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chapter five THE SPLIT SCREEN q Q Hollywood played an important role in interpreting the war as it was fought as well as a vital role in the long debate over its remembrance. As the battles raged and for years afterward, numerous movies produced images of loyal Americans and gritty GIs who persevered in the face of danger. Films, of course, were no substitute for the actual horrors of the conflict, and they often rea;rmed a noble view that many in the audiences longed to see. Contrary to popular opinion , however, the full record of the cinema’s retrospective on World War II was actually rather twisted and saturated with many of the arguments that filtered through the larger culture. Countless movies did inspire and remind Americans that the war had provided them with some of the best years of their lives. Thus, when he was in the White House fighting another conflict, Richard Nixon frequently ordered viewings of John Wayne films or drew encouragement from actor George C. Scott’s speech in Patton (1970) that claimed, “Americans play to win all the time.” Yet numerous characters and plot lines also challenged the storybook take on the war with a wide array of images and narratives that registered various forms of disapproval of the entire experience. At times films even undermined the idea that the men who fought were always resolute and gallant. As moviegoers entered this land of cinematic fiction, far removed from battles on the ground, they were actually presented with the reality of another contest— over how the war was to be recalled.1 World War II had an almost unprecedented impact on cultural production in the United States. Film studios expended considerable e=orts to endorse the war and to reinforce sentimental views of the Americans in the early 1940s. Ironically , they also found ways to project more critical and pessimistic attitudes that swept through the culture as well. Disparaging takes on the war and the warriors were not so visible as the war was waged. Thus, the most prominent wartime movies were unabashedly patriotic, and depictions of violence were moderated. t h e s p l i t s c r e e n 131 Yet, even in the early 1940s, as Sheri Biesen has insightfully suggested, movie producers began to take note of the rising tide of violence in their world. At times this e=ort indicted the war indirectly, with features like Double Indemnity and Murder, My Sweet that reflected deep-seated anxieties about the potential for evil that resided in the hearts of Americans themselves. On a few occasions, such as in the 1944 film I’ll Be Seeing You, the damaging e=ects of combat on the psyche of American veterans was revealed as well. After 1945 the spotlight on cruelty and aggression was intensified by an entirely new set of fears connected to emergence of nuclear weapons and the outlook of many left-wing filmmakers opposed to Cold War militarism. Films now turned to the hard-boiled side of American life, with gangsters serving as surrogates for capitalists, and delved deeper into the realm of deviancy and sexual perversion. During the postwar era psychopaths and serial killers moved across the screen as much as resolute soldiers. Representations of violent acts abounded—and in fact were more accepted—as a less-than-virtuous outcome of the total war experience. And because they were so widespread, the brutality of the war was just as likely to be evoked to criticize what had happened in the early 1940s as it was to reinforce the ideal of courage and bravery that some assumed to be uniquely American.2 The braided memory of the war o=ered by Hollywood was rooted not only in larger cultural debates over the violent temperament of the American personality and Cold War politics but in critical attitudes brought home by influential moviemakers who had served their nation in the conflict. The personal outlooks of men like John Ford, Carl Foreman, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens, and William Wyler were not part of war’s commemoration in the 1940s but—like the work of their literary counterparts—began to seep into their cultural productions in order to interrogate concepts of American innocence. Most of these men were certainly antifascist and supported the goal of destroying Hitler’s regime. Yet they were disheartened by the level of human cruelty they saw all around them and...


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