Monday, December 5, 2011

Uneasy Victors - Pt 3 - "The Big Lift" -1950

“The Big Lift” (1950) straddles the period of our role as occupiers in Berlin, and as “combatants” in a new kind of war, a Cold War. Geopolitical past and future fused together in the awkward present of 1948 Berlin.

This is our third entry in the series on Uneasy Victors. Have a look at the intro here, and at last week’s post on “A Foreign Affair” (1948) here.

The movie has a documentary feel to it, yet there are elements of humor, adventure, and intrigue. Though the backdrop is highly political, the conflicts faced by the characters are not really political in nature. They are personal.

Montgomery Clift, in his fourth film, (he’d just finished “The Heiress” which we discussed here) is the opened-hearted, open-minded youth, an enlisted man in the Air Force who works as part of the ground crew. We don’t know about his past or if he has plans for the future; he’s very much a here and now kind of guy, living for the moment. His thin, handsome face is a strange cross between rugged and fragile, and we could take that as a metaphor for much in this troubled actor’s life.

Paul Douglas, also in his fourth feature film, but who always seemed to move and sound like a veteran, plays another man in Clift’s outfit, a radar operator. He is older, and wiser in the sense he is more cynical. He has been in the service many years, and we can see he will spend his career here. Both are stationed at Hickham Field in Hawaii.

These opening moments of the film are evocative of World War II and the place where disaster struck, the bombing of this base and Pearl Harbor, that brought the US into the war. We see a newsreel at the very start that tells us the Russians are blockading Berlin, which was divided among the victorious Allies into the French, British, American, and Russian sectors, from getting supplies overland. All roads, railroads, and canals are blocked, leaving the British, French, and American sectors of the city isolated. The Russians want to force those nations out.

Then the camera pans back and we see we are in a small auditorium where American servicemen are watching the movies. Suddenly a loudspeaker announcement calls a particular unit to report for duty, and Clift and Douglas rise from their seats with a groan.

The map is a little off - Chicopee is not in central Mass.; it's on the Connecticut River in the west.

It’s a fast way to set the story. In a few moments, their unit will be on a cargo plane bound for the mainland. The map takes us across the Pacific, and then across the continent to Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts and Westover Air Force Base. We see a glimpse of the base, the huge runway, the hangars, and a sign in the foreground telling us where we are.

Where we are is the largest air force base on the east coast, which in the new Cold War, became an important point of embarkation, supply line, (and eventual line of first defense in the nuclear age), and the jump-off point to the boys’ final destination -- Berlin. They are going to help ferry food and fuel to the stranded Berliners in a remarkable mission called Operation Vittles, and would be known as the Berlin Air Lift.

Stop by my New England Travels blog tomorrow for a post on a unique side operation of this mission, “Operation Little Vittles” in which Chicopee, Massachusetts packs tons of candy, ties them to handkerchiefs to be used for parachutes, and turns them over to Westover Field so that the men flying these missions can drop candy to the kids in the ruins of Berlin.

The documentary style of the movie is evident in how patient director George Seaton is, letting us experience the mission as it unfolds. The men’s ignorance on what the mission is to be. The long flights. The arrival at Rein-Main field in Germany, and then the final, nerve-wracking hop into Templehof and Berlin. The large transport planes, because of the restriction on fly space the Russians have put on them, have to navigate a very narrow strip, and because the landing field is set in very close proximity to the five-story brick buildings of the neighborhood, the planes must literally skirt the rooftops. In one shot we see a plane land from a side view, and as it dips below the line of roofs, the tail of the plane looks like a shark’s dorsal fin slicing the ocean waves.

“Just like landing in the Rose Bowl.”

The planes land with their cargo, unload, and then take off again every few minutes. It is an exhausting, round-the-clock mission that will last for months. It was our first response to a belligerent Soviet Union testing its influence. It kept the Berliners alive. It was one of the proudest achievements of the United States Air Force.

Just as we saw the American congressmen marvel at the ruins in Berlin as their plane arrives in “A Foreign Affair”, so are Paul Douglas and Montgomery Clift amazed at the devastation.

“Boy, this place sure caught it, didn’t it?” one of the men exclaims.

“Not enough. This is where they should have used the A-bomb,” Paul Douglas says.

This movie takes up where “A Foreign Affair” left off. We are a little farther along in our jobs as occupiers, and there is still the conflict between offering mercy and wanting revenge, between punishing the enemy and building friendships. Paul Douglas acts like the Ugly American, being as rude as he can to the German laborers employed at the landing field. He is dismissive and bullying to the Berliners he meets in town.

“Don’t start feeling sorry for them. They hate our guts. If the situation was reversed, they’d kick your teeth in twice a day.”

Paul Douglas is more than just the voice of vengeance and disgust with the vanquished enemy. He has a deeply personal reason for hating the Germans.

He was once abused as a POW in a German prison camp. While in Berlin, he will discover the prison guard who beat him. In a brutal scene, both men catch up with their destiny.

The movie has a nice mix of comedy that is kind of like blowing off steam at intervals between these dramatic moments. Some of the humor is macabre, like when the men have “fingers crossed” as part of their landing checklist. When Douglas, whose “schatzi”, played by Bruni Löbel (who had a long career in German film and television), wants him to define “democracy” because she is curious, he becomes an irate, frustrated, inarticulate teacher. He has no idea how to explain it, and tells her repeatedly to just shut up.

The best he can come up with is, “It’s a kind of feeling, a way of looking at things.” He explains that America is run by the people, and a light bulb goes on and she thinks it must be like the Soviet Union, which is also said to be run by “the people”. Douglas nearly has a stroke.

Another funny moment is when the men first land and find themselves dragged into a welcoming ceremony. The flight crew is paraded down a long aisle of Berlin guardsmen, under an arch of rifles, to the sound of a band. Montgomery Clift, voice shaking, nervously remarks,

“I feel just as if you and I were getting married, Lieutenant.”

At the welcoming ceremony, an old man, a young boy, and pretty woman who represent grateful citizens of Berlin, present speeches and gifts to the servicemen. They are dignified, proper, speak carefully-intoned English and display the requisite amount of humility for the newsreel cameras. The picture of the defeated enemy as possible friends.

Clift hooks up with the pretty woman, played very naturally by Cornell Borchers (who made only a handful of films in the 1950s, most of them German), and his Berlin romance begins. Her husband was killed in the war by the Russians. Her father stood up against the Nazis. Both tragedies make her a sympathetic heroine and worthy object for Monty’s affections.

He gets a pass and sees her in Berlin. When he gets paint on his uniform and must walk the streets in ragged clothes she has borrowed for him, Clift’s whirlwind escapade among the ruins in Berlin is where Jean Arthur’s ended. In parts it is just as wild and funny, and in parts more insightful and morose. This is a Berlin Americans don’t get to see on the newsreels cameras, the jostling for food, the enforced labor at shoveling rubble, the checkpoints and identity papers, the cold days and colder nights.

Because Clift is without his uniform and his identity card, he is a man without a country, and in danger from all sides, from straying into the Russian Sector, and from his own American MPs. At one point, they duck into a tavern, not too unlike the cabaret we went to in “A Foreign Affair”, where in an effort to escape the MPs, Monty hops on stage and stumbles through “The Chattanooga Choo-Choo” with a German quartet. When they start a verse in German, his panic, and his solution, are very funny.

Clift’s romance with his Berlin girlfriend is progressing. She is very pretty, and quite brave in facing the hardships of the post-war world. She accepts German defeat even though she bears no responsibility for the Nazi regime. When Clift, still without his uniform which is locked up in a tailor’s shop, spends the night, they embrace in a darkened apartment in front of a window. Behind them are the lights of the runway, and a huge transport plane flies right towards them.

The script and direction seem to take turns between using brief but stunning images like this to tell the story through metaphor, and alternatively trying to back it up with a wordy primer on German-American relations. It feels like propaganda at times, but it is probably useful for the American audiences watching the film at the time. For us today, it is a window on an era.

Both men and both girlfriends get together for a gemutlich little party with the neighbors, one of whom once traveled the US as an actor.  Today, he is a spy for the Russians, who pay him to count the American planes.  He gives them false numbers because they won't believe anything he reports anyway.

Gerde asks him, “What did you like best about America?”

He replies, “The way the Americans didn’t like it.”

Paul Douglas smiles. He directs Gerde with a glance to pay attention. He understands what the actor is trying to say.

“I mean, what they used to say about the government!”

They all laugh, and Gerde tries to understand a puzzling country where criticizing the government is okay.

Gerde works in one of the food service wagons on base. On another day, still brooding over this thing called democracy, she asks Paul Douglas about injustice in America. She points out that she has been reading a book, and by the description of the story, we know she is making a reference to “Gentleman’s Agreement”, which was also made into a movie by the same company, 20th Century Fox, a couple years earlier.

Gerde says that since the Americans were against Hitler for his actions against the Jews, how could it be that “in America Jews are kept out of certain hotels and schools?”

Douglas admits, “It shouldn’t be. It stinks.” And then he asks her where the book came from, and she says the PX. Ah, he says, finding a saving point. Would the Russians put out a book criticizing Russia in their stores? Being open about our prejudice is at least a point of honor, he wants to impress upon her. She is dubious.

Douglas is dubious about Clift’s romance with the Berlin beauty, and investigates her. Her husband was not killed by the Russians. Her father was not anti-Nazi. She seems tarnished now. She is less a heroine and more of Berlin enigma. Clift confronts her and she admits lying.

“When you have to live by the generosity of others, you have to make yourself pitiful and brave.” There is a nice shot of a wall behind her in the distance collapsing and crumbling to rubble, more rubble she will have to shovel.

This film is conscientious about showing us all sides. The United States, with rampant prejudice, is not as free a place as we claim. German gratitude may be false and self-serving. The only thing we can be sure about is the Russians are bad guys, when they are discussed at all. The foolish clowns from “A Foreign Affair” are absent here. The film’s main flaw is that we lose them and the question of who they are now. They have not even been replaced with a stereotype yet; they are shown only as rumor and headlines. In the early 1950s, we will come to choke on our paranoia and let it poison us.

Montgomery Clift struggles with his girlfriend’s duplicity, but decides after all, she was only a girl during the war. She cannot be held responsible for her family's involvement.  She is only trying to survive.  He wants to marry her.  Part of his desire, we may suspect, is the wish to save her.

He goes through the chain of command paperwork to get permission. One of the most interesting things about “The Big Lift” is that in various scenes we see a lot of military personnel. A lot of them. In this entire movie, only Paul Douglas and Montgomery Clift are actors playing Air Force men. Everybody else in uniform is an actual serviceman. This gives the movie that realistic documentary style. You also have to admire the acting ability of some of them. The commanding officer, Major Hetzel, who pushes through Monty’s marriage paperwork is quite funny in his scene after shouting over the phone and losing his voice.

While marriage plans are progressing, Gerde finally gets the lowdown on democracy, but not from Paul Douglas. With his bullying ways, he is a poor teacher. She got herself a government-issued pamphlet and has memorized the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Filled with enough righteous indignation to blow the roof off a New England town meeting, she hollers at Douglas and demands he stop bullying her. She calls him a stormtrooper.

Douglas is impressed, and like all bullies, backs off when she stands up to him. “Don’t let anybody push you around, not even me. That’s democracy!”

Another World War II-era metaphor is complete when she chucks a can of SPAM at him.

I won’t reveal how the relationship develops between Clift and Fraulein Borchers. It’s an 11th hour surprise, and lessons are learned by everyone.

Though the tours of duty are ending and men are being rotated home, Paul Douglas decides to stay in Berlin. He is kinder to the German laborers on the base, and even helps them out by speaking fluent German to them, which he was forced to learn in the POW camp.

“I suppose if we’re going to sell these stoops on a new way of living, you got to be a pretty good salesman.”

Then they hear over the radio that the Russian blockade of Berlin is over. The good guys have won. It is a World War II kind of patriotic moment, but the really impressive ending of the movie is the “curtain call” style end credits where we see the real-life military men who had speaking parts in this movie lined up as if for roll call.

Incidentally, the journalist who interviews Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas when they first arrive in Berlin is Richard O’Malley, an actual journalist for the Associated Press.

Come back Thursday when we finish our series on “Uneasy Victors” with “Judgment at Nuremberg”, which takes us back full circle.  The first point of order for the occupier is to establish order and rule of law.  The second is to hold the bad guys accountable.  But it is a quickly changing world.  The political map of Europe is being altered day by day.  How do we settle accounts, so to speak, when nobody wants to live in the past anymore?  Montgomery Clift and Marlene Dietrich both return for impressive encore performances in very different roles.


DorianTB said...

Jacqueline, brava to you on your thought-provoking, exceptionally insightful review of THE BIG LIFT! As I believe I mentioned in your earlier posts in your terrific trilogy so far, many men in my family fought in World Wars 1 and 2, so even though I've only seen bits and pieces of THE BIG LIFT on TCM, I could feel your descriptons of the documentary-style elements. The evocative screen grabs you used helped, too. I also agree with this remark you made about Montgomery Clift's looks: "His thin, handsome face is a strange cross between rugged and fragile, and we could take that as a metaphor for much in this troubled actor’s life." Great post, my friend!

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Thank you so much, Dorian. Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas were the focus of this film, and it's amazing how much the movie rides on their shoulders.

Yvette said...

Jacqueline: Thanks for putting this film in context for me. I know I watched it years ago but I remember being unsettled by the newsreel look ot it, a documentrary style I guess I wasn't used to.

I'm with Dorian on your descriptive Monty Clift comments. This is exactly his film duality: rugged and fragile.

As for settling accounts. I think the truth is: you can't really settle accounts. There is no apparatus for marking the score settled when you are up against such evil.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Spot on, Yvette: "There is no apparatus for marking the score settled when you are up against such evil."

"Judgment at Nuremberg" at times seems to make us wonder if it's even worth trying. All three movies in this series speculate on how to do it. In the end, official judgment was settled on a case-by-case basis. And unofficially? That's something else.

Yvette said...

So many of 'them' got away. So many companies doing business then, using forced labor and worse, are still in business today.

That buffoon, Herman Goering was even helped by guards to commit suicide by cyanide capsule, instead of meeting the hangman as he should have done.

Well, you might say, dead is dead, but...

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