The Armchair View of War and Disability
Rick Atkinson’s third volume carries out the plan of his trilogy. However much he gives the reader some shattering images of combat and leaves the reader with the boom of guns and the explosion of limbs and torsos, the recently published The Guns at Last Light is a top down history. It is primarily about the give and take between the generals in their strategic thinking and how events altered or did not alter their understanding of what it would take to win a battle or the war. Monty and Ike did not get along and a reader comes to think that Ike Okayed “Market Garden”, Monty’s airborne thrust at Arnhem, in the Netherlands, because that would stop the badgering. The plan did not have much to recommend it militarily. Its goals were to stop the V-2 rockets and to open Antwerp, but it underestimated the size of the German presence in the area and presumed that a narrow line of attack could be sustained because the German Army was a beaten army.
What Atkinson shows in this book, as he does in the first two volumes of his Liberation series, is that the war in Europe was a war of attrition rather than the result of superior tactics or generalship. It didn’t much matter which strategy the Allies followed: attacking through Italy, or heading East or North once the Normandy beachhead had been solidified. There was no strategic plan that would end the war quickly. The only way to get Germany to surrender was to kill off or capture all of their soldiers and take over all of their land, at the center of which was their capital, Berlin, which held out in organized fashion until the very end. That is the way it is with all grand wars in the modern era: the American Civil War, the First World War (which ended with a truce that did not keep the German government, and not just the regime in power, from collapsing). A nation will fight to the last when it thinks that defeat would be the end of the world. Americans would have done the same if the Soviets had invaded the United States. Casualties in subsequent wars, from Korea through Afghanistan, were far less because we made a truce or left when it was clear that we had lost.
The casualties of grand wars are appalling and that turns one’s mind to how a culture going through such a time thought of coping with it, of rendering it so as to provide an audience with some satisfaction at the end of an aesthetic encounter, rather than the misery that comes from simply contemplating the carnage. The Germans in the last days of World War II made movies to uphold a stoic resolve and post-Vietnam American movies showed the derangement of the personal lives of veterans or recruits. Even Apocalypse Now dealt with the personal ravage, however wonderful it also was at dealing with the different military situations, from river warfare to plantation warfare to helicopter sweeps of villages, which were the substance of battle. Plans for battle and execution of those plans had, on the other hand, been the mainstay of World War II movies made during and after the war. You learned how submarines and airplanes worked and how cryptography and gutsy decisions won the Battle of Midway.
The Enchanted Cottage is a movie that was made in 1945 and which I saw for the first time this past Memorial Day Weekend on TCM, that marvelous outlet which allows me to see, among other things, a Harold Lloyd Festival. It dealt with a different issue, which was how to deal with those impaired by battle, and was an early one of the movies that were part of this important subgenre of war movies. The movie brought to mind these thoughts about how a population is given an avenue for finding meaning in all that horror
Certain matters of the movie, mind you, have to be put aside. Dorothy McGuire plays somebody so plain that no man at a USO type dance will approach her. She is destined for spinsterhood. That is not very plausible given the actress’s voice and cheekbones and eyes. No one would pass by Dorothy McGuire even if she is backlit and hunches over and has allowed her hair to go straggly. And the young Robert Young is not so disfigured as to present a shock to anyone who sees him, much less his fiancé from before the war. Men much more severely wounded are trotted out at the Memorial Day ceremonies at the Mall in Washington D.C. The Young character has simply lost the use of one arm and has some scar tissue around his eyes, but the movie prepares you to see him as badly disfigured just as it prepares you to see McGuire as ugly, and so the audience can accept that they are disfigured enough to make you imagine they are really disgusting, just as the audience is prepared to see the characters transformed in one another’s eyes into being the beautiful people the actors are.
The major impediment to the adjustment of disfigured people to the world, according to the movie, is that people feel sorry for them even if they do not reject them outright. The fiancé was ready to do her duty and be brave for her intended. His parents wanted to get him a nurse and promised to visit. Pity runs thick and he will have none of it and the thing that distinguishes the ugly girl is that she does not have to overcome loathing his looks.
There is a bit of a Jane Austen turn here. The screenwriter remembered the scene where Darcy proposes to Elizabeth Bennett the first time. Darcy is very condescending and acts as if he is doing her a favor, having been overcome by his passions. It is only much later that Darcy returns to the issue, remembering that proposal with embarrassment, and this time asks to be reconsidered by her as an equal. The screenwriter of The Enchanted Cottage collapses that into a single short scene. The boy asks the girl to marry him because he needs someone and she rejects him because a girl wants to think that the boy who proposes loves her. A few lines later she accepts because he has apologized for having muffed the approach. That is a way of saying that words may contain barbs but they do not contain truths, while Jane Austen’s lines always do portray both the truth of the situation and the truth of the characters.
The major theme of The Enchanted Cottage is that people are transformed by their love for one another or by their good character into being socially acceptable people. They will brave the looks of others, the final image of the movie suggests, because in one another’s eyes they are well worth being looked at. That is very different from saying that blind people just accept their fate or that the mothers of Down’s syndrome children get over being stared at because from the inside this is now a normal life. But it is a way to imagine and so let an audience live with the ways some soldiers have been disfigured by war. It all just goes away; there is a process of healing and so a way to be at peace with oneself.
The Enchanted Cottage provides other ways of imagining a satisfying ending of a story of war injuries so that there is an explanation for or at least a reason to become resigned to the suffering of war. One of these is to turn the story into a saga, an extension of the story of the First World War, which had already occupied the imagination for a generation of Americans, movie goers and non-movie goers both. The new younger generation had to relive the experience of its father’s generation. In The Enchanted Cottage, the protagonist’s father had been killed in the First World War and his step father had served in it, and the housekeeper of the cottage had lost a young husband to the war and had never adjusted to it, could never go beyond her memories. A pianist who had been blinded in the war shows how well an adjustment to disability can be made and serves as a confidante to the Robert Young character. And so the suffering of this generation is just an inheritance, as if one knew that a certain portion of the young would die and be crippled by an inherited disease and the best thing that could be done is to go on with life as best one can, knowing what fate held in store for some. There is no claim, this time, that the Second World War is the war that will end all wars. The scythe comes through a generation before and takes its toll again this soon. That is not to forecast endless wars, only that this generation is “fortunate” enough to have survivors from the last one to tell them how to manage their lives.
That is the story telling strategy favored by many of the movies made during the Second World War. It is there in Random Harvest, where a World War I veteran is an amnesiac who does not remember the woman he loved when he wandered out of a mental ward and so hires her as a secretary only to become aware of her again as the woman he loved when the sirens of World War II blare through the night. Then there is The White Cliffs of Dover, where Irene Dunne is a World War I American who has become the widow of her British husband and decides to settle in England in her father in law’s house, only to have to be brave enough to see her only son, born after his father was killed, sent off to die at Dieppe. All very melodramatic tear-jerkers, they convey poignancy, inevitability, deep maternal love, and all the other sorrows of civilian life shattered by loss rather than by air raids.
And there is the much underappreciated Orson Welles vehicle, Tomorrow is Forever, from slightly after the war, 1946, that tells of a man crippled by the war who returns as a refugee chemist from Nazi Germany and there comes a time when he comforts his now remarried wife that her child, also his child, now grown to manhood, is also to be emotionally set free to go to war. Movie actors are always playing tricks on the audience by superimposing their persons on a role and visa versa. A limp and a beard do not do much to disguise Welles’ charm and his distinctive voice, and the audience knows he is Orson Welles, no mistaking that, though the Greer Garson character in the movie pretends only to suspect that he is her lost husband.
That is not very plausible and only becomes so if you leave sexual consummation out of it. The Seventeenth Century Frenchman Martin Guerre, at least according to the film version of his life, was known to his wife as a man who was not the absent husband returned to her but an imposter. It took one night together to tell her that. But the English and the American movies of the Thirties and Forties did not do that aspect of life very well, with the sole exception, as best I remember, of Scarlett O’Hara stretching with satisfaction the morning after having been reunited with Rhett.
To turn wars into fodder for poignancy and romance is certainly to indulge a desire to flee from the horrors of war, not to see it straight. But, then again, the same deflection occurs even with “true” histories of the sort provided by Rick Atkinson. Readers can look forward to reading about the disposition of the forces that will fight in the next battle, and what goes wrong and right on the attack and the defense. There are always surprises and there are always endings that let a reader turn the page to the next battle. After all, the boom of the guns is only in one’s head as one sits in an armchair. These people have not really been awakened from the dead; only their time and the memory of them has been reignited, and so one is safe to contemplate their fate and let one’s own emotions guide how safe it is to identify a little more with what is going on in the text.
Some writers and screenwriters take that dispensation of the reader or audience to play with their fictive experience even a bit further so as to make war understandable even if still not very palatable. They liberate the imagination to come up with magical or preposterous solutions so that people can become reconciled to their losses, as if doing so restores the world to being a just and place. That happens in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life and Death, also of 1946, where a wounded British pilot has to argue in a heavenly court for his life on the grounds that he was taken before his time. If he wins the trial, he will come out of a coma. In this loopy and not very well organized narrative, the pilot gets an American Revolution era judge because his girl friend is an American and there is still hostility between the Brits and the Americans, which was something of a joke about the past because there was indeed friction between British and American soldiers. The premise is that the next world can interfere with this world in a very post-theological way so that lovers can be restored to one another. What a way to deal with a war.
The Enchanted Cottage shares that dispensation. The Great War widow plays something of a witch and the piano player says, deadpan, that he can see what sighted people cannot, as if he was out of Sophocles, the screenwriters up on their ancients as well as the moderns. The protagonists talk to one another candidly when they are within the confines of their enchanted cottage and so can become lovely to one another. Love is another name for the magic that can render anything different.
The year 1946, mind you, was also the year of The Best Years of Our Lives, a very commercial Hollywood hit that was grippingly realistic in its portrayals of a war bride in it for the consignment checks, a bomber pilot reduced to his old job as a soda jerk, a banker hemmed in from providing loans to worthy veterans and, most of all, Howard Russell playing himself, a man who had hooks to replace the arms he had lost in battle. One of the many touching moments is when Russell, the character rather than the actor, reveals to his girl friend just how helpless he is. When she helps him take off his hooks every evening, he tells her, he will be helpless until the next morning when she will help him “re-man” himself. James Agee thought badly of the movie because it made men into babies and that this was not the way to portray romance. But the idea that the movie got across was that the private lives and not just the public lives of this couple would be affected by his disability. They would have to be a bit creative in their love life. The same point is made again just a few years later in The Men where Teresa Wright is frightened at having to deal on her wedding night with a paraplegic Marlon Brando who will experience random tremors in his shriveled legs. That is how quickly the movies learned to adopt a new more practical tone to dealing with the disabilities and disfigurements of war, but that was not the case only a year before The Best Years of Our Lives when The Enchanted Cottage, which was made when the war was still going on, had to find some way out of the carnage, however fey and platitude filled that might be.