Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre (1948)

“How you cling to your purity, young man! How afraid you are to soil your hands! All right, stay pure! What good will it do? Why did you join us? Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. You intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. To do nothing, to remain motionless, arms at your sides, wearing kid gloves. Well, I have dirty hands. Right up to the elbows. I’ve plunged them in filth and blood. But what do you hope? Do you think you can govern innocently?”
(Communist Party boss, Hoederer, in Act V of Dirty Hands by Jean-Paul Sartre)

This is by far the longest of the four plays in the Vintage collection of Sartre’s plays – Huis Clos is one continuous act of forty pages, The Respectful Prostitute is even shorter at 30 pages – whereas Les Mains Sales has seven acts and is 120 pages long! And I think it’s also the most enjoyable because the characters have time to breathe and expand and become believable.

The plot

Act I

It is 1944 in the fictional East European country of Illyria and the Russian Army is coming closer. Olga is in a flat used by the Illyrian communist party. Hugo arrives. He has just been released from prison. He is young, handsome, talkative. He has just served two years for the murder of the communist leader, Hoederer. A knock at the door and he hides. Olga opens the door to representatives of the Party, tough guys with guns. They’ve come to kill Hugo, they’ve trailed him here, he’s a liability, a loose cannon, he must be liquidated. Olga pleads for his life and says, ‘Give me till midnight to find out what really happened.’ The tough guys grudgingly relent and leave.

Hugo comes out of the bedroom where he’d been hiding. Olga explains he must tell her everything; maybe she can protect him, persuade the others he is trustworthy after all. ‘Tell me everything, right from the start.’ The stage darkens and now begins the majority of the play, which is told as a long flashback detailing the events leading up to the assassination of Hoederer.

(Setting up the threat of Hugo’s ‘liquidation’ in the present is a Hitchcock-like trick, like seeing the bomb being placed on the bus: everything that happens subsequently is charged with menace and suspense. Simple but effective.)

So the rest of the play shows in detail the build-up to the assassination and explores the very mixed motives of young Hugo the assassin.

Act II

It is 1942, Hugo has broken with his rich bourgeois family to join the People’s Party. As a callow young intellectual, he has been given the task of editing the party paper and is horribly intimidated by the ‘real men’ of action who surround him.

After a turbulent meeting of the party heads Louis explains to him and Olga that the party’s general secretary, Hoederer, is planning to sell the party out. He is persuading the central committee to go into an alliance with the Fascists and the bourgeois party after the war to create a government of national unity.

Olga and Hugo can’t believe he is a sell-out. Louis hesitates then lets them in on a plan to assassinate Hoederer. Hugo will get a job as Hoederer’s personal secretary. On a night to be arranged he will open the door to the assassins. Hugo bridles: he wants to be a man of action. Let him assassinate Hoederer. Louis hesitates but Olga speaks up for Hugo: let him. OK, says Louis. Pack your bags and take your new young wife, Jessica, with you (oh, he’s married, we realise). Move into Hoederer’s house. Become his secretary. Await orders.

The next few acts introduce us to the shrewd watchful Hoederer, surrounded by tough guy bodyguards (George, Slick and Leon). But by far the most interesting character is Jessica, Hugo’s attractive flighty nineteen-year-old wife. She and Hugo play baby games, play act, role play and neither are sure when the game is over or when they’re playing. This could have been a tiresome embodiment of Sartre’s ideas about people playing roles for others’ consumption, but in fact their young married flirting and flyting is done with a surprisingly light touch and I found very believable. It is Huis Clos but in a comic mode. When Hugo swears Jessica to secrecy then whispers that he’s here to assassinate Hoederer, Jessica bursts out laughing. Hugo’s plight is that no-one will take him seriously. He can’t even take himself seriously.

HUGO: Tell it to me now.
JESSICA: What?
HUGO: That you love me.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But mean it.
JESSICA: I love you.
HUGO: But you don’t really mean it.
JESSICA: What’s got into you? Are you playing?
HUGO: No, I’m not playing.
JESSICA: Then why did you ask me that? That’s not like you.
HUGO: I don’t know. I need to think that you love me. I have a right to that. Come on, say it.
Say it as if you meant it.
JESSICA: I love you. I love you. No: I love you. Oh, go to the devil! Let’s hear you say it.
HUGO: I love you.
JESSICA: You see, you don’t say it any better than I do. (Act III, p.156)

The next scene is set in Hoederer’s office, the representatives of the two other parties arrive, the Fascists and the Liberals. There is some interesting political analysis as Hoederer points out to the other two that, with the USSR on the horizon, the Proletariat Party, though numerically in a minority, will soon be supported by the conquering Reds: so they’d better do a deal now. At which point Hugo jumps to his feet, outraged that Hoederer is prepared to do a deal with the bourgeois he so despises, with the bourgeois party leader (Karsky) who actually knows Hugo’s own father and made a point of mentioning it to Hugo on the way in.

The bomb

Hugo is on the verge of pulling out his revolver and shooting Hoederer then and there, when a bomb goes off in the garden, shattering the window, throwing the characters to the floor. The political leaders are ushered into a safe room, leaving Hugo, the bodyguards and a terrified Jessica. There is now some dramatic irony because Hugo had blurted out ‘the dirty bastards’ just as the bomb went off. He was describing the cynical politicians making this stitch-up, as he worked himself up to shooting, but now has to pretend to Hoederer’s suspicious bodyguards that he was referring to the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb. In fact Hoederer had already (unwisely) given Hugo a few drinks before the politicians arrived, and now he has a few more to recover from the shock with the result that he gets hammered and starts drunkenly skirting round the fact that it is he who has been sent as an assassin.

They’re not particularly subtle, but these scenes where the callow Hugo teeters on the brink of giving himself away, unhappily revealing himself to be precisely the over-talkative intellectual he’s trying to stop being, while his quick-witted wife covers for him, are more dramatically complex and satisfying than anything in Sartre’s previous plays, whose characters have tended to be schematic and one-dimensional.

In particular, Jessica’s innocent quick-wittedness is a joy to behold. In an earlier scene, when Hoederer’s goons had insisted on searching the new arrivals’ room, Jessica had quick-wittedly hidden Hugo’s revolver in her dress and brazenly invited one of the bodyguards to search her who was, as a result, so red-faced that he only did a cursory job, not finding the gun.

Now Jessica quickly interprets Hugo’s drunken babblings as anger against the ‘dirty bastards’ who threw the bomb and devises other ways of masking what Hugo’s saying. In fact she encourages him to drink more, lots more, until he passes out and Slick and George just laugh at him, thanking their lucky stars they didn’t have a rich privileged upbringing.

Olga in the summerhouse

Cut to the summerhouse which is Jessica and Hugo’s quarters, and Olga is tending the unconscious Hugo, when Jessica returns to the room with a cold compress for his head. The two women confront each other over Hugo’s unconscious body – the scheming, hard, political woman versus the politically naive but sensuous and sharp woman. They wake a groggy Hugo and Olga tells him it was she who threw the bomb. The party’s getting impatient. It’s been ten days and Hoederer’s still alive. She came to finish the job off but botched it. Hugo’s got till tomorrow, then they’ll come en masse. Anyway, whatever happens, the party thinks Hugo’s sold out – he is in big trouble. Being blown up by the bomb would have done him a favour. Olga leaves, climbing over the wall and escaping.

Jessica confronts Hugo with the reality of what he’s promised. For the first time they’re not playing. Hugo admits he can’t believe it, can’t believe he’s a killer, can’t believe that Hoederer’s bright quick eyes will go dull, that blood will seep into his suit, all because he, Hugo, has pulled a trigger. He is over-thinking and over-imagining the deed. But Jessica is no Lady MacBeth; the opposite, she begs Hugo to reconsider and, instead of just murdering Hoederer, discuss the issues, arguing him out of whatever it is that Hugo so vehemently opposes.

At which moment there’s a knock on the door and Hoederer himself enters, to check up on his secretary. The goons told him he’s drunk himself unconscious: is he alright? Having made certain, Hoederer makes as if to leave but Jessica jumps up before him. Now, now is the time for Hugo to do it? For a moment we the audience and Hugo are flabbergasted: what? shoot Hoederer now? No, Jessica means now is the time for the two men to talk, to thrash out their differences, for Hugo to find out if it’s really necessary to kill Hoederer (Jessica obviously doesn’t say this out loud, but we know from the previous dialogue with Hugo that’s this is what she means).

Hoederer explains Realpolitik to Hugo

And this is the lead-in to a very enjoyable scene where Hoederer a) explains the political situation in Illyria b) explains why a political deal with the other parties is necessary c) taunts Hugo with his naive intellectual purity. He’s more interested in principles than men, Hoederer taunts. He doesn’t want to get his pretty little bourgeois hands dirty. Well, Hoederer’s hands are dirty all right, covered in blood and filth.

This works very well as drama; it is written really effectively with Hoederer’s arguments battering Hugo’s feeble denials. When Hoederer has left, even Jessica can see that his arguments were right and, worse, that Hugo knows it, despite all his denials, despite his intention to stay true to his original mission, Hoederer converted him.

But I was also fascinated by Hoederer’s analysis of the situation in this fictional East European country because it closely parallels the analyses of the post-war communist takeover of Europe I have just read in Anne Applebaum’s brilliant history, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe 1944 to 1956. Hoederer argues that:

  • The Proletariat Party cannot take power by itself; the proletariat only make up 20% of the population and not even all of them support the party. Hugo naively says, “Let’s seize power.” Hoederer replies that if they seized power, they would quickly be suppressed by the Peasants Party which represents 55% of the population, in alliance with the Fascists who control the army and police.
  • Hence the need to enter power peaceably in a national coalition.
  • Hoederer has suggested to the leaders of the Fascists and Bourgeois parties that they set up a national government with six on the council and the Proletariat Party will have three of those delegates. He even – and this chimes exactly with Applebaum’s description – wouldn’t want most of the ministries, just two: the interior and defence, because those are the only two that matter.
  • “But,” Hugo says, “the Red Army will be across our borders in weeks: why don’t we ride their coat-tails to power?” “Because, my naive friend,” replies Hoederer, “they will still have to fight their way across the country and many will be killed; the Soviets will be blamed. And because the Party will forever afterwards be thought to have been imposed by a foreign power rather than rising up to represent the people. And because, even for the national unity government, the country will be a wasteland when peace finally comes, difficult decisions about law and order will have to be taken; the Party can represent itself as a natural outgrowth of the nation and people, and can present itself as opposing these unpopular policies from within government. With control of key industries it can slowly isolate the leaders of the other parties and wait till the time is right to stage a coup.”

Hugo hates all this because it is messy and unprincipled and yuk. Hoederer laughs at his naivety and bourgeois prissiness.

Act VI

Next day, the day of the deadline Olga told Hugo he must act or else. Before the working day begins Jessica comes into Hoederer’s office and after a little flirting reveals that Hugo has a gun, and has been tasked with assassinating him. Hoederer knew it all along. Hugo knocks at the door, Jessica exits through the window (reminding me of all the entrances and exits through windows in The Respectful Prostitute).

Now Hoederer toys with Hugo, continuing the discussion over whether Hugo has it in him to be an assassin or whether he is too much of an intellectual. Because assassins don’t think at all, have no imagination, just kill. Whereas Hugo has too much imagination, can not only picture the dead body and the blood, but has grasped the political consequences, the cause of the Party set back, no single leader to greet the Red Army, its chance for power maybe irrevocably lost. He deliberately turns his back and fixes a cup of coffee, while Hugo gets the gun out his pocket and holds it trembling, very obviously struggling with himself. Hoederer turns, faces him, says “Give me the gun,” and takes it. Hugo collapses, virtually in tears, and says, “You despise me.”

Hoederer says he remembers being a naive principled young man. He can help Hugo to maturity, guide him, mentor him. Hugo is almost in tears. But he won’t give up his opposition to the political pact. Don’t worry, says Hoederer: he’ll go to town tomorrow and square it all with Louis (the guy who sent Hugo in the first place). Go back to writing, it’s what you do best; and he dismisses Hugo.

Re-enter Jessica who’s been perched on the window ledge all this time (!) She heard everything. She thinks Hoederer is noble. In fact, she’s realised she’s not in love with her silly immature husband, she realises she wants a ‘real man’ (p.232). Oh dear. The 21st century reader’s heart sinks a little. They look at each other in silence. She’s never thrilled to a man’s touch, sex with her husband makes her giggle. “Are you frigid?” Hoederer asks. “I don’t know,” Jessica replies. “Let’s find out,” says Hoederer and embraces and kisses her.

At just this moment Hugo re-enters the office. Oops. Incensed, he accuses Hoederer of lying to him and stringing him along and sparing him and promising to make him a man because all along he’s just wanted his wife. Hugo springs for the desk where the revolver was left, seizes it, Jessica screams, Hugo fires three shots at Hoederer who crumples in his chair. Enter the bodyguards, George and Slick with guns aimed at Hugo but Hoederer with his dying breath tells them to spare him, it was a crime of passion, that he – Hoederer – was sleeping with Hugo’s wife. And dies.

Act VII

Lights go up on the setting of the first act, as Hugo finishes pouring his heart out to Olga. She keeps asking, “So did you assassinate him because of our orders,?” and Hugo honestly doesn’t know. In a typically Sartrean way, Hugo isn’t even sure that he did it: or was Chance the key agent? If he’d opened the door two minutes later or earlier, it wouldn’t have happened. In fact, he was coming back to ask for Hoederer’s help.

It was an assassination without an assassin. (p.234)

Hugo is crushed by a characteristically Sartrean sense of his own unreality. But Olga is pleased. She thinks she can fend off the men who want to kill him. And here comes the punchline, the cynical climax of the play. For Olga explains:

The party line has changed. When they despatched Hugo to murder Hoederer communications with Moscow were poor. Later they discovered that Moscow did, in fact, want the party to go into a government of national unity with the Fascists and bourgeois parties. It would mean saving many lives among the Illyrian army (which would immediately lay down its arms). It would save Moscow embarrassment with the Allies (Britain and the US). The new plan is for the party to join a 6-man government, and the party to have 3 delegates. Hugo is amazed and then bursts out laughing. This is exactly what Hoederer intended, what we saw him proposing to Hugo just a few moments (and two years) ago down to the last detail.

“Yes,” Olga explains, “but Hoederer was ‘premature’ in his policy.” Meanwhile, another man, now dead, has been officially blamed for Hoederer’s assassination. Now Hoederer has been rehabilitated and… Hugo joins in, “You’re going to put up statues to him after the war. You’re going to make him a hero of the party?” Hugo collapses into helpless tear-filled laughter of despair.

Olga tells him to snap out of it, the Party killers are about to arrive. She is ready to tell them he is a new man, rehabilitated, he will go along with the party line, he will lie about Hoederer’s assassination, he will forget all about and never mention to anyone that he did it. He will live a life of deceit and lies for the greater good.

But Hugo refuses. The only thing that kept him going in prison was that he fired – maybe for personal reasons – but in accordance with the party line. To learn that the line has changed and the act become completely meaningless is too much to bear. He thought that killing someone would make him feel real, give him weight and substance – but he carried on feeling horribly unreal and contingent. Now, now he has the chance to stand up, to act for himself, to make himself real. Olga begs him to stop but as the killer’s car draws up outside, Hugo stands up and walks to the door. He will proclaim his guilt and force them to kill him. It will be his final, defining acte.

Thoughts

Apparently the big and powerful Communist Party of France disliked the play. You can see why.

In purely political terms, this was the decade when Moscow’s concept of Socialist Realism came to be enforced all across the Eastern Bloc. Art, music, literature, all had to be high-minded and inspiring, showing happy workers exceeding their quotas and merrily bringing in the harvest. It’s hard to imagine a more nihilistic, defeatist, cynical and plain anti-communist narrative than Les Mains Sales, hard to imagine anything more completely contrary to the spirit of Socialist Realism, focusing as it does on the amoral political manoeuvring, the lying to its membership, the cynical alliances with its class enemies, and the pointless infighting and murders of the communist party.

Politics aside, the communist party of Illyria comes over as a mob of gangsters, little different in terms of threat and violence from Al Capone and Chicago gangsters of Prohibition. Time and again I am reminded that Sartre and Camus were writing their intense, man-holding-gun fictions during not only the rather obvious violence of the Second World War, but also during the heyday of Hollywood films noirs which they both hugely enjoyed. Camus cultivated a Humphrey Bogart look with his collar turned up and a Gitanes cigarette permanently smouldering in his mouth. The romance, the glamour of being the dude with the shooter, calling the shots. Specially if you yourself are mostly the chap in the library with the pipe and the thick glasses.

As a specimen of intellectual French film noir, as a dissection of the worldview of communist politics in 1947 and 1948, and as pure entertainment, I think les Mains Sales is by far the best of these four plays.

Jessica and sexism

All the male characters utter contemptuously sexist comments either about Jessica in her absence, or to her face, which would get you locked up nowadays. They casually refer to her political naivety, her inability to do anything significant for the Revolution and her liability as distracting ‘bait’ for all the male characters. This was, after all, 20 years or so before the birth of Women’s Liberation / second wave feminism.

It is, for example, offensive to modern readers when the bodyguards make remarks about Jessica’s attractiveness in the first scene in the big house, and Hoederer is no better, dismissing her as a distraction, saying why doesn’t she ‘scratch her itch’ with Slick or George.

More to the point, there is something sexist about the entire conception of the play which sets the world of passive sensuality (Jessica) against the ‘active’ network of male politics and action (Hugo and Hoederer). With crashing stereotyping the main woman character represents Sex, anti-Politics (although, to be fair, she is balanced by clever calculating Olga, who is smart enough to try and save Hugo, and who, after all, throws a bomb in the middle of the play.)

But despite what we nowadays would describe as the #everydaysexism of the text, Jessica is, by and large, the most attractive character in the play. She is the least hoodwinked, the least deceived. She knows nothing about politics but she knows more about life than her over-intellectual husband, tricks the bodyguards with her nimble-wittedness, and is quite a match for Hoederer. She is the only one who sees through the men with all their high-handed rhetoric to ask the real questions, specifically; why does Hugo want to murder a man he respects and, by the end of the play, has come to love? Why? Fool!

Although it’s ostensibly a play about tough guy men politicking and conspiring, Jessica is – for me – the star of the show.

The movie

Despite being ‘the philosopher of the century’ it’s damn difficult to get hold of the movie versions of Sartre’s plays. The Respectful Prostitute seems impossible to track down in any shape or form. Here’s a print of the film version of Les Mains Sales, made in France in 1951. There are no sub-titles and the sound is out of synch for a lot of it, but it gives a stark sense of how stagey the story is. And how French.

Apparently, the French Communist Party were so angry about the play that they tried to organise a boycott of cinemas where the film was showing.


Credit

Les Main Sales by Jean-Paul Sartre was first performed in Paris in April 1948. This English translation – Dirty Hands by Lionel Abel – was published in the United States in 1949. All page references are to the 1989 Vintage paperback edition.

Reviews of other books by Jean-Paul Sartre

Real to Reel @ The Imperial War Museum

‘Every man thinks meanly of himself for not having been a soldier.’ (Dr Johnson)

This is a small but densely-packed, moving and very thought-provoking exhibition. It would only take a about a minute to walk straight through the half dozen or so small rooms, created using an interesting setting of metal warehouse shelving and wooden packing crates – maybe only 15 minutes or so to stroll past the display cases and the dozen or so screens giving the looped movie clips a cursory glance – but stopping to watch every clip and read all the display case labels took me an absorbing hour and 40 minutes, longer than I’ve spent at many art exhibitions, time enough to form all kinds of thoughts and impressions – about individual films, about war, about films as a medium for history.

The exhibition

The show opens with a welter of classic war movie posters – Lawrence of Arabia, Casablanca – and then about thirty display cases contain costumes and props, screenplays and set designs and storyboards, publicity stills, movie magazine articles and scale models of machines used in classic movies (a model of the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, and of the U-boat used in the German movie Das Boot).

The exhibition mostly features American and British movies. Of the 40 or so films referenced, there are none from France, Spain, Italy or Russia, all of which have or had pretty thriving film industries. The only non-Anglo country represented is Germany, with the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of The Will, the TV-epic-turned movie Das Boot, and Downfall, the harrowing account of Hitler’s last days in the Berlin bunker.

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Film still of Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead (2005). A pair of the Santa hats worn in the movie are on display. © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Francois Duhamel

Limitations

The exhibition’s sub-title is ‘A Century of War Movies’, which makes sense on one level, since ‘moving pictures’ were invented only a little over a century ago. But it is also taken to mean that the subject matter of the films themselves is limited to the last hundred years. Thus there are no movie representations of the countless wars from earlier in history – none of the Hollywood epics about ancient Rome (Cleopatra), the Greeks (The 300 Spartans, Troy), medieval wars (Henry VBraveheart), the Spanish conquest of America (The Royal Hunt of The Sun), the English Civil Wars (Cromwell), the Seven Years War (The Last of The Mohicans), the Napoleonic Wars (Waterloo, The Duellists), or the countless wars of the British Empire (The Four FeathersThe Charge of the Light BrigadeKhartoum, Zulu, Breaker Morant) let alone the Americans’ very own Civil War (Birth of a NationThe Red Badge of CourageGone With The Wind).

Even within its 20th century framework, there are surprising omissions – nothing about the Russian Revolution (Dr ZhivagoReds), the Spanish Civil War (For Whom The Bell Tolls, Land and Freedom), the Korean War (Hell In Korea, Pork Chop HillM*A*S*H), Algeria (Battle for Algiers), the many wars of independence in European colonies, or the bloody post-independence conflicts in places like Biafra, Bangladesh, Angola, Mozambique, and so on.

No, only Anglo wars feature – the Great War, the Second World War, the Vietnam War and, in the last decade or so, Iraq-Afghanistan (the one possible exception, Yann Demange’s 2014 movie about Northern Ireland, ’71, is still firmly from the Anglosphere).

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Colour storyboard artwork of the helicopter attack scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) © Courtesy of American Zoetrope

Clips

If you wait and watch every clip on every screen you will see excerpts from the following films (ones in bold are factual films):

  • Battle of the Somme (1916) Fascinating explanation of how the British government commission and distributed one of the first real depictions of warfare to bring home to the civilian population the reality of the trenches.
  • Triumph of the Will (1934) Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi masterpiece, which begs the fundamental question whether films always glamorise, no matter how evil their subject matter. (My answer is, Yes)
  • The Great Dictator (1940) Charlie Chaplin’s comic masterpiece, with production notes and stills, part of a larger section on the depiction of Hitler in films.
  • Dig for Victory (1941) Fascinating clip from an all-too-rare example of the British factual films produced during the war.
  • Hoch Der Lambeth Walk (1941) Short comedy setting Nazi goose-stepping troops to the popular Cockney tune.
  • Mrs Miniver (1942) Clip from the film’s moving patriotic climax.
  • Went The Day Well (1942) Scene where the vicar of a little English village stands up to the German invaders in Cavalcanti’s immensely moving British film, adapted from the Graham Greene short story.
  • Listen To Britain (1942) Fascinating depiction of Britain at war by the experimental documentary maker, Humphrey Jennings.
  • Donald Gets Drafted (1942) Comedy cartoon example of Disney supporting the war effort.
  • Victory Through Air Power (1943) An extended animated propaganda film from Disney – a display panel explains the surprising extent of the Disney studio’s involvement in war work.
  • The Cruel Sea (1953) A tearful Lieutenant Commander George Ericson (Jack Hawkins) remembers his decision to depth charge a German submarine, thus killing the British sailors in the sea above it.
  • The Colditz Story (1955) Pukka chaps plan escape, led by John Mills.
  • The Dam Busters (1955) Pukka chaps pull off a cunning stunt, led by Richard Todd.
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) the finale where the dying Alec Guinness falls on the detonator which blows up the bridge.
  • Paths of Glory (1957) A display case gives plenty of background to this early work by Stanley Kubrick, a powerful anti-war film based on the true case of a mutiny in the French army during the Great War.
  • Ice Cold In Alex (1958) Pukka chaps escape through the desert, led by John Mills.
  • Carve Her Name With Pride (1958) A big display case gives a thorough background to the heroic feats of Violette Szabo, who volunteered to work for the SOE in occupied France, until caught, tortured and executed.
  • Lawrence of Arabia (1962) Fascinating display case on how the Lawrence cult was carefully created by an American journalist.
  • The Longest Day (1962) All-star cast depiction of D-Day.
  • Hell In The Pacific (1968) One of the new breed of unglamorous anti-war films, starring Lee Marvin.
  • Oh! What A Lovely War (1969) Poster and clips from the archetypal anti-war film, satirising the First World War through music hall songs.
  • Hitler: The Last Ten Days (1973) Alec Guinness stars in what now seems a very dated, made-for-TV style.
  • Overlord (1975) an experimental black and white British film, which failed to get released in the States.
  • Das Boot (1981) The epic German TV series, edited down into a movie – a rare showing for a non-Anglo production. The show features one of the scale models of the German U-boat used in filming.
  • Full Metal Jacket (1987) Kubrick’s shiny Vietnam film, complete with predictable ‘shocking’ scenes.
  • Memphis Belle (1990) Happy ending for an all-star cast. The exhibition features one of the scale models of the Flying Fortress used in filming.
  • Schindler’s List (1993) Spielberg’s masterpiece. A display case shows the suit that Liam Neeson wears in the tear-jerking final scene.
  • Saving Private Ryan (1998) An extended sequence from the famous beach landing scene runs next to several display cases showing memorabilia from officers who landed that day, photos, maps, letters and uniforms, including from men who were killed in the landings.
  • Downfall (2005) Another rare non-Anglo production, with German actor Bruno Ganz giving a harrowing portrayal of the Fuhrer’s last days.
  • Atonement (2007) An extended display case includes production notes from the Dunkirk sequence of this love story gone wrong, and interview clips with the director and production designer which give insights into its creation.
  • The Hurt Locker (2008) The story of a US bomb disposal unit in Iraq. Clips and interview with the film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow.
  • Kajaki (2014) Clip and interviews with the film’s director, Paul Katis, and writer, Tom Williams.
  • ’71 (2014) British troops in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Clip and interview with the director, Yann Demange.
  • Eye In the Sky (2016) Clip of a drone targeting ‘terrorists’ in Kenya, and an interview with the director, Gavin Hood.

The extensive interviews with writers and directors of the more recent films gives the last parts of the exhibition the feel of a bumper edition of ‘Film 2016’, and the suspicion that we are learning more and more about films we care less and less about.

Costumes

The show features a strong V&Aish, costume & design element. In various display cases we get to see:

  • the dress and shoes Marlene Dietrich used for her USO shows she gave to American troops during WW2
  • the RAF jacket worn by David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death
  • as mentioned, the tailored suit worn by Liam Neeson in Schindler’s List
  • the costume uniform worn by Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan
  • the very robe given to Lawrence of Arabia by Emir Faisal
  • the costume uniform worn by the lead character in Warhorse
  • the cap and jacket worn by Clint Eastwood as Lieutenant Schaffer in Where Eagles Dare
  • the costume uniform worn by McAvoy in Atonement
  • the very helmet worn by the hero of Black Hawk Down
James McAvoy starring in Atonement - this uniform is on display © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

James McAvoy starring in Atonement (2007). This uniform is on display in the exhibition © Universal City Studios LLLP, photographed by Alex Bailey

Props

As well as the scale models of the U-boat used in Das Boot and the Flying Fortress used in Memphis Belle, there’s a cane chair from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca, the mandolin played by Nicholas Cage in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, and a reconstructed version of the Triumph motorbike ridden by Steve McQueen in The Great Escape!

There is a host of other memorabilia, such as the clapperboard used in Full Metal Jacket, Alec Guinness’s diary when filming Hitler: The Last Ten Days, a storyboard for the classic dogfight sequence in Battle of Britain, design sketches for the set of Dr Strangelove, production notes and models for Hope and Glory, a script for The Third Man, as well as publicity stills and movie magazine articles for numerous other war films, and much more in the same vein.

There’s even a genuine Hollywood Oscar – in case anybody doesn’t know what they look like.

Movie buff stuff

There’s a section about the wartime career of British actor David Niven, who dropped acting to serve in the RAF (though he found time to appear in several training films). He’s here mainly because of his starring role in the wonderful Powell and Pressburger film, A Matter of Life and Death (1946).

The background information about Marlene Dietrich i.e. her flight from Germany just before the war and the wholehearted way she threw herself into Allied propaganda efforts is very enlightening. Similarly, there is no clip of him but there’s a display case devoted to the wartime career of Clark Gable, at the peak of his career when the war began, having just starred in Gone With The Wind (itself, of course, a war film and, apparently, much enjoyed by Chancellor Hitler).

The section devoted to Lawrence of Arabia explains how his legend was fostered by an American journalist and broadcaster, Lowell Thomas, who shot footage of Lawrence in the desert and then went on tour with a show which included dancing girls and exotic props before a showing of the main film itself, which Thomas narrated. The film made Lawrence a household name (and Thomas lots of money). The exhibition explains all this with stills and a programme from the show.

There’s a moving section about Violette Szabo, a young shop girl from Brixton who volunteered to join the Special Operations Executive, was trained and then dropped into occupied France, where she performed several missions before being captured by the Germans, tortured and executed at Ravensbrück concentration camp – a true-life story which inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958).

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE in occupied France inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training, mission, then arrest and execution by the Nazis © IWM

Violette Szabo, whose undercover work for the SOE inspired the film Carve Her Name with Pride (1958). The show includes costume items worn by the star, Virginia McKenna, as well as historic documents about Szabo’s training and mission, including photos of her war hero husband and small daughter © IWM

Themes

The exhibition labels point out that war films provide an excellent vehicle for drama, for depictions of bravery, cowardice, love and passion etc.

Another label remarks that music provides an important element of war films, many war songs and themes going on to become patriotic and iconic tunes, or to be sung by soldiers in subsequent conflicts.

Another display comments that some war films were subject to censorship, citing Churchill’s exasperation at Powell and Pressburger’s classic Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943) which portrayed the British officer class as ageing buffoons and which he tried – but failed – to get suppressed.

The exhibition mentions questions and ideas like these, but it doesn’t really address or explore them, not in any depth. They tend to be overshadowed by the sheer brainless pleasure of movie-watching which, I’m the first to admit, I am also prone to. A discussion of wartime censorship? Look, here’s a chair from Rick’s Bar! Exploring the role of music in shaping emotional responses? Who cares, here’s Steve McQueen’s motorbike!!

It’s a little like putting a few sentences about cholesterol and heart disease into a massive exhibition about ice cream with forty free samples. And that, for me, is the problem with film. Although I enjoyed seeing so many clips from so many beloved old war movies, and finding out a wealth of movie trivia and behind-the-scenes stories about their making, I couldn’t suppress a growing feeling that – no matter how realistic, harrowing or moving – there is something inescapably shallow about film as a medium. In films, thought is always trumped by emotional manipulation.

The weakness of film

Films are shallow entertainment Films by their nature are intense but shallow. Customers pay to go into a darkened auditorium, where they stuff their faces with popcorn and Coca Cola, or to watch at home on a big Entertainment Centre while scoffing a Dominos pizza or takeaway curry. Films are crafted to be consumed in a deliberately infantilising and indulgent environment, designed to relax your rational mind and bring emotions to the surface. Who doesn’t cry when Humphrey Bogart makes his big speech at the end of Casablanca or when the survivors’ families get the letters that their loved ones have survived in In Which We Serve? But plenty of evil men have sent thousands to their deaths and then burst into tears at a Hollywood weepie. I always find it telling that both Hitler and Stalin were not just movie fans, they were massive movie fans, with their own private projection rooms in which they watched films again and again, and then shared their critical insights with their terrified associates. Being moved by a film doesn’t, ultimately, change anything.

Films are commercial products All Hollywood films are designed to make money. It may employ many craftsmen, and plenty of people who want to think of themselves as ‘artists’, but cinema is a commercial business. Many of the movies featured here are shameless blockbusters – from The Battle of Britain to Saving Private Ryan (which made a stunning $481.8 million worldwide in 1998, the highest-grossing US film of the year). They are products designed and honed, whatever the actual content, to make a profit.

Films use stereotyped plots, characters and gestures Film students are taught that their screenplays must have a structure in three acts. They have to have an inciting incident, a confrontation and resolution in a way that history, let alone real life, doesn’t.

As Virginia Woolf pointed out 100 years ago, movies don’t have much time to play with – generally between 1.5 and 3 hours – so they have to boil human behaviour, motivation and psychology down into stereotyped characters, plots and dialogue, all of which must be easy to grasp at one fleeting viewing. Each generation’s actors have used stylised gestures, attitudes and poses appropriate for their times. (Because I don’t like modern films, I particularly dislike the non-stop shouting which passes for acting with most modern American actors. One way to view the clips on show here is to note the way the amount of shouting and swearing steadily increases from the restrained 1940s through to the ‘fuck you asshole’ Noughties.)

Films are vehicles for films stars Then there is the simple fact that movies are vehicles for movie stars. Right from the start a star-struck audience has gone ga-ga for gossip about Errol and Clark and Bette and Jean – nowadays, about Leonardo and Brad and Angelina and Scarlett. The studio ‘system’ of the 1930s and 40s was a machine to find profitable vehicles for bankable stars. Though the situation is more complex nowadays, it’s still about money, the money which buys the stars which drive the promotion and publicity machine. ‘Tom Hanks as you’ve never seen him before’, ‘Leonardo gives the performance of his career’, etc etc in thousands of variations.

The exhibition brings out the fashion in the 1960s and 1970s to cram as many stars into a movie as possible – creating an ‘all-star cast’ – to try and ensure profitability: think of The Great Escape (1963), Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), A Bridge Too Far (1977).

Cartoon characters War films up to about 1970 featured generally clean-cut heroes – classic movie stars from the 40s and 50s like Clark Gable (b.1901), Gary Cooper (b.1901), John Wayne (b.1907) David Niven (b.1910) and Gregory Peck (b.1916), John Mills (b.1908), Jack Hawkins (b.1910) and Kenneth More (b.1914). These were followed by the generation of movie stars I grew up watching in the 1960s – Richard Burton (b.1925), Clint Eastwood (b.1930), Steve McQueen (b.1930), Peter O’Toole (b.1932), Michael Caine (b.1933), David McCallum (b.1933). So many times, watching these clips, you realise it’s the star, the lines they’re given, the scenes they’re placed in, the way they’re made up, lit and filmed, which give the viewer deep pleasure.

The 1960s was a transition decade in so many ways but watching the war movies you realise they had a distinctive style of Swinging ’60s heroism – 633 Squadron (1964) or The Battle of Britain (1969), The Heroes of Telemark (1965) or Where Eagles Dare (1968). The ‘characters’ in films like this are really animated versions of schoolboy comics, like the ‘Commando Action Comics’ which I devoured as a kid, target audience – 10-year-old boys. The 1960s movies in particular are somehow not really serious. The Great Escape is more memorable for its comic than its ‘tragic’ moments – and although 50 Allied officers are murdered by the Nazis at the conclusion, the very end of the film features the imperishably supercool Steve McQueen returning to his solitary cell in undimmed triumph.

Cool, stylish, glamorous, ironic, smiling – unreal.

Since Private Ryan

A lot of war films from the 1970s and 80s are just too bad to be included (think Escape To Victory) so that this is the most under-represented period in the exhibition.

This is odd because the late ’70s saw a rash of major films about Vietnam which brought a new brutality and cynicism to the genre, led by The Deer Hunter (1978) and Apocalypse Now (1979). A later wave of Vietnam films try but, in my opinion, fail to capture the shocking freshness of those 70s Vietnam movies – Stanley Kubrick’s over-studied Full Metal Jacket (1987), Oliver Stone’s over-schematic Platoon (1987) and unwieldy Born on the Fourth of July (1989), let alone the eccentric Good Morning Vietnam (1987). By this stage we all knew that war is hell and that US Marine training sergeants can be really mean.

Jacket and Platoon are referenced in the exhibition, but the general under-representation of war films from the 70s and 80s makes something else all the more obvious – which is the decisive change in tone and style which came over war films after the epoch-making Saving Private Ryan was released in 1998.

That film’s extended sequence of American troops landing on Omaha Beach (shown here on the only really big screen in the exhibition, so that you can sit and watch it with the sound on headphones) was a game changer. It pioneered new computer-generated special effects to give the viewer a much more visceral sense of the devastating impact of bullets and ordinance on the human body. All war films since Ryan have had to match its hyper-realism, so that cinema goers now see soldiers being eviscerated, dismembered, punctured and disintegrated in unprecedented detail.

Think of the scene in the cave in Clint Eastwood’s Letters From Iwo Jima (2006, not included here) which unflinchingly shows a group of Japanese soldiers committing harakiri with grenades, leaving them with half-removed faces and handless stumps of arms spouting arterial blood. Yuk.

This body-parts-in-your-face style is apparent in all the subsequent works in the genre. Similarly, the harrowing scene in Saving Private Ryan where the troop’s medic, Private Irwin Wade, takes a long time to bleed to death from a stomach wound which his comrades are unable to staunch, has also been replicated in the post-1998 depiction of war wounds, which are much more unflinchingly realistic.

Whether this anatomical hyper-realism which has been mandatory for all war films since Ryan has elevated any of them as ‘works of art’ is an open question, but it’s certainly the style of our time, the set of conventions – of gesture and sound and special effects – which we all take to be ‘true’ – at any rate, until the next stylistic revolution comes along…

Factual films

Seeing all these clips from classic movies is without doubt entertaining and the movie trivia in the display cases is often very interesting and informative. But it’s a shame that, in among all the Hollywood and Pinewood glamour, there isn’t more of an investigation of wartime factual films. There are some:

Nazi propaganda films On the Nazi side there is a clip from Leni Riefenstahl’s classic propaganda piece, Triumph of the Will, a stunningly directed Modernist masterpiece celebrating the Nazis’ Nuremberg rally of 1934. The Nazis’ masterful use of propaganda films like this, and the steady output of Nazi-controlled film studios during the war, are a huge and fascinating topic, something I’d love to know more about – with relevant clips demonstrating Goebbels’ personal intervention in scripts and direction to bring out their Aryan values – but it was only referenced with this one clip and few panels about Triumph.

British propaganda films Presumably the Imperial War Museum owns a significant archive of British newsreel and propaganda films from the war. In fact the show opens with several clips from the information film about the Battle of the Somme which was commissioned by the War Office in 1916, and shown widely in cinemas throughout Britain to publicise the reality of the trenches. I was hoping there’d be much more like this explaining how governments used the new medium to promote or justify their wars.

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

Staged scene from The Battle of the Somme film (1916) © IWM

But, disappointingly, there were clips from only three other British factual war films in the exhibition. Obviously the tone, the subject matter and treatment, the look and duration of these films is completely different from the commercial products, and a world away from airbrushed Hollywood.

Maybe one comedy short was enough, but I’d like to have learned much more about the relationship between government-sponsored films and shorts and the output of commercial news organisations like Pathe. This is a vast subject only fleetingly touched on.

US propaganda films A nearby case was devoted to the wartime output of the Disney studios. I’m not surprised that Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck were dragooned into short comedy films about the silly side of becoming a soldier…

but it was fascinating to learn that the Disney studio also made some 170 factual information films during the war. And that it produced a feature-length animation, Victory Through Air Power, from which we see a powerful clip.

Either of these three – Nazi, British or American propaganda films – treated in depth, would make for a fascinating exhibition in their own right, and one well suited to the IMW’s archives and experts. Having them in the show gave us a sense of what we were missing, and tended to highlight the glossy shallowness of the commercial movies.

Conclusion

Shatteringly realistic, brutal and bloody though many are, commercial movies are not real and are of only limited use in understanding the past. The past wasn’t like this. All that films show us is what films from the past were like -subject to all the limitations of their era, to its visual styles and technical capacity, audience expectations and fashions. They offer insights into their times, not the times they depict and even then, severely hampered by commercial concerns.

Above all films are hamstrung by the fundamental requirement to give emotional closure: with a rousing comic ending (Kelly’s Heroes), an uplifting finale looking to a better future (like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), or as a hard-bitten meditation on the futility of war (any war movie of the past 20 years).

The narrative limitations, the psychological stereotyping, the simplification of the complex, the lack of time or space to explain anything in depth, all of these make movies the complete opposite of books. A history book, of course, also has a structure and an ending – but it will also be packed with references, notes and bibliography which encourage further exploration and further understanding, which move you forward and deeper, and will present you with conflicting points of view and opinions which you have to exercise judgement about. And books require mental alertness and mental effort – precisely the opposite of films.

Movies shut down the mind. Books open the mind.

This is a very enjoyable, stimulating, and thought-provoking exhibition. These are the thoughts it provoked in me, but I’m sure every visitor will take away something different.


Related links

  • Real to Reel continues at the Imperial War Museum until 8 January 2017

Reviews of other Imperial War Museum exhibitions

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