Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Blindspot - "Best Years Of Our Lives" and "Ashes And Diamonds"

Though I was correct in assuming that an American viewpoint on post World War II would be, shall we say, slightly different than one from Poland, I was wrong in how I expected each film to handle the framework of their viewpoints. Best Years Of Our Lives (the 1946 film from William Wyler) takes the approach of covering personal individual stories to try to give a wider perspective of the variety of issues soldiers might encounter upon their re-integration into North American society. It does it with the expected melodramatic flair, but also manages to keep things reigned in enough to retain some actual emotional connection to the characters and enough engagement in their stories to keep things entertaining throughout the long 2 and a half hour run time (one of my main reasons for holding off on seeing this Hollywood classic). Meanwhile, the Polish Ashes And Diamonds (shot 12 years after Best Years in the late 50s) focuses less on the individual ramifications of having been at war and more on the direct impact to its society and culture - not to mention the continuing struggle its people faced in a post-war political landscape. But again it surprised by keeping the story very localized to a hotel bar and through the eyes of only a few characters during a single day.

Wyler's film tracks the return home of three different soldiers trying to restart their lives after they were put on hold at different times: Air Force Captain Fred Derry is newly married (less than a month with his new bride before shipping off); Army Corporal Al Stephenson has two older children, a long term marriage (with the always gorgeous Myrna Loy - talk about a reason to get back home) and a high ranking job at the bank; Sailor Homer Parrish returns to his family and the girl next door. The three men meet at the airport and share a ride back home in the gun turret section of a bomber. They quickly bond since they all come from the same city and vow to keep in touch after getting home. As the single cab drops each successive one off at their homes, the film sets itself up to be over the top melodrama and a top shelf weepy (I gauged it at half a box of Kleenex at least). Homer's house is first, but he's reluctant - he lost both his hands in the war and fears that he will be treated differently even though he can handle himself just fine. His girl welcomes him with open arms, but his parents can't hide their sadness and desperately try not to call attention to the hooks at the ends of his arms. Al finds it hard to reconnect with his now grown up kids, his wife and a position back at the bank, and so he takes to drinking. Fred finds it hard to get work and falls back to being a soda jerk at the pharmacy while realizing that his new wife may not be the woman of his dreams after all.

There's certainly some unnecessary swelling music at times, but it rarely begs for emotion like I half expected it to. Similarly Ashes And Diamonds also keeps the overt emotional scenes mostly at bay. In its case, though, it feels like the citizens are just so worn out from constant conflict that they just don't have any strength left to show much of anything. The film is set on May 8th 1945 (the day of Germany's surrender) as a political struggle for independence rages and a possible civil war looms. "The end of the war isn't the end of our fight" says a member of the Home Army as he waits to ambush a local district's Secretary named Szczuka outside a church. He and his partner wish for the old days of Warsaw and, as part of the resistance to the government, are trying to chip away at the new Communist rulers. Unfortunately, they end up killing the wrong men and only realize this later on back at the hotel. They now must wait for their chance to kill Szczuka after a banquet for the mayor. Maciek, the younger of the two men, spends most of his time flirting with the gorgeous, poker-faced young bartender Krystyna while his older superior is all business. They both assumed that they were fighting for Poland's freedom during the war, but now they question whether the results (ie. Communist leadership) are worth what they went through. On the last day of the war, a new skirmish within the borders of their own country is about to begin. People who fought side by side are now ready to fight against each other.

Filmed during "The Thaw" in Poland (a period when the communist government became a bit more lax in some of its social policies), Andrzej Wajda was able to flex some more "poetic" muscles throughout Ashes And Diamonds instead of the previously mandated "realism". A gunned down man bursts into flames, a row of vodka shots are set aflame to look like candles in a church and a drunken walk across a banquet table with a fire extinguisher are just a few of the images that are left with you long after the film has ended. The images tie together the upending of religion in the country with the confusion of national identity - even within the ranks of the 3 main Home Army sympathizers, we get a clash of views. One is a soldier fully dedicated to the cause, another an opportunist who will help the cause in order to help himself and the third (Maciek - played by the "Polish James Dean" Zbigniew Cybulski) begins to get conflicted as he spends more time with Krystyna and actually envisions a life with her outside of political struggle. Things become even more difficult for Maciek as he meets Szczuka and they quickly develop somewhat of a father/son relationship. In Best Years Of Our Lives, Fred (Dana Andrews) and Al (the great Fredric March) also become close - but their father/son bond becomes complicated when Fred falls for Al's daughter Peggy. The film particularly shines in a scene where Al and Fred meet at their favourite bar and try to talk through the issue of Fred being interested in Peggy while also being a married man. It's a conversation that feels real - each man listening to the other and pulling their thoughts together. Though the film loses sight of Homer's story (his treatment as a cripple by his parents is heartrending at times) and even Al's (Myrna Loy gets pushed off to the side a bit) to focus on Fred and Peggy, there are enough fully-realized moments and actual issues raised that the story never felt contrived or sentimental. Much of the film must have felt somewhat shocking to a 1946 audience. Harold Russell (who played Homer) was an actual double amputee, so his portrayal of the difficulties of re-entering society on your own terms (and not those which society wants to put on you) was more than just "realistic".

Both of these WWII films share what feels like an honest view of how it feels to come out on the other side of a war - from a nationalistic point of view as well as a personal one. Best Years Of Our Lives provides a great deal more hope in its conclusion than Wajda's film, but they both show that a great deal of effort must be put into finding those diamonds within the ashes of a war-torn society.

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