for thought.
Managed to watch The Secret of Santa Vittoria finally.
It’s a somewhat laboured film, and I struggle with ‘accent movies’ generally. Here they have a Mexican star and various Italian co-stars and extras all speaking English. But it has some merit as a (somewhat fanciful) portrait of a village during the war. It’s not strictly in the purview of a piece about movie portrayals of combat during WW2’s Italy campaign – I don’t believe a single shot is fired – but here are a few comments.
It starts just after Mussolini has been deposed: it’s “the end of the Fascists!” Said Mexican star, Anthony Quinn, plays Bombolini, a fool and drunkard in the wine-producing village of S Vittoria. By a quirk of fate, he becomes mayor.
The film chronicles his transformation to a wily leader (of sorts), who’s cunning enough to take on a German army captain (Hardy Krüger), whose forces occupy the town, in a battle of wits. This involves the matter of S Vittoria’s wine. Bombolini is inspired by reading Machiavelli’s The Prince and a suggestion from a recuperating Italian solider (Sergio Franchi) to hide the majority of their million bottles in tunnels, and brick them up.
Director Stanley Kramer enjoys giving us portraits of the local extras, contorte contadini and no mistake, but there’s a strong sense of disjunction between the international stars and the local extras. Though Anthony Quinn and Anna Magnani (who plays the long-suffering signora Bombolini) have an interesting rapport. The couple’s on-screen feuding was apparently backed up by off-screen loathing, with her demonstrating her renowned fieriness by breaking a toe kicking him, and drawing blood while biting him filming a fight scene.
Red Tails is a modern (2012) WW2 film from Lucasfilm, produced by Rick McCallum and executive produced by George Lucas. Lucas, as any Star Wars fan or general observer of the seismic shifts in popular culture of the past 40 ish years will know, is a huge fan of WW2 films, and the world of Star Wars was profoundly influenced by the iconography of the WW2 aerial dogfight, such as that found in such films as Angels One Five (1952) and Battle of Britain (1969). There is a very clear, tangible line between the dogfighting in such films and the iconography of the space battles between X-Wings and TIE fighters in the original Star Wars films, created with sophisticated use of traditional special techniques involving models and matting, as well as innovative computer-controlled (motion control) cameras.
The CGI technologies deployed to grotesquely recreate this universe in the over-adorned Star Wars prequels has now been used to create the aircraft action in Red Tails. It’s gone full circle. So oddly, although the special effects sequences in Red Tails are impressive, they also suffer from that innate sense of airlessness and artificiality that can accompany excessive deployment of CGI. But perhaps more troubling, the aircraft in the film seem to behave like X-Wings. Were WW2 prop-fighters really quite so manoeuvrable?
Just to backtrack a moment, Red Tails concerns the Tuskagee Airmen, African-American who fought in WW2 as part of the US Army Air Corps. As such, the film arguably fits into the sub-sub-genre mentioned above concerning the contributions of non-white ethnic groups to a war where many of their comrades and allies disdained them.
It’s a fascinating story, though this film doens’t exactly do it justice – it’s both troubled by the heavy CGI aesthetic and a profoundly hoary storytelling mode, predicated on thinly written characters that conform to the war movie requirement to have a squad made up of bitching, bonding stereotypes (the maverick lothario, the captain with a drinking problem, the kid, the religious kid etc).
Still, Red Tails provides one of the few American WW2 films where the combat (almost) all plays out in Italy. Here, it starts with the Tuskagee Airmen’s 332nd Fighter Group in Italy in 1944, harrying German supply lines, strafing trains and trucks. It’s an important job but they aspire to more, feeling they’re kept away from the real action because of their ethnicity. Their colonel (played by Terrence Howard) argues their case in Washington, and the group is brought in to Operation Shingle, providing support for the landings at Nettuno and Anzio. This helps cement their reputation as skilled airmen, and they’re subsequently assigned to bomber escort. They even get their old P-40s upgraded to P-51s (Mustangs). It’s not exactly the glorious dogfighting opportunity some of them craved but a way to prove their skills and abilities once and for all. Oh, and they do get to do some fancy dogfighting, even contending with the German’s remarkable new Messerschmitt Me 262. The film credits them as being the first to shoot down one of these fast jets, one of its historically questionable inclusions.
Anyway, Red Tails is not a great film, but it’s an interesting addition to the catalogue of WW2 Italian compaign films.
There is a TV movie based on the book, 2001’s In Love and War, and while it’s largely inoffensive, it’s very cursory compared to the Newby’s account. It’s a shiny, amiable, superficial romance, which skims over so much of Newby’s actual experiences. It doesn’t even mention the fact that the girl he met, who would become his wife, Wanda, was Slovenian not Italian. It’s a bit of a Euro-pudding like that, with the Italian, and Italian-speaking characters, slipping in and out of speaking Italian and speaking English with Italian accents.
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Tagged as a walk in the sun, anzio, catch-22, combat film, days of glory, Eric Newby, italian campaign, Italy, love and war in the apennines, matthew parker, miracle at st anna, monte cassino, the big red one, von ryan's express, world war 2, wwii