THE MOVIES GO TO WAR
At the beginning of his military career, Horatio Kitchener, commander of the British Army in Egypt, wrote to his sister to boast that soon he hoped to be "slaying niggers by the dozen." For twenty-three months he pushed his troops toward Omdurman in Sudan, while building a railway to supply them with rations and newly developed water-cooled machine guns. John "Mad Jack" Bennett-Stanford travelled with Kitchener’s troops and assembled his camera near the front lines in the hope of obtaining the first-ever motion pictures of war. The year was 1898. While waiting for battle, the young Winston Churchill wrote to his mother instructing her in the event of his death to avail herself of philosophy and to reflect only on "the utter insignificance of all human beings." The insurgent followers of al-Mahdi attacked Kitchener’s army head-on and were slaughtered by machine guns and long-range assault rifles before coming in range of Bennett-Stanford’s cameras. Churchill rode with the 21st Lancers into an ambush in which Mahdist forces killed seventy British soldiers and hacked at their horses with swords until the British were finally able to shoot them down with their pistols. Churchill compared the experience to being "trapped inside a motion picture." Kitchener went on to massacre Mahdists by the many dozens. He took Omdurman and desecrated the grave of al-Mahdi in retribution for the killing of General Gordon at Khartoum. He threw Mahdi’s bones in the Nile and kept the skull, which he planned to donate to the Royal College of Surgeons to be exhibited alongside Napoleon’s intestines.
THE BOER WAR
Winston Churchill returned to England from Sudan and in 1899 became a military correspondent at the start of the Boer War in South Africa. He had planned to take a motion picture camera into action with him, but he saw W. K. L. Dickson of the Biograph company loading his camera onto a ship, so he abandoned his motion picture plans and travelled to South Africa as a print correspondent. Dickson was an inventor and filmmaker who had worked with Thomas Edison on the first motion picture camera before starting his own film company. He travelled by cart with British troops to the battlefield near Pretoria. While waiting for opportunities to film battle scenes, he filmed tarantulas and scorpions fighting to the death in a tin box. Horatio Kitchener, now Lord Kitchener, took command late in the Boer War and applied a scorched-earth policy with the mass burning of crops, the looting of homes, the slaughter of livestock, the summary execution of Boer prisoners and the transportation of non-combatant Boers by foot and cattle car into concentration camps, where 28,000 women and children died of starvation, typhus and exposure. Dickson filmed injured British soldiers being carried off the front lines, and he attempted to move his gigantic camera within sight of the fighting, but in the end he was forced to shoot troop movements away from the front. He interviewed a dying Boer woman who had been shot through both breasts and who continued to hold on to her rifle. "My husband told me I must come, and I came," she said, "and now I am dying." When the British took Bloemfontein, Dickson set up the Biograph camera in the town square, where a flag pole had been erected to fly the Union Jack during the annexation ceremony. He described it in his diary as "a glorious event that was sure to incite the singing of ‘God Save the Queen' in the theatres of London among the people who would have surely wished to witness such glory."
William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal reported that Cuban police had accused Hearst of plotting to blow up the U.S. consulate in Cuba so that the explosion could be blamed on the pro-Spanish government, thereby inciting America to a war that would free Cuba from Spanish rule. One of Hearst’s reporters, Karl C. Decker, befriended a Cuban rebel named Evangelina Cisneros, who had been arrested for allegedly enticing a Spanish officer into her home, where accomplices waited to kill him. Hearst’s newspaper reported that Cisneros was a virginal beauty who had been jailed for refusing to let a Spanish officer deflower her. Hearst’s papers demanded war with Spain for, if nothing else, the release of the eighteen-year-old angelic Evangelina Cisneros. Decker then bribed the Spanish prison guards to free Cisneros, and she was smuggled back to New York City, where Hearst welcomed her with a banquet at the Waldorf Astoria. Five months later the USSMaine exploded in Havana harbour, and Hearst published a rallying cry for war with Spain. The cause of the explosion was never established. Karl Decker travelled to Cuba with one of Thomas Edison’s cameramen to film the wreckage of the Maine and the funeral procession. Back in New York, cameramen from the Vitagraph Company filmed bogus documentary footage of the Battle of Santiago Bay. As film evidence of the sinking of the Maine, for example, they filmed cardboard boats dabbed with gunpowder floating through clouds of cigar smoke. President McKinley favoured a diplomatic solution to the Cuban crisis, but the Republican Party and Theodore Roosevelt, Secretary of the Navy, who wanted to lead men into battle, pressured him to declare war. McKinley asked for 200,000 volunteers and a million men responded. Hearst travelled to Cuba in a boat rigged to develop motion pictures. He was joined in Cuba by an Edison cameraman, who drank champagne and shot war footage from the bow. When Hearst arrived back in New York, he called Cuba "a splendid war," although he regretted the fact that he was never properly credited with having started it. Roosevelt and his Rough Riders garnered most of the media attention fighting on the front lines, which propelled Roosevelt toward the vice-presidential ticket under McKinley. Three thousand U.S. soldiers lost their lives in the Cuban war, almost all of them from dysentery, malaria and yellow fever. President McKinley expressed regret at being rushed into war, for which he blamed Hearst for his films and his yellow journalism, as well as the eager Theodore Roosevelt, who retorted with a joke: "I might as well now confess that I was the man who blew up the Maine."
THE BOXER REBELLION
In 1900 the Biograph Company dispatched Raymond Ackerman to China to film the uprising known as the Boxer Rebellion. The Boxers, or "the Righteous and Harmonious Fists," were a religious society originally formed to oppose the Imperial government in Shantung, China. They were said to fear Christian magic and to believe that foreigners harvested the eyeballs of Chinese children and shipped them back to Europe to make photographs. They were also reputed to be pulling apart the railways, cutting telegraph lines and murdering thousands of Chinese Christians, along with the European missionaries who had converted them. The Boxer movement against foreign occupation gained momentum, and with the support of Imperial forces they marched on Peking and then Tienstin—where Herbert Hoover, the American ambassador who later became president, helped to defend the city and refused to answer a European who wanted to know whether, in the event of being captured by the Boxers, he intended to shoot his wife. The German minister Baron von Ketteler organized a "Boxer hunt" and opened fire on two hundred of them while they practised the martial arts that they believed would protect them from bullets. Von Ketteler killed seven Boxers himself and was later shot in retribution by Imperial troops. Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered German forces to "make the name Germany remembered in China for a thousand years so that no Chinaman will ever again dare to even squint at a German." While under attack by Chinese forces, the foreign diplomats in Peking withered away on a diet of mule meat, rancid rice, champagne and the Egyptian cigarettes that they smoked to mask the smell of rotting corpses throughout the city. When word came that Allied forces would soon liberate Peking, Sir Robert Hart threw a note over the city wall addressed to his tailor in London, requesting two autumn suits, evening dress and a warm cape, "in a jiffy." Allied forces liberated Tienstin, took the naval bases of Taku and marched toward Peking as Chinese families committed suicide to avoid torture. The 6th U.S. Cavalry did not reach Peking until the Japanese, Russians and British had already liberated the city and rescued the diplomats. Raymond Ackerman and his camera crew arrived in Peking too late for the combat, so he set up his camera and engaged the 6th Cavalry to simulate a charge against the enemy Chinese for the film that became 6th Cavalry Assaulting South Gate of Pekin. Back in the United States, a crew from the Thomas Edison Manufacturing Company re-created the naval battle of Taku with toy ships, a tank of water and more cigar smoke. The Biograph Company released Chinamen Returning to China in 1899 in order to illustrate the danger of an influx of Chinese planning to make their fortune in America so that they could return to China with their "stolen rewards."
Before the start of World War II, Robert Sherman wrote a screen version of his Pulitzer Prize-winning play Idiot’s Delight, but Joseph Breen of the Production Code Administration discouraged Warner Brothers from making the film on the grounds that it contained anti-war propaganda such as "diatribes against militarism, fascism and the munitions ring." The original play was about a group of travellers trapped in an Italian hotel after the government launched a surprise attack against Paris, thereby precipitating Sherman’s fictional version of World War II. Warner Brothers dropped the project and MGM picked it up in December 1936. The Italian Embassy protested strongly to the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors Association, which warned mgm that a production of Sherman’s screenplay would result in the banning of all MGM pictures in France and Italy. The Italian government demanded that MGM remove all negative references to Italy, give the Italian print a different title and delete Sherwood’s screenwriting credit. MGM paid Sherwood $135,000 to edit the script accordingly, and Idiot’s Delight was transformed from an anti-war film to a love story set in an unnamed central European country. In June 1938, Benito Mussolini approved the script for MGM. Joseph Breen wrote to Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, to assure him that the political aspects of the film had been handled appropriately and any offence that might be felt in the countries of central Europe would be of no account since no central European country had a significant motion picture market.
When General Henry H. Arnold, commander of the Army Air Corps, needed more gunners for Flying Fortresses, he asked Clark Gable, the Hollywood star, to make a documentary of his own enlistment in the Army Air Force (a film that became Combat America). MGM publicists tried to persuade the Army to recruit Gable as a captain, to match the role he played on screen, but General Arnold insisted that Gable earn his rank through Officer Candidate School. The Army roped off half a floor of the Los Angeles Federal Building to swear in Gable and his friend, the cinematographer Andrew McIntyre. Afterwards, Gable informed the press that he had enlisted as a gunner, and the MGM publicity department released his serial number so fans could memorize it. Whenever Gable served guard duty, women from town gathered outside the fence and peppered him with balls of paper bearing phone numbers. Gable kept a small gold box around his neck containing jewellery that had belonged to his wife, the actress Carole Lombard, who had been killed in a plane crash while promoting war bonds. When he finished training, he sent his uniform to the MGM costume department for alteration. Gable arrived in Britain with the 351st Bomb Group, led by Lieutenant Colonel William A. Hatcher. A 20mm shell pierced Clark Gable’s B-17, blew off the heel of his shoe and exited the plane’s turret less than a foot from his head. The Luftwaffe had learned to attack the Flying Fortresses from the front, and they got so close that Gable could see the faces of the German pilots. Hitler hoped that Gable would be captured alive and brought to him in Berlin. Gable had changed his name from the German "Goebel," which the Nazis embraced as evidence that he was related to Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda. Gable was a trophy for both sides: Hermann Goering even posted a reward for any Luftwaffe pilot who shot down the plane carrying the star of Gone with the Wind.
After starring as the seductress Lola in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 hit The Blue Angel, Marlene Dietrich signed a contract with Paramount and left Berlin for Hollywood, where she was promoted by Paramount as an undiscovered star rather than a veteran German actress who had performed in more than a dozen films. She became a star in America after the release of Morocco (1930), in which she appeared wearing trousers opposite Gary Cooper, and kissed a woman. But after Morocco, Dietrich made half a dozen poorly received Hollywood films and was eventually deemed to be box-office poison. Theatre owners wrote to the studios asking them not to cast her, and the producer David O. Selznick said that despite Dietrich’s early fame, no personality could survive the lineup of dreadful pictures that she had made. Adolf Hitler and Joseph Goebbels disagreed. They wanted Dietrich to denounce the Jews of Hollywood and return to Germany to become the queen of Third Reich cinema. Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hitler's foreign minister, visited Dietrich to offer her stardom in Germany, but Dietrich refused and took out American citizenship instead. Germany declared her an enemy who had abandoned the fatherland for the Jews. In Hollywood, Dietrich housed expatriate artists who had fled Europe to escape the Nazis, and she fell in love with Jean Gabin, an actor who had joined the French Resistance as a tank commander. After America entered the war, Dietrich enlisted to entertain Allied troops and to sell war bonds to pay for the bombs that would fall on Berlin, the city where her mother Josephine continued to live. She insisted on performing at the front, and during the Battle of the Bulge she came within a hundred yards of enemy soldiers. She also recorded German folk songs for the Office of Strategic Services (later the CIA), for propaganda broadcasts directed at enemy soldiers. In 1947 she became the first woman to be awarded the Medal of Freedom, and President Dwight D. Eisenhower declared that no man, woman, actor or film star had done more for the morale of the Allied troops than Marlene Dietrich. In 1945 she followed the troops into Germany. When news of the mass exterminations began to filter out of the east, she flew to Bergen-Belsen, where she learned that her sister’s husband had worked as a Special Services Officer in the concentration camp, in charge of the canteen and the movie theatre that entertained the SS soldiers who worked the camp. Of the 40,000 Jews rescued from Bergen-Belsen, 28,000 died of starvation and typhus within days of their liberation. Dietrich was among the first Americans to visit the camp and witness the thousands of corpses overflowing the mass graves. Her sister, who had also worked for the ss, told Dietrich that their mother had survived and was living somewhere in Berlin (her apartment had been destroyed by Allied bombs). Dietrich left Bergen-Belsen and never again acknowledged the existence of her sister. An American soldier assigned to search the rubble of Berlin for Josephine Dietrich found her living in a tiny room—in poverty, but happy that she had outlived "that bastard" Hitler. Josephine Dietrich was taken to a field phone and patched through to her daughter Marlene, who wept and said, "Mama, Mama, forgive me."
MASTERING FILM EDUCATION
After he was arrested by British officials in 1945 and charged with crimes against humanity, Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel, late of the Third Reich, spent the last weeks of his life composing his memoir in a cell of the former Nuremberg city jail, located behind the German Palace of Justice. Keitel claimed that he had merely been following orders but was convicted nevertheless on four counts, most notably for authorizing the extermination of striking workers and Jews, as well as the lynching of downed Allied pilots. "We had everything calculated perfectly," he wrote, "except the speed with which the Allies were able to train their people for war. Our major miscalculation was in misunderstanding their quick and complete mastery of film education." His last request was that he be executed by firing squad. This request was refused, and Wilhelm Keitel was marched out of the former Nuremberg city jail, past the German Palace of Justice and into a basketball gymnasium, where he climbed the thirteen steps to the gallows. His executioner was a professional hangman from San Antonio who had delayed his military discharge in order to have the honour of snapping Keitel’s neck.
SANDS OF IWO JIMA
Joe Rosenthal’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of six soldiers raising the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima inspired the script for The Sands of Iwo Jima, in which John Wayne agreed to star after learning that certain politicians were taking the position that the Marines had become redundant and therefore unnecessary after World War II. The Marines had their largest recruitment since the war after the release of What Price Glory? (directed by John Ford and starring James Cagney) in 1952, and the Marines hoped that another patriotic movie about the corps would generate enough public support to keep them from being disbanded. Critics hailed Sands, which incorporated documentary footage shot during the actual battle of Iwo Jima, as a realistic rendering of the glory of the Marine Corps. Of the five actors who raise the flag in the film, three had raised the flag on the actual Suribachi for Rosenthal's camera. On set, Felix de Weldon, the sculptor who created the hundred-ton bronze statue of the flag raising on Iwo Jima, dedicated at Arlington National Cemetery in 1954, was commissioned to work the bodies of the flag raisers into position, pushing and pulling at them until their postures were authentic.
BIRTH OF RAMBO
During the American Vietnam War, Sylvester Stallone operated a fast-food stand selling horsemeat hamburgers to schoolgirls at the American College of Switzerland, where he was enrolled as a student. He later transferred to the University of Miami, where he studied drama and alienated faculty, who disliked his habit of auditioning with dialogue he had written himself. Stallone’s mother cast his horoscope and predicted that he would flop as an actor but make it as a writer, which led to the production of his first original script, Cry Full, Whisper Empty, in the Same Breath, the story of a rock star whose career collapses because of an overwhelming craving for bananas. Stallone wrote the original script for Rocky in three days and sold it for a substantial discount on the condition that he play Rocky Balboa (instead of James Caan, whom the studio preferred). The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated Stallone for best actor for his role in Rocky, and he was later offered $3.5 million to play the Vietnam veteran John J. Rambo in First Blood (1982). The salary enabled Stallone to take up the habit of throwing away his underwear after a single wearing. In 1977 he appeared on the cover of Newsweek as an example of the changing image of the Vietnam veteran; there was no mention in the story of schoolgirls, horsemeat or bananas.
In 1991, Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Association of America, said that he would rather quit his job than hold back his scorn for Oliver Stone’s film JFK, and the "conspiracy theory" that Stone had presented in the film as fact. In the uproar surrounding the movie, the U.S. Congress declassified documents relating to John F. Kennedy and his assassination, among them a plan written by the Joint Chiefs of Staff named Operation Northwoods, designed to persuade the public and the international community to support an all-out war with Cuba. The plan called for the blowing up of a U.S. warship in Guantanamo Bay, the hijacking of commercial airliners and the orchestration of large-scale terrorist attacks on American cities. The plan also noted that if John Glenn happened to die while attempting to become the first American to go into orbit (his flight was scheduled for February 1962), his death might also be blamed on Cuba. On March 13, 1962, General Lyman L. Lemnitzer of the Army pitched Operation Northwoods to the Kennedy administration. Kennedy rejected the plan, and the Joint Chiefs continued to write "pretext" operations that included inducing officers in Castro’s army to attack American troops stationed in Guantanamo Bay, and running low-level U-2 flights over Cuba in the hope that one of them would be shot down.