Reverse detail from Kakelbont MS 1, a fifteenth-century French Psalter. This image is in the public domain. Daniel Paul O'Donnell

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"Tell me I've led a good life; tell me I'm a good man": WWII and the Greatest Generation at home (Band of Brothers, In a Lonely Place, Let there be light)

Posted: Apr 08, 2024 15:04;
Last Modified: Apr 10, 2024 11:04


Still from Let there be light

Ho hum, more heroes

Today’s post was originally supposed to be about Stephen E. Ambrose’s Band of Brothers, but I was having a hard time writing about it. The basic story is the history of a company from the U.S. 101st Airborne Division in World War II, from their training in Georgia in 1942 through their first combat jump on the night before D-Day until the end of the war, when they ended up as part of the occupation of Austria.

The book is well-written enough and the stories told are compelling, but it is, in the end, all extremely familiar: brave men doing brave things in the face of exceptional circumstances; the trials and moral dangers faced by citizen-soldiers as they train for and carry out fundamentally immoral acts — killing, stealing, hating — in the service of the fundamentally moral purpose of defeating fascism. In fact a point of the book is that the men of E-Company are not that exceptional: while they were elite troops and hence used in many quite famous battles (D-Day, Market Garden, the Battle of the Bulge), the dilemmas and moral injuries they faced were common to most soldiers on the front lines during the war, on all sides. Much the same book, presumably, could have been written about an elite unit of British, Russian, or Canadian troops, or perhaps even German, Italian, and Japanese.

Band of Brothers is also familiar because it appears to have been the source of two extremely popular motion picture treatments: Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan, which is based on a D-Day incident retold by Ambrose in Band of Brothers, and Band of Brothers, the HBO TV series that was produced by Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan star Tom Hanks, and that follows the outline of Ambrose’s book extremely closely. Several of the same characters (or character-types) appear in each — the dead-eyed sniper, the enigmatic leader, the writer-soldier — in part because they are actually both telling parts of the same story.

Pointing out that there is a sameness to all this is both true and disrespectful to the author and the men whose stories these are. While all small-unit histories are ultimately usually much the same in their intermediate-level details — troops show up somewhere, face terrifying situations, forge fast friendships, lose comrades, do terrible things, and then get shipped off somewhere else to do it all over again — this doesn’t mean the stories themselves are not interesting or that the emotions and relationships they reveal not worth talking about. In fact, in some ways, my difficulty in writing about this book is because Ambrose (and the HBO showrunners and Spielberg) tell the story so well: writing about their work on its own terms is a bit like paraphrasing poetry.

In a lonely place: Getting beyond the hagiography

Gloria Grahame as Laurel Gray and Humphrey Bogart as Dixon Steele in In a lonely place

It was watching Nicholas Ray’s In a lonely place (1950) that allowed me to get past this. In a lonely place is a noir thriller starring Humphrey Bogart and my favourite actress from the period, Gloria Grahame. Bogart’s character, Dixon Steele, is a famous screenwriter who is struggling to find his next hit. When a girl he takes home from his club one night is found murdered the next morning, Steele is picked up by the police as a possible suspect since he was both the last person to see the young woman alive and has a long police record for violence: bar-room brawls — including one the night the girl disappeared — and accusations, later withdrawn, that he beat up a former girlfriend. Further adding to their suspicions is the fact that Steele’s affect is so flat when they first tell him about the murder. Rather than showing concern for the fate of the girl or his own situation as a suspect, Steele cracks a few jokes and makes some suggestions for solving the case based on his experience writing crime stories for Hollywood; later, speaking to his detective-friend (and former fellow-soldier) Brub, he also seems unusually detached from the emotions of the crime: he re-enacts how he thinks the murder must have been carried out (correctly, it turns out), but does so with a technical rather than emotional interest.

Fortunately for Steele, his neighbour, Grahame’s character Laurel Gray, is able to provide him with an alibi: Gray saw the young woman leave without Steele from his apartment just after midnight and then saw Steele himself walking around his apartment at what police believe to be the time of the murder. The police don’t fully trust Gray’s story — especially not after she and Steele become a couple — and they continue to investigate. They put a tail on Steele and Gray and Brub tries several times to draw his former commanding officer out during social events.

As the pressure on Steele and Gray mounts, Steele becomes more and more unpredictable, particularly after he discovers Brub’s continuing role in the investigation: he punches his agent, beats up a driver who cuts him off on the highway, and becomes paranoid and nearly violent around Gray. In the end, the police clear him — the girl’s ex-boyfriend confesses to the murder, just as Steele predicted. But the absolution comes too late: Gray, who had become more and more afraid of Steele, is breaking off their engagement just as the call comes from police headquarters: “Yesterday, this would’ve meant so much to us,” Grahame’s character tells the police Captain. “Now it doesn’t matter… it doesn’t matter at all.”

When not only the killer is violent

Jeff Donnell as Sylvia Nicolai and Frank Lovejoy as Brub reenact the murder in In a lonely place

Ray’s thriller — well, really Bogart’s, since he was producer and pushed the project to completion — is also based on a book, Dorothy B. Hughes’s novel of the same name. But in this case, the novel and the film are actually quite different. In the book, Steele’s character is a serial killer who only pretends to be a crime novelist: he offers to help Brub, the detective he knew from the war, solve the case in order to keep suspicion away from him, and the story is about how the police and Gray ultimately discover the truth about what he did that night (I haven’t read the novel yet; this summary is from the Wikipedia).

This distinction — that in the novel Steele’s violence is evidence that he is the killer; in the film it is in fact not evidence that he “done it” — is crucial to why Ray’s film version of the story is so impactful. Both the novel (as far as I can tell from synopses) and the film are about the impact of the war on those who served in it. But whereas in the novel, the point seems to be that the war turned some veterans into psychopathically violent killers who are now roaming the countryside murdering unsuspecting women (much as later became the fashion in the portrayal of Vietnam vets), in the film the point is that the war turned many veterans into psychopathically violent men, some of whom are killers while others just create havoc in their women-folk’s lives. The issue for Gray in the novel seems to be whether she will realise who Steele is before he kills her; in the movie, it is whether she can live with what she knows about him now: while in the film Gray (correctly) never really doubts whether Steele was the killer — and since we too saw the coat-check girl leave on her own while Steele returned to his apartment, we know throughout that she is right — she and her girlfriends discuss repeatedly the danger of being involved with somebody whose violence is both unpredictable and so clearly comes from a damaged past. If the novel is a horror story about what might have happened to a few vets, the movie is a depressing study in what women could end up facing in life with any of their returning heroes.

“Tell me I’ve led a good life”

Harrison young as old Ryan in Saving Private Ryan

And this is what brings it back to Band of Brothers — both the book and the screenplays for Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series. A major undercurrent in the book and screenplays is the impact the events of the war had on the soldiers’ subsequent lives: in Saving Private Ryan, the framing story is Ryan as an old man returning to France and the graves of men who died during the mission (including the enigmatic Captain Miller); in the HBO series (and to only a slightly lesser degree Ambrose’s book), the narrative is framed by interviews with the surviving members of the unit, most of whom devote a lot of attention to the debt they owe their enigmatic leader, Major Winters (on whom Captain Miller is clearly based).

What these men are interested in in their later lives is understanding the impact and meaning of their wartime experiences in relation to the arcs of their subsequent lives: were they good men despite their horrific experiences; or were they bad men despite the examples of courage and duty they saw in those years? How did they handle the stress of the traumas they underwent in those days? The actual details of the battles are far less important to them than how the details of those battles affected the rest of their lives. Or, as the elderly Ryan says when he turns to his wife at the grave of Captain Miller:

Every day I think about what you [i.e., Miller in his dying words] said to me that day on the bridge. I tried to live my life the best that I could. I hope that was enough. I hope that, at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what all of you have done for me…

and then, turning to his wife,

Tell me I’ve led a good life; tell me I’m a good man.

What In a lonely place suggests, however, is that there is more to the question of the legacy of the war than whether the final accounting shows a plus or negative balance. For the women (and children and parents) these men came home to a much more immediate question was how to live with them and impact of their traumas in the immediate and intermediate term — the first five, ten, or fifteen years while they settled back into civilian life.

In fact, how “the men” would be when they came home and how the war had or would strain family relationships more generally was a matter of immense concern in American culture after the war: from books and movies about “delinquents” — the kids who had been born while their fathers were overseas and were now dealing with the impact of that war on their caregivers — to the really excellent Let There Be Light — the John Huston documentary about the patients at a military psychiatric hospital as they were being prepared for release — Americans in the 1950s were, as you would expect, focussed on how the great trauma of the previous decade. one of the things I like most about material from this era is how direct and focussed both the bureaucracy and the popular culture were on the impact of the war in almost all respects: psychological, familial, economic, in terms of life-stage, and so on. Today’s readings are really a set of examples of that.

Mentioned in this post

Ambrose, Stephen E. 2001. Band of Brothers: E Company, 506th Regiment, 101st Airborne : From Normandy to Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest. New York: Touchstone.
Band of Brothers. 2001. Drama, History, War. DreamWorks, DreamWorks Television, HBO Films.
Hughes, Dorothy B., and Megan Abbott. 2017. In a Lonely Place. Reprint edition. New York: NYRB Classics.
Huston, John, dir. 1980. Let There Be Light. Documentary, War. U.S. Army Pictorial Services.
Ray, Nicholas, dir. 1950. In a Lonely Place. Drama, Film-Noir, Mystery. Santana Pictures Corporation.





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