Monday, April 21, 2014

Same brief. Different results.

Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens were three of Hollywood's top directors when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and in short order, America was at war with the Axis powers. All three enlisted and all three created notable wartime films.

When the three returned home, they each responded to the horror and the carnage they had witnessed and experienced. They each made a personal picture that reflected their world view as we struggled to get back to something resembling normal.

Capra came out with "It's a Wonderful Life." He wanted his simpler America back. He wanted the good guys to win. He wanted a world where faith would strengthen us and would help us prevail against hard-heartedness and greed.

Wyler created "The Best Years of Our Lives," the story of three returning vets and their struggles and their family's struggles with peace-time. Wyler returned home gravely wounded from the war. He lost his hearing filming while making a documentary about P-47 fighter planes. He cast Harold Russell as one of his returnees. Russell wasn't an actor, he was a soldier who lost both his arms in the war.

Stevens was most devastated by the war. He had spent his last six months or so in Europe filming death camp after death camp, chronicling the depravity, sadism and racism those camps carried out. He captured it all, including the lampshades and the ashes. His films were introduced as evidence at Nuremberg. Even Nazi lawyers gave up defending their clients after seeing the films.

Stevens had been a director of light comedies before this experience, including dozens of Laurel and Hardy shorts. He returned from Europe in late 1945 but didn't make his war movie until 1953 when he made "Shane."

Shane, of course, was a Western. But it was Stevens' view that it was his war movie. He felt that killing one person was the same as destroying the world. But sometimes, sadly, we have to kill.

The movies mentioned here are three of the best ever made.

They stemmed from the same crucible of horror. And they're all three very different. But they're all enduring, even if they are, today, somewhat dated.

There's more than one answer to a brief. There's no one right way.

It's finding how to express what's important that matters.

PS.  I love "It's a Wonderful Life" and no matter how often I view it, it seldom fails to bring tears to my eyes. But "Shane" is, to my eyes, something wholly magical. Palance's murder of Elijah Cook Jr., and Alan Ladd gunning down, in turn, Palance are as good as it gets.

No comments: