An unusual film, Emperor is an independent US-Japanese co-production with an ambiguous title. The narrative focuses on the dilemma presented to the Allied Occupation forces in late August 1945 concerning the Japanese Emperor Hirohito. Should he be tried as a war criminal (and possibly executed) or be allowed to remain as Head of State with restricted powers? The ambiguity is that the decision ultimately rested with General Douglas MacArthur who as SCAP (Supreme Commander of Allied Powers) was the effective ‘Emperor’ of Japan from the moment of Japanese surrender in August 1945 up to the establishment of the new democratic Japan in 1947. In fact he remained the most powerful figure up until 1951 when he was replaced as SCAP by General Matthew Ridgway before the formal end of the Occupation in 1952. The film shows MacArthur, played by Tommy Lee Jones, as a quasi-imperial figure, very alive to his media presence. I realised, watching the film, that my knowledge of MacArthur’s ideas and actions at this time were limited even though I had studied the Japanese social situation under Occupation. The situation in Japan in 1945 was different to that in Germany because the American had virtually complete control with only a minor role for British and Commonwealth forces. In Germany there were four Allied powers each controlling a different sector of the occupied country.
The script for Emperor, written by Vera Blasi and David Klass and based on the book His Majesty’s Salvation by Okamoto Shiro, was directed by the British filmmaker Peter Webber. It builds the action around another historical character, General Bonner Fellers (Matthew Fox), a ‘psychological warfare/intelligence’ officer who is charged by MacArthur with finding the evidence to either indict or exonerate Hirohito. For the purposes of the narrative, MacArthur gives Fellers a strict 10 day deadline. In reality it took rather several months. This is a film which constructs its narrative around real historical events and real historical characters. It also attempts to present its story against an authentic background of a devastated Tokyo. As such it provided a field day for historians, both amateur and professionals. If you check out the reviews on the usual sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, you will probably get the impression that the film was both a box office and critical flop with little to recommend it. But dig a little deeper and quite a few critics and audiences liked the film. I think it is certainly worth exploring and pointing out some of the misunderstandings by prominent critics and some audiences.
The most impressive aspects of the film for me are the sets and location ‘dressings’. All but two days shooting were carried out in New Zealand and you can find the whole story of the shoot on the New Zealand Film Commission website. The key to this aspect of the production is perhaps the producer role of Narahashi Yôko who was an associate producer on The Last Samurai (US-New Zealand-Japan 2003), which also used New Zealand locations extensively. The most problematic aspect of the script for critics appears to be the ‘tacked on’ romance narrative which sees Fellers attempting to discover what has happened to the young woman he met as an exchange student in the US and who he eventually tracked down in Japan before the Pacific War began. As I understand it, the ‘real’ Fellers did once meet a Japanese exchange student in the US but he married an American and although he did visit Japan in the 1930s, the ‘romance’ element of his time in Autumn 1945 is fictitious. Why then add the romance – is it simply a cliché in a Hollywood film? I think not. Its purpose is to engage Fellers in a ‘human story’, which is arguably also the case for another narrative strand that involves Takahashi, the interpreter assigned to Fellers. Fellers speaks some Japanese fairly fluently but the importance of his mission means that an interpreter is essential. The romance narrative also allows flashbacks to Fellers’ earlier visits to Japan, including a meeting with the young woman’s uncle who is a Japanese General.
The young woman is Shimada Aya (Hatsune Eriko) and her function is really to ‘humanise’ Fellers in the context of his mission and to facilitate his contacts with various Japanese civil servants and politicians. This is achieved partly through the meeting with General Kajima who is still in his rural villa in 1945. Kajima also serves to explain to the audience (Fellers should know this already) why and how Japanese culture means that the conduct of the war and the attitudes towards Hirohito are so different to how most Americans understand them.
It occurs to me that Emperor has something in common with Gurinder Chadha’s film Viceroy’s House (UK-India-Sweden-US 2017) in which the historical figure is Lord Mountbatten as the Viceroy who must deliver the Partition of India and which features a romance between two young lovers from different religions in the Punjab, one of the territories subject to most anguish in the Partition. I think there is no easy answer to the question of how to make a commercial, popular, film about such momentous events without in some way fictionalising the narrative. If it helps wider audiences to engage with the general narrative and to understand something about the history, I think it can serve a useful purpose. Such films don’t necessarily ‘distort’ history since the important factual elements are included.
What disappointed me in this film was that it presents two American characters who each deserve more screen time. General Douglas MacArthur is an important and controversial figure in modern American history who took his role in Japan very seriously and believed it would lead him to a potential nomination for the US Presidency. Both President Harry S. Truman and his Republican successor in 1952 feared MacArthur’s growing power base and he was sacked as SCAP during the Korean War. There are American films about MacArthur that tell his story in more detail. The best known of these is the biopic MacArthur starring Gregory Peck in 1977. Tommy Lee Jones is matched against this portrayal and marked down by several critics and audience members. I haven’t seen the 1977 film so I can’t comment, but MacArthur isn’t the real subject of the Emperor narrative. It is aspects of Fellers’ character that are more relevant.
It is hinted at, but not really developed in the film, that one of the factors influencing both Fellers and MacArthur is fear that any unrest in Japan could provoke a Soviet invasion. In fact Soviet troops did invade the Kiril Islands off the North East tip of Hokkaido, following re-possession of the whole of Sakhalin Island. MacArthur seems to have taken a fairly pragmatic view of how to handle the Japanese Communist Party but Fellers was very much part of the anti-communist right that was growing in power in the US and who saw support for Hirohito as part of the defence against Soviet expansionism. This would later inform American military activity in Korea and then Vietnam. I don’t think this side of Fellers is given sufficient weight in the film. When he returned to the US and retired from the military in 1946 Fellers became active in politics supporting the conservative wing of the Republican Party and later joined the right-wing John Birch Society.
For some background on this period I used John Dower’s magisterial 1999 study Embracing Death: Japan in the Aftermath of World War II (Penguin Books). This gives the full text of some of Fellers’ reports to MacArthur and it generally concurs with the view that Fellers’ ‘beliefs’ about Hirohito were accepted even though no actual evidence of Hirohito’s behaviour during the prosecution the war could be discovered. On the plus side this meant that for the rest of his life (he died in 1989), Hirohito’s presence helped to keep Japan as a stable ally within the American sphere. On the other hand, it has meant that today Japan still struggles to come to terms with what happened after the military takeover of the country in the early 1930s and the subsequent conduct of the Chinese and then the Pacific War. All of this is beyond the scope of Emperor but the Fellers narrative is certainly an important element in the wider story. The film made only $3.34 million at the US Box Office and most of its cinema audience was in Japan where it made $11 million. Its UK release was on only a handful of screens, making little or no impact.
Emperor is available on various streaming services and I think it is worth watching for its presentation of events in late 1945.
This film belongs to one of the most successful sequences of continuous film production ever achieved by a team of filmmakers. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (P&P) made more than a dozen films together between 1939 to 1949. All of them have stood up well and some of them have come to be seen as the best of British cinema. Having been united by Alexander Korda for The Spy in Black (1939) and Contraband (1940), Powell and Pressburger stayed together in the UK when Korda went to Hollywood to lead the UK propaganda effort in the US. P&P made the highly successful propaganda picture 49th Parallel in 1941. They were surprised that after the commercial success of their Canadian-based film (which was also an American hit, winning an Oscar for Pressburger’s script) they were unable to get funding from Rank to make their next picture when their outline was deemed ‘non-commercial’. Instead they turned to Lady Yule at British National who agreed to fund another propaganda picture (the filmmakers were committed to films that supported the war effort directly). They also decided to pool their talents and form their own production company ‘The Archers’, taking equal credits as ‘Producer, Writer and Director’. Their first Archers title was based on the phrase that Powell heard on nightly radio broadcasts: “One of our aircraft has failed to return”. In late 1941 and early 1942 the RAF was charged with night-time bombing raids on German targets but these were still part of a limited offensive by twin-engined bombers such as the Vickers Wellington, the bomber built in the largest numbers during wartime. The RAF provided a ‘shell’ of a Wellington to The Archers for the inflight shots and a full scale model of was built at the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith to shoot scenes of the bomber over Germany and the final crash back in the UK. The interiors were shot at Denham.
The opening of the film is innovative and shows both Pressburger’s ideas about narrative and Powell’s brilliance in presenting moving images. The title on the print I saw was actually ‘. . . One of our aircraft is missing‘ – a snappier title than the original radio announcement. Pressburger begins the narrative with the execution order of Dutch resistance workers shot for aiding British flyers, giving the emphasis to them rather than the RAF crew. Then, having established that the Wellington bomber ‘B for Bertie’ has not returned from a bombing raid, we see that the aircraft is apparently flying itself across the channel, after which it is too low to avoid crashing into an electricity pylon. What has happened? The actual credits roll now with the aircrew presenting themselves and then we flashback to discover what happened to the six man crew who baled out of their aircraft believing it was about to crash. The narrative will then follow their attempts, aided by various Dutch communities, to get back to the UK.
If you’ve seen 49th Parallel, you’ll realise that One of Our Aircraft is Missing reverses every aspect of the earlier film. Where six Germans from a U-boat attempted to cross Canada to reach the neutral US, we now have six RAF crew attempting to escape from occupied Holland. The Canadians were encouraged to look out for the enemy, the Dutch were to be portrayed as brave and resourceful in resisting the Nazi occupation. The film had the support of the Dutch government in exile in London.
P&P made several important decisions about the film. They declined to use any non-diegetic music and decided that the Dutch and Germans should speak their own languages (which aren’t subtitled). English was used only when it was logical to do so given the events (i.e. when the Dutch townspeople talk to the RAF flyers). This realism factor is heightened by the use of locations in East Anglia to represent Dutch houses, canals, fields/fens etc. The film looks very fine. It was photographed by Ronald Neame and edited by David Lean, both of whom would later become directors in their own right. The casting of the RAF crew included well-known actors of the time with Eric Portman and Bernard Miles as the names which are perhaps best remembered from the period. (Eric Portman played the leading Nazi in 49th Parallel.) Smaller roles include Peter Ustinov as a priest, but for fans of Powell & Pressburger perhaps the two most significant roles are taken by Pamela Brown and Googie Withers. Pamela Brown was a successful theatre actor but this was her first film role. She would become one of Powell’s lovers and the two remained close throughout the rest of her life. Googie Withers had worked with Powell in the 1930s when she was still a bit player or a lead in ‘quota quickies’ and comedies. She could speak Dutch as her mother had a Dutch background. The Archers used her again in the second Dutch resistance film they produced but didn’t direct, The Silver Fleet (1943). With these roles she moved up in the British film industry and emerged as a star in Ealing pictures from 1944 onwards.
The script avoids any direct confrontations between the aircrew and the German forces who are mostly seen in long shot or overheard. It is not until the final acts of the escape that the crew have to fend for themselves. Up until then they are protected by the Dutch resistance. One of the ironies of the film is that there is actually very little ‘flying action’. Instead this is much more a ‘resistance/escape’ narrative with the final section involving an ingenious device which again needed permission from the War Office to use.
One final point about the script is discussed at some length by Powell in his memoir, A Life in Movies (1986) sheds more light on P&P’s ideas. They had the idea early on to include an ‘over-age’ member of the aircrew based on a widely-reported statement by an eccentric MP who joined up to fight. (Most aircrew were very young.) P&P wanted to include an older man who would be played by Ralph Richardson but he was unavailable (he was working for the Fleet Air Arm, although P&P did get him for The Silver Fleet). They turned instead to a much older actor, the matinee idol from the 1910s and 1920s who was a Great War veteran, Godfrey Tearle. He is tolerated by the younger airman who don’t really understand him and Pressburger wrote a scene in which he tries to explain to the younger men that he was like them in his youth. David Lean persuaded Powell to cut the scene during the edit because it didn’t advance the plot. Lean supposedly said it introduced a theme that could make a whole film. This became the birth of the Colonel Blimp character in the next P&P film. Powell was fond of telling stories and this may be an exaggerated version of events. Nevertheless it points towards P&P’s understanding of wartime Britain and their stunning creativity at this point. One of Our Aircraft is Missing is a great propaganda film and a wonderful example of wartime filmmaking.
Here’s the trail on Talking Pictures TV with Pamela Brown as resistance leader very much in control:
The films of Michael Powell Powell and Emeric Pressburger tend to diminish in the 1950s in the estimation of most critics and film reviewers. Certainly the mid 1950s was the time when The Archers partnership eventually broke down and the two filmmakers went their separate ways but the films themselves are still very much worth watching. The Battle of the River Plate remains a favourite for me, partly no doubt because I saw it as a small boy with my father in early 1957 during its first cinema run. I didn’t then know who Powell and Pressburger were, although I had probably already seen The Thief of Baghdad (UK 1940) on TV. The Battle of the River Plate is now generally seen as just another British war picture of the 1950s and as a film lacking the imagination of the 1940s Archers’ war pictures. However, I think there are some interesting aspects of both the film’s production and the presentation of the final version that appears on screen. Why did The Archers make a film like The Battle of the River Plate? I don’t think there is enough space here to tease out all the reasons, but mainly I think it was a matter of finding a property/an idea that they could develop in the circumstances in which they found themselves after leaving Korda’s London Films and dallying with ABPC for the artistically interesting but not very profitable Oh Rosalinda! in 1955. They would develop their naval war picture with first 20th Century Fox and then once more with the Rank Organisation.
The British war films of the 1950s present different views on wartime events compared to the wartime productions which are all in some way influenced by wartime propaganda considerations. Most of the 1950s films celebrate successful campaigns, often in ways which seek to bolster British prestige during a period which is either ‘post-imperial’ in South Asian narratives or grappling with the final days of the Empire in Africa, elsewhere in Asia, and in the Caribbean. Robert Murphy in his book, British Cinema and the Second World War (Continuum 2000) titles his chapter on the 1950s films, ‘Reliving Past Glories’. Murphy points out that ‘The Battle of the River Plate’ features strongly in For Freedom (UK 1940), a British propaganda film from Gainsborough that is a mix of documentary and fiction about the early events of the war that was hastily compiled and distributed.
The ‘Battle of the River Plate’ was a naval battle in the early months of the war which saw three British light cruisers force the German pocket-battleship the ‘Admiral Graf Spee’ to scuttle in the estuary of the River Plate between neutral Uruguay and pro-axis Argentina. A ‘pocket-battleship’ was the British term for a German design that attempted to create a powerful ‘ship destroyer’ while staying within the constraints laid down by the Treaty of Versailles. The resultant ships were only one third of the tonnage of the later German battleships like the Tirpitz. They were diesel-powered, lighter but more efficiently armoured than Royal Navy vessels. They also had larger guns with greater range. This meant that they could outgun, smaller cruisers and destroyers and outun capital ships. Initially they were to be used to destroy British and Allied merchant ships in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The film sticks fairly closely to the real events of the engagement and its aftermath, so much so that at least one of the IMDb comments refers to the film as a documentary (and MUBI calls it a ‘docudrama’). It isn’t but it does represent a factually detailed story. It is interesting to watch and compare with contemporary films featuring similar engagements in that The Archers were able to find either the original ships or closely-related sister ships – at least on the British side. They had the advantage that production manager John Brabourne was the son-in-law of Louis Mountbatten who commanded the Mediterranean fleet of the Royal Navy in the early 1950s. The ‘Graf Spee’ was impersonated by the US Navy heavy cruiser USS Salem. There was only a limited amount of studio tank and ship model work required. Much of the movement of ships was actually shot in the Eastern Mediterranean. Michael Powell was able to shoot footage of three Royal Navy ships on exercises, so that the Archers didn’t have to pay to hire the ships. Similarly, the USS Salem was on duty in the Mediterranean. This did mean however that Chris Challis had to shoot, using the heavy Vista Vision camera, in very tight time slots with virtually no preparation. The overall schedule for such an epic production was very tight and was acknowledged by the trade press (Kine Weekly) which praised The Archers production for efficiency.
I’m not going to describe all the elements of the battle which is well-covered on Wikipedia. I’ll focus instead on some of the decisions made by Powell and Pressburger. The most obvious P&P touches come with the introduction of of Bernard Lee as Captain Dove of M.S. Africa Shell. The sinking of the Africa Shell is the first action of the film and when Captain Dove is brought over to the Graf Spee it allows us to explore the German warship and how it functions through Dove’s eyes, including his meeting with Captain Langsdorff (Peter Finch). The presentation of Langsdorff is very much in line with P&P’s creation of ‘human’ German characters and the only surprise is that it is not a German or Austrian playing the role (i.e. no Anton Walbrook or Conrad Veidt). Captain Dove had written about his time aboard the Graf Spee (and had played himself in For Freedom) and he eventually he agreed to act as consultant with Bernard Lee taking the role. Pressburger produced a film script in four acts – (1) Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee, (2) Ajax, Achilles and Exeter, (3) the ‘engagement’ and (4) the intrigue in Montevideo following Graf Spee’s entry into the port for repairs. The film was relatively long at 119 minutes and includes a large number of speaking parts and shoots in various far flung locations from Montevideo to the Moray Firth in the North of Scotland where the Royal Navy provided more ships.
Pressburger’s script works pretty well I think for the first three acts but I feel a little uncomfortable with Act 4. P&P seem to revive the light comedy touch which worked so well in the opening flashback of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), so we experience the comical actions of the ambassadors of Germany and then Britain and France (together) visiting the Uruguayan Foreign Minister in Montevideo and studiously ignoring the other side in the waiting room. The radio commentary by Lionel Murton as an American presenter seems to be just a device to explain the difficult situation that the German Captain Langsdorff finds himself in. For me the touch is too light in both the diplomatic engagements and the radio broadcasts. The final shots of the film don’t provide what in less decorous terms might be called the ‘money shot’ – i.e. the final actions of the captain who doesn’t go down with his ship. IMDb tells me that the German dubbed version has a voiceover explanation of what happened to Langsdorff. I’m surprised P&P ducked the ‘real’ ending. I presume these decisions were partly to gain the wide release that funder Rank required.
It’s worth noting that Rank made the decision, puzzling in retrospect, to produce a slate of pictures using VistaVision. I’d like to spend more time at some point on the undoubted qualities of the format. By running horizontally rather than vertically through the camera, VistaVision produced a much larger negative image and therefore a more detailed image for a projection print, even if the image was cropped to produce a widescreen format. VistaVision and Technicolor together produced stunning images, arguably superior to CinemaScope. However since Rank was distributing and exhibiting CinemaScope prints from other Hollywood producers in 1956 it seems odd to go with Paramount’s rival system. Odeons and Gaumonts under Rank’s control were being equipped for ‘Scope but VistaVision prints were generally narrower at anything between 1.66:1 to 2:1, compared to the CinemaScope standard of 2.35:1. The Battle of the River Plate appears to have been intended for projection as ‘modern widescreen’: 1.85:1. For more on VistaVision, see ‘High Fidelity Widescreen Cinema’, a research project by Stephen F. Roberts, University of Bristol 2018 which includes a detailed case study of The Battle of the River Plate.
The film was chosen for the Royal Film Performance on October 29th 1956. The earlier P&P film, A Matter of Life and Death had been the first Royal Command Performance film in 1946. The Battle of the River Plate opened on general release at Odeon circuit cinemas over the Christmas holiday in a double bill with the classic French children’s film The Red Balloon. Both films were given a ‘U’ Certificate so that family attendance was possible. There were many events in cinemas during its run with Odeons seeking out local men who might have served in the battle. It’s safe to say the film was a big hit with audiences, the biggest for The Archers. It was also the last Archers film, although Powell & Pressburger worked together on Ill Met By Moonlight which was released in 1957 as a ‘Vega Films Production’ for The Rank Organisation.
I don’t agree with the general lack of contemporary interest in The Battle of the River Plate (which was released in the US later in 1957, by Rank, as Pursuit of the Graf Spee). It is less expressionist than most P&P films and more concerned with the detail of the chase and the engagement and its aftermath. It doesn’t portray that 1940s idea of all working together, though we do see something of the ratings on the ships during the battle. The Captain Dove episodes do introduce us to the other captured Merchant Navy Captains and the potential of the Dove-Langsdorff relationship which could have been developed further. But overall it is a magnificent feat of filmmaking – a ‘big picture’, as was P&P’s intention. Naval historians and veterans will spot all the errors because of the use of substitute ships but it is a fine presentation of the historical event.
I couldn’t find a trailer so here is the early scene in the film in which Captain Langsdorff welcomes Captain Dove aboard the Graf Spee:
This is an unusual story even if it is a form of biopic. It follows on from Agnieszka Holland’s previous film Mr. Jones (Poland-UK-Ukraine 2019) in featuring one man’s story in Eastern Europe, but this time with a longer time span from 1916 to 1958. This was a festival film that I went into with absolutely no idea what it was about. I also didn’t notice the directorial credit and didn’t realise it was a film by Agnieszka Holland. Sometimes it’s good to have a completely blank canvas on which the narrative unfolds. This narrative begins with the dying moments of Czech President Antonín Zápotocký in 1957. This is followed by a seemingly unconnected scene with a long queue of people outside a large mansion. They are all carrying what seem to be sample bottles, each filled with their own urine. Inside the house the central character in the film, Jan Mikolásek, a man in his sixties, examines each sample simply by swirling it in the closed bottle and observing it against a bright light. His diagnosis is almost immediate and he is invariably correct as to the patient’s ailment. He then brusquely declares a prescription which is registered by his assistant and Mikolásek dispenses it (most are standard preparations). He charges relatively little and nothing at all if the patient has no money. He never lies and may tell a patient that their condition needs a surgeon or that their illness is terminal. He repeatedly tells his patients that he isn’t a doctor. Mikolásek was a real herbalist who lived from 1889 to 1973. The film appears to stick fairly closely to the real story with some fictional episodes and additions/omissions and it ends in 1958. A brief biography of the real Mikolásekcan be found here.
The film’s structure follows a familiar pattern of incidents ‘now’ (in 1957-8) and a series of lengthy flashbacks which gradually reveal how Mikolásek came to be the man we see in the 1950s. In 1916 he’s fighting reluctantly for the Austro-Hungarian army against the Russians and later he will have to contend with the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and then the communist government of the new Republic after 1948. In the 1920s he learns about diagnosis and because he was brought up as a gardener’s son he develops herbal remedies quickly. He is principled but prickly and although married spends most of his time with his assistant Frantisek Palko. In the 1950s he receives warnings that he is being watched by communist party agents, but because he has always treated leading officials and VIPs with success he assumes he is untouchable. He treated the Nazi leaders in Czechoslovakia, possibly under duress and faced some problems at the end of the war. His problem is that as well as being unqualified to offer what might be defined as medical services, he is also a Christian who believes that faith has a role to play in any healing process. The communist ideology of atheism and science is fundamentally opposed to his practice.
I don’t want to spoil any more of the plot and there are several important elements I have left out. I found the the story very interesting and I was reminded of various stories and films about Czechoslovakia during both World Wars and into the communist period. Whether this story and in particular its central character will hold the interest of mainstream audiences over nearly two hours is another question. Mikolásek is played by Ivan Trojan with his younger self played by the actor’s son Josef Trojan. The other major role is that of Frantisek played by Juraj Loj. All three performances are very good. I have seen suggestions by one reviewer that audiences will not warm to Mikolásek because of his coldness and rudeness but it seems to me that he has a complex personality that always intrigues. He seems to me a familiar figure with a certain amount of charisma and authority that both demands acquiescence from patients and also engenders anger. I have no idea if he was a charlatan or not, but the evidence suggests that his diagnoses were generally accurate. He is, however, drawn to Frantisek as a sexual partner and has little compunction about ruining his own marriage as well as Frantisek’s. The gay element in the narrative is fictionalised I think. One act in particular is shocking in its cruelty.
I’ve suggested that this is a form of biopic which misses out parts of the central character’s life. We first see him when his fictional version is a frightened young soldier in the Great War (the ‘real’ Mikolásek would have been in his late twenties). We are asked to infer the events of his childhood, just as we are asked to accept that he got married. The only role for his relatives is if they need treatment. It’s almost a surprise when they reappear at the end of the film.
Agnieszka Holland is now classed as a veteran filmmaker who has been directing since the 1970s (she trained in Prague rather than Poland) and has considerable experience of serial television, including working recently in the US. She keeps the narrative moving at a fair lick and I was engaged with the events throughout. The cinematography by Martin Strba and art direction and production design by Jiri Karasek and Milan Bycek are very good but it did seem that the changes in colour palette between the dark and grey 1950s and the sunny 1920s/30s were exaggerated. Overall, I think that this film could find an audience in the UK. The film has been acquired by AX1 (formerly Axiom) for the UK.
The trailer below gives away more plot points than this blog post so don’t watch it if you want to avoid further spoilers. The trailer is 16:9 but the cinema print is 2.35:1.
This film is available on BBC iPlayer for three weeks. I hadn’t seen it before and thought it might make a useful comparison with Ford’s They Were Expendable from a weeks ago. Although I hadn’t seen it, I thought I recognised the title and I think I’d assumed at first that it was a comedy, something also suggested by the still used by the BBC on iPlayer. It’s set during the early part of the Pacific War in 1942 and stars James Garner, then just turned 30 and a contract player at Warner Bros., who had already established himself as the lead in the TV comedy Western series Maverick (1957-62). What I didn’t know was that Garner had been a decorated soldier during the Korean War. This background throws a little light on what Warner Bros. might have hoped for with Up Periscope.
James Garner is Lieutenant J.G. Kenneth Braden who has been trained as a naval demolition engineer and as a Japanese language expert. The film opens with a romantic sub-plot which sees Braden secretly checked out by an attractive young woman from naval intelligence. Unaware he has passed a test, Braden is then shipped to Pearl Harbour and soon finds himself on board the Barracuda, a submarine under the command of Commander Stevenson (Edmond O’Brien). Braden’s mission seems ambitious and potentially dangerous for not just himself but also for the whole crew of the submarine – but only he and Stevenson know what it is. Stevenson has to get the sub close to a Japanese-occupied island so that Braden can get ashore unseen and carry out a daring spying operation – and then return undetected. If he succeeds he will have obtained vital information for a planned attack by US forces. If he fails many men will be killed in future action. What this narrative will then produce is a familiar underwater thriller in which the submarine faces Japanese aircraft and destroyers on its journey to the island and then a tense suspense thriller as Braden carries out his mission. The submarine drama is also driven by the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson as a ‘by the book’ captain whose actions are militarily ‘correct’ but perhaps not understood by his men. The light relief from the drama is provided by Alan Hale Jr., the son of the jovial character actor at Warners in the 1930s, who would later become famous for Gilligan’s Island on US TV (1964-1967).
Up Periscope! is a ‘WarnerScope’ and Technicolor presentation and it’s directed by Gordon Douglas who almost defines a ‘solid Hollywood studio director”. He made nearly 100 films and TV episodes/TV movies. Starting in the mid-1930s with shorts and then B pictures he came into the spotlight in the 1950s when he signed for Warner Bros, staying until 1965. He was probably best-known for Westerns/action pictures and crime thrillers and he made many well-known films during the 1960s. His last major picture was They Call Me Mr. Tibbs! (1970) with Sidney Poitier. He retired at the end of the 1970s. Up Periscope! was in safe hands and I certainly found the film gripping. I even fast forwarded a couple of sequences because the tension as Braden is on the island and mustn’t be seen by the Japanese got to me. I can understand some of the more negative comments in the sense that there are only a couple of (very good) war combat action sequences when the submarine is under attack. Much more time is spent on the spying mission, also very effective but the romantic sub-plot rather detracts from the main narrative, even though it is used as something Braden thinks about while he is waiting for darkness on the island. At 112 minutes the film is arguably too long for its main genre purpose. On the other hand, we might argue that the context of Braden’s recruitment for the operation and the sense of community that is engendered by Ensign Malone (Alan Hale Jr.) are important in grounding this wartime action.
If we do compare this film with a wartime film made in late 1945 such as the Ford film, that sense of community is a key element. In some ways the films are similar. Ford also includes a romance element but it is much more powerful (and doesn’t show a happy ending). He also sends MTBs out on unlikely and ambitious missions and Braden is a Lieutenant J.G. like John Wayne. The submarine is a much more enclosed and ‘closed’ world than the MTBs of the Ford film which means the confrontation between Braden and Stevenson is more personal. Edmund O’Brien has quite a difficult role and pulls it off well. The argument usually is that the wartime films need the propaganda power and big statements that the 1950s war films don’t really need at all. Like the Ford film, Up Periscope! is based on a book, in this case a novel by Rob White. White was born in the Philippines and served in the US Navy. He became quite a prolific author of what are now considered ‘Young Adult’ novels and this includes Up Periscope (the film has a U certificate in the UK, the most accessible certification for ‘all audiences’). White did serve in submarines as well as in aircraft and naval ships. Whether there is any basis in actuality for the story of Up Periscope! is unclear.
James Garner appeared in many films but for UK audiences he may be better known as Brett Maverick in the various TV series or later as Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. I hadn’t seen him this young before, but his later persona is already visible at times as the suave, cocky conman. His role as the intrepid frogman spy was one he felt forced into by Warner Bros. There is another connection to TV series besides Garner and Hale because the submarine’s pharmacy steward is played by Edd Byrnes who was also in Maverick but better known I think in 77 Sunset Strip (1958-64). Warren Oates plays a submariner in what I think is the earliest of his performances I have seen. I don’t know if he played with Edmond O’Brien again before The Wild Bunch in 1969. Up Periscope! is well-made entertainment but not much more I think and catching sight of Warren Oates was one of its pleasures for me.
I approached this film with some trepidation. I’m generally a Fritz Lang fan, but I know that he struggled in Hollywood with some of his 1940s pictures. I generally find the Hollywood ‘undercover’/’spy’ pictures made during the Second World War (that I’ve seen) to be unconvincing next to their British equivalents. I’m also wary of Gary Cooper as a star, though I know he has many supporters. I like some of the films in which he starred (Ball of Fire, Man of the West) but not the ones he is most famous for like the Capra films and High Noon. Given these three potential strikes I was intrigued to see if Lang could overcome the odds. A brace of Blu-ray releases in the US and the UK suggest that this is a film to be re-appraised.
Cloak and Dagger is both a topical secret agent film, focusing on the race to be first to produce the atomic bomb (and to stop the other side getting there at all), and a celebration of the US involvement through the OSS in occupied Europe. The OSS was a similar initiative to the British SOE, sending agents into Europe to gather intelligence, help the resistance and generally to disrupt the enemy’s war effort. The narrative begins with American agents discovering shipments of materials from Spain to Germany which could be part of a nuclear programme. Unfortunately, however, none of the available agents has enough scientific knowledge to compile really useful intelligence on the ground in Europe. OSS decides to try to recruit a nuclear scientist to travel incognito to neutral Switzerland in an attempt to find out more about German plans. Cooper plays Prof. Alvah Jesper, a nuclear scientist from a Mid-Western university who is eventually despatched to Europe. He is a novice agent and makes mistakes, losing his first contact but is then taken secretly to Italy to meet a scientist who is thought to be someone who could be ‘turned’ from working for the Nazis. Jesper may be a novice agent but he has an international reputation in his field and other scientists will talk to him.
I did find that the film moved up a gear with Jesper’s arrival in Italy, partly because of the introduction of Gina, an Italian partisan played by Lilli Palmer. A German Jewish actor who left Germany in 1933, Palmer had been effective in a range of British films since her arrival in the country via Paris, including a small part in Hitchcock’s Secret Agent (1935). In 1943 she had married Rex Harrison and accompanied him to Hollywood in 1945. She signed a contract with Warner Bros. and Cloak and Dagger became her first Hollywood film. Her introduction scene is striking. When Jesper arrives secretly in Italy Gina, played by Lilli Palmer is one of the partisans who meets him in the back of a truck to go through a German checkpoint. Taking off her disguise, Jesper is taken aback to see this beautiful young woman, almost glowing in the gloom because of her simple white chemise.
Jesper’s aim in Italy is to speak to a scientist named Polda who might be prepared to be ‘evacuated’ to the US. The partisans in Italy will be able to arrange for a night-time air pick-up. I thought the whole Italian adventure was quite well-planned and, of course, it gives Jesper and Gina time to get to know each other since Jesper can’t survive out in the open and Gina is meant to keep him safe. As several reviews point out there are occasional Langian touches. The most striking references come in a fight that Jesper is forced to have with a Fascist agent in a stairwell. It is a gruesome struggle with hands attempting to gouge eyes and some sickening sounds as joints are dislocated. I was intrigued to discover that the term ‘cloak and dagger’ actually describes a form of combat dating as far back as the 15th century in Europe. Lang references this when Jesper’s assailant approaches him with a flick-knife and Jesper tries to use his coat to blind his assailant. Finally, when the German goes limp, a child’s ball comes bouncing down the stairs to land by the man’s feet, reminding us of a similar scene in M (1931). Also referencing M, during the fight a trio of street musicians is playing a tune (which sounded at times like the British music hall song ‘Two Lovely Black Eyes’!). I’m also reminded of the viciousness of Lee Marvin’s character who scalds Gloria Grahame’s face in Lang’s The Big Heat (1953). The horror of this encounter undermines those comments about how this film is ‘hokum’ and only ‘generic spy stuff’.
There are some interesting responses to the film. Bosley Crowther in the New York Times, one of the leading newspaper critics in America at the time, goes down the ‘cloak and dagger spy cliché’ route but he confirms that it is “highly suspenseful in a slick cinematic style”. He finishes his review, advising his readers to go and see Rossellini’s Rome, Open City which has just reached New York. That’s a good call, even if there is a closer connection to Rossellini’s Paisa which had not yet reached America. Cloak and Dagger ends with the arrival of an (unconvincing) RAF plane as planned – something which matches aspects of Paisa with partisans and Americans working together and RAF flyers shot down. Crowther is right, Rossellini offers a corrective to any romantic notions that Cloak and Dagger might arouse.
As research for writing this post I used Patrick McGilligan’s book Fritz Lang: The Nature of the Beast (1997, faber & faber). McGilligan gives lots of detail about the production and it is significant that the original property was a fictionalised account of OSS operations acquired by Milton Sperling. A relatively young producer who had already written several scripts for earlier productions, Sperling decided to hire two sets of writers to create a story, one of those was Boris Ingster (the director of the proto-noir Third Floor in 1940). But after Lang came on board the story still seemed thin and Sperling recruited Ring Lardner Jr. (and then Albert Matz was thrust on him by Warners) to write the screenplay. That’s quite a few writers and and with Fritz Lang, notorious for blocking producers and banning them from the set, life for Sperling was not easy. Gary Cooper was paid much more than Lang and Lang treated Lilli Palmer very badly, even though he finally conceded that she gave a very good performance. Sperling was Harry Warner’s son-in-law and when Sperling returned from war service in a photography unit. He set up ‘United States Pictures’ with Warner Bros. to act as an independent production company creating product for the studio. Cloak and Dagger was the first of what would become 14 productions, many with war/military connections, over the next 20 years. For some of those involved who had some OSS connections, the film was a disappointment but for Warner Bros. it was a hit. For Lang it was a job he needed at the time and a chance as McGilligan suggests to hammer “a final nail in the fascist coffin”.
My own response is that after a poor opening, the film picked up the pace and I’m now more inclined to go back to Lang’s earlier attempts to make anti-fascist films in Hollywood. I’m also interested in comparing Lang and Hitchcock’s films about the wartime period. My views on Gary Cooper haven’t really changed. He is serious and sombre throughout with only the occasional lighter moment. Lilli Palmer was a revelation and for me the best thing about the film. The production featured Sol Polito as cinematographer, generally good and a Max Steiner score that at times I found irritating. Overall, however, I think it is a film worth reappraising and although I only saw a print on Talking Pictures TV, the stills on DVD Beaver from the Eureka Blu-ray look very good.