Friday, August 8, 2014

Lewis Milestone | The North Star

no longer young


Lillian Hellman (story and screenplay, with added dialogue by Burt Beck), Lewis Milestone (director) The North Star (revised as Armored Attack!) / 1943


Lewis Milestone’s 1943 movie The North Star has got to be one of the strangest films in all of Hollywood. The project began with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s suggestion to film producer Samuel Goldwyn that he do a film about America’s Russian ally, particularly given the recent attacks on the Soviet Union by the Nazis.. Not so coincidentally, Roosevelt’s son, James, was then president of Goldwyn studios.

     Whether or not James helped put further pressure on Goldwyn is uncertain, but it is apparent that Goldwyn himself was very keen on the idea, hiring Lillian Hellman to write a story that might possibly be filmed as a kind of documentary. Hellman particularly wanted to focus the work on Ukraine, a choice that seems somewhat odd given the fact that in 1941 Ukrainian nationalists, with the Soviets retreating from the Ukraine in preparation for battles, declared independence—a struggle that had been simmering since the Russian takeover of the country. The independence group (OUN), centered in Lviv, however, sided with the Socialist Nationalist government of Germany under Hitler, which startled even the Germans, who when they attacked Russia and Ukraine arrested most of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, sending many to the concentration camp Sachsenhausen, ultimately killing 80% of their members. Hitler himself ordered that troops be particularly brutal with women and children involved with the OUN group.

      Although Hellman had never been to Ukraine, she based much of her story and script on experiences she had had in her previous trip to Russia, where she had visited a collective farm. She apparently researched extensively.

      Goldwyn, meanwhile, hired the experienced director of All Quiet on the Western Front, Lewis Milestone, who, along with the studio, signed a notable group of actors, including Dana Andrews, Walter Huston, Walter Brennan, Ann Harding, Jane Withers, Anne Baxter, Dean Jagger, Erich von Stroheim, and Farley Granger (in his first screen role).

      On top of that the studio signed the great American composer Aaron Copland and noted lyricist Ira Gershwin to write music and lyrics for the film.

      Finally, noted cinematographer James Wong Howe was brought aboard.     The very fact that Milestone-Goldwyn had brought in such major musicians might have given Hellman some idea that the serious document she was writing was at odds with the way the studio perceived the project. But evidently Hellman had no idea just how far apart was her vision of the film from Milestone’s. Once shooting began, Hellman began battling with both producer and director as they entirely restructured her script and, as she correctly puts it, “turned the village festival into an extended opera bouffe by music comedy characters.” As Phil Karlson notes in World Film Directors, at one point during the peasant festivities it appears that “the entire Bolshoi Ballet…has dropped by for an impromptu workout.” The lighthearted ridiculousness of the songs, particularly the Broadway-like lyrics, doesn’t help. And the entire first half of The North Star is filmed against a seemingly idyllic village as if John Ford’s expressionist Bohemian village of his silent film Four Sons had been dropped upon the set of Brigadoon.

      In fact, in its uses of sunflowers, rows of corn, and swelling hills, the set of The North Star is somewhat closer to Ukraine perhaps than Hellman’s imagined Russian steppes. But the whole is as many critics of the day, and many more since are argued, is pure hokum. The very idea of using the character-actor Walter Brennan as a comrade pig-farmer who becomes a freedom-fighter brings on the giggles.

     Certainly it not surprising that at one point early in the filming Hellman burst into tears, and later bought her contract back from Goldwyn, refusing to do more films with him. if one can close one eyes a bit, overlooking the silly and quite sentimental first “act” of the film—accepting it for its establishment of a kind of rural paradise about to be destroyed—the film that follows is often quite remarkable. Milestone, as he made clear in other films, was never one to wash over the terrors of war, and in this work he portrays the Nazis not only as brutal conquerors, who break a leg and arm of an elderly woman simply for being the wife of an escaped freedom fighter and who vampirishly bleed the village children to death in their attempts to operate on their own soldiers, but as beings who blithely shoot down everyone their planes encounter, wandering children and adult workers equally. Erich von Stroheim is particularly convincing as the German surgeon (Dr. von Harden) who dismisses those around him as being incompetent beasts, while he  justifies his murderous actions.

     Even Brennan, in one of his least overacted roles, becomes quite convincing, as does Huston as the elderly Dr. Kurin, who leads his fellow villagers to oust and kill the Germans.    

 The fascinating quartet of the younger generation, Kolya and Damian Simonov (Dana Andrews and Farley Granger), Marina Pavlov (Anne Baxter) and the somewhat comic and yet quite enduring Clavida Kurin (Jane Withers) begin the movie as school kids on their way to the big city, Kiev. But very soon encountering the Nazi planes, they admit that they are no longer young as they grow quickly into heroes in the struggle to bring guns to the freedom fighters hiding in the forest.

     Several scenes—the villagers attempts to torch their own homes filled with their personal belongings, the intense gun battles between the youths and German caravans, and the final battle between the returned freedom fighters and the entrenched Nazi troops—represent the best of war and adventure cinema genres, with Milestone often showing the scene from one perspective only to immediately follow it up from another, so that the audience feels it has a kind of early panoramic vision of the action, creating not only great tension but revealing an intense horror of war that kills its victims not once, but twice.

      If the film seems to begin, accordingly, on a slightly loopy soundstage full of eccentric village simpletons, it ends as a quite serious exploration of just how much people are willing to give up in order to keep, within, a tiny possibility of hope for a new existence and the will to create a new society.

      Although William Randolph Hearst insisted that his reviewers describe it simply as “UNADULITERATED SOVIET PROPAGANDA” (when a positive review slipped out in his New York Journal-American, Hearst pulled it by the next edition), other critics reviewed it credibly, and the film received six Academy Award nominations.   

      Over time, however, critics seem to have ignored any of the positive qualities I have just enumerated. In part it was the times itself that changed notions surrounding the film. Over the next decade, US viewers lost any sense of differentiation between Russia and Ukraine, and, particularly during the 1950’s McCarthy witch-hunts the director, writer, producer and actors were forced to face the House Committee on Un-American Activities (the film have been labele as being one of three supposedly “Commie”-supporting films, the other two being Mission to Moscow and Song of Russia). Particularly after the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, everyone involved was forced to back away from the original. In 1957 the film was severely edited, with long anti-Communist statements added, and released as Armored Attack! Strangely, today, at least to my taste, the remake—sans the silly idyll of collectivist living—seems to be more propagandistic than the original, and, in some vague sense, has more in common with the films of Dovzhenko than with other American portrayals of war-time survival.


Los Angeles, August 7, 2014

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