VULTURE DROPPINGS OF THE WEEK: Pop Cultural Depictions Of WWII
Its Friday! Which means it’s time once again for the weekly video round-up of my favorite pop culture atrocities, misfires and entertaining trainwrecks. This week’s theme: Pop Cultural Depictions of WWII.
While Quentin Tarantino‘s high octane, Nazi-scalping popcorn flick, Inglourious Basterds, has been garnering a lot of buzz lately, it’s only a small fish in a large sea of World War II-inspired fare. In the sixty-plus years since the catastrophic military conflict that cost over seventy million lives and lasted from 1939-1945, artists have explored many ways of dealing with it. Given the scope of the tragedy that Adolf Hitler reaped unto the world, though, it can often be a catch-22, artistically speaking.
That’s why when people find the right angle (such as in the Michael Chabon book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, or Steven Spielberg‘s Saving Private Ryan), they are showered with praise and countless awards. Heck, even if a WWII-themed project is semi-decent, it still gets honored. Remember the hype surrounding Kate Winslet‘s Oscar win for The Reader? On Extras, Winslet herself joked about how easy it is to get mountains of praise for doing a Holocaust drama (link here). When the Great War is depicted in a lousy and misguided way, however, it’s worse than a normal failure. In that case, it’s not just that somebody made a bad movie or wrote a bad book, it’s that they’ve trivialized one of the saddest events in our history. And that can be hard to recover from career-wise.
1. ‘THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED’
Long before Roberto Benigni pretended the Nazis were only playing a game in Life is Beautiful, comedian Jerry Lewis had a similar vision of creating a tragicomic story set in a concentration camp. According to Shawn Levy‘s 1997 biography, The King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, a supposedly great, unproduced screenplay by Joan O’Brien and Charles Denton was floating around Hollywood in the 1960s. It told the story an unsuccessful German circus clown who is sent to Auschwitz for satirizing der Führer, despite the fact that he’s a Gentile. Eventually, the SS guards use him as a tool to lead Jewish children to their deaths in the gas chambers.
In 1971, Lewis was approached by a Belgian producer named Nathan Wachsberger, who claimed to have worked out a deal with the original authors. He convinced him to direct and star in the project, saying he would finance it. Lewis agreed and decided to rewrite the screenplay, changing such details as the main character’s name from Karl Scmidt to Helmut Doork. The rest is history, as they say.
When filming began in Stockholm in April of 1972, with an initial budget of $1.5 million, Wachsberger vanished as quickly as his checks started bouncing. Then it was revealed that he hadn’t actually secured the rights to the material at all. He had merely optioned it for $5 k, but failed to pay the rest of the fees. Lewis trudged on with the production nonetheless. Throughout the laborious months of filming, however, the fiasco began to take a toll on him. He looked visibly exhausted, losing some forty pounds. Eventually, the funding ran out completely and Lewis was forced to dig into his own pocket to keep Clown afloat.
In his biography, Levy quotes Lewis as saying:
The suffering, the hell I went through with Wachsberger had one advantage. I put all the pain on the screen. If it had been my first picture, the suffering would have destroyed me. But I have the experience to know how to use suffering… I was terrified of directing the last scene. I had been 113 days on the picture, with only three hours of sleep a night. I had been without my family. I was exhausted, beaten. When I thought of doing that scene, I was paralyzed; I couldn’t move. I stood there in my clown’s costume, with the cameras ready. Suddenly the children were all around me, unasked, undirected, and they clung to my arms and legs, they looked up at me so trustingly. I felt love pouring out of me. I thought, ‘This is what my whole life has been leading up to.’ I thought what the clown thought. I forgot about trying to direct. I had the cameras turn and I began to walk, with the children clinging to me, singing, into the gas ovens. And the door closed behind us.”
When production finally wrapped, litigation inevitably followed and it seemed impossible that the movie would ever see the light of day. Yet, inexplicably, Lewis refused to give up. He headed to the editing room and attempted to piece together a coherent product. That proved to be a daunting task; one that, to this day, has never been completed.
The Day the Clown Cried stands as one of the most infamous cinematic disasters that no one has ever seen, except for those lucky few who were allowed to view a rough cut. Among them is comedian Harry Shearer who, in 1992, told Spy magazine:
The closest I can come to describing the effect is if you flew down to Tijuana and suddenly saw a painting on black velvet of Auschwitz. You’d just think, ‘My God, wait a minute! It’s not funny, and it’s not good, and somebody’s trying too hard in the wrong direction to convey this strongly held feeling.” He later added that the movie is “perfect in its awfulness”.
To this day, the negatives are collecting dust in a vault that Lewis closely guards. After years of clinging to the hope that Clown might be released, he finally threw in his towel and vowed never to let it out of his clutches. He also refuses to discuss the movie in any way, shape or form publicly.
2. ‘PEARL HARBOR’
Fresh off Bad Boys and Armageddon, explosion fetishist Michael Bay could have made any action movie he wanted to. His previous efforts, however critically castigated, made a lot of studios a lot of money. So what did Touchstone Pictures sign him up to make? A “historical” adventure/drama about Japan’s 1941 sneak attack on the Pearl Harbor naval base in Hawaii.
Apparently they saw something in Bay’s work that no one else did. Or maybe they thought that by hiring an Oscar-nominated screenwriter (Randall Wallace, Braveheart) to pen the script, that they didn’t need to focus too long on finding a director that was right for the material. As long as the story’s strong, right? Well, unfortunately, not even the writing turned out as anything but laughable.
Pearl Harbor quickly morphed from a historical adventure/drama to a Titanic ripoff starring the chemistry-less trio of Ben Affleck, Kate Beckinsale and Josh Hartnett. In 2001, at the time of the movie’s release, Bay explained his reasoning:
“There were historians who read our script. And they said, ‘Well, you’re not showing the second wave. You’re not showing that they [the Japanese commanders] denied to do the third wave.’ When you see the movie you don’t get a sense of the first or second wave. You get a sense of the attack. That’s what’s important. And you need to see this through the eyes of people whom the audience connects with. It’s very much like Titanic. If you didn’t have Leo and Kate and you didn’t have their love story, it would just be a sinking ship. Tora Tora Tora attempted to do this. And they did this at that time on a big scale, but it was more like a docudrama. You weren’t identifying with any one person. So what we do is we suck the audience in. We lure them into that just idyllic lifestyle.”
I wouldn’t say Bay sucked anyone in so much as suck the life out of its viewers. Yes, Pearl Harbor was a box office hit, making about $198 million on a $140 million budget, but it disappeared from theaters as fast as it landed. People flocked to see it opening weekend, thanks to an expensive marketing campaign, and word of the mouth killed the momentum. The consensus is that the movie’s overlong, historically inaccurate and choppily edited. And the national reviews were about as bad as reviews can get. Maybe Bay should stick to making movies about toys.
3. ‘HOGAN’S HEROES’
Once upon a time, CBS produced a hit show that was set in in a German POW camp during World War II. Did I mention it was a zany sitcom? Hogan’s Heroes ran from 1965 to 1971. The show, created by Bernard Fein and Albert S. Ruddy, centers on the character of Colonel Robert E. Hogan (Bob Crane) and the ragtag group of POW misfits he bands together to assist him in special operations against the Nazis, right under the nose of the stern commandant of Stalag 13, Colonel Wilhelm Klink (Werner Klemperer).
While initially well received and highly rated, Hogan’s Heroes stands today as a jaw-droppingly insensitive depiction of German POW Camps. Instead of offering intelligent commentary and dealing with the atrocities of WWII in a constructive way, the series reduces them to a series of cheap gags and one-liners. That wouldn’t have been so bad if they were actually funny. Take this sample scene:
- Hogan: [walks over with Klink to the ammunitions building; the painting has blurred the graffiti very little after being watered] You ordered us the paint the building; we painted it!
- Klink: Colonel Hogan, this is not what I had in mind. I can still read those insults. Now, you will paint it again, and again, if necessary, until those insulting statements are gone. Now, PAINT IT! [storms away]
- Hogan: [to the Allied POWs] All right, fellas, you heard the Kommandant. Now, let’s get it right!
[sometime later, Hogan walks back over with Klink to the ammunitions building; Klink is horrified]
- Klink: [tantruming] NO, NO, NO, NO, NO! [the building is now pink] A pink building on a military establishment? Are you mad?! If you think I wouldn’t turn you over to the Gestapo, you are sadly mistaken.
- Hogan: Come on, Colonel. It’s about time we got a little color into the war. Everything’s so drab.