Hollywood - get ready for a history lesson

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On Sunday 3 September 1939, in California it was possible to hear the warning broadcast by Neville Chamberlain in London, the one about a state of war, etc. That Sunday there was a yachting party off Catalina Island, off the Los Angeles shore. There were Brits there – David Niven, Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh. She was in town still for retakes on Gone With the Wind. Olivier would begin shooting Rebecca in a few days' time. They got drunk, and Olivier took out a rowboat at the end of the day. He paddled around the harbour, shouting out, "This is the end! You're all finished! Drink up and enjoy yourselves – it's all over!" Actors get excited.

All over – or all changing? Of course, it was a good, old-fashioned war then, and when the surprise attack came at last to America, in December 1941, it cleared the air. Purpose set in. Pearl was bad, but there was worse to come: in the next six months, Guam was lost, the Prince of Wales and the Repulse were sunk, Rangoon and Singapore fell, Bataan and Corregidor were yielded. Japanese, many of them American citizens, were interned in the US. The Magnificent Ambersons was lost.

I know, that does not seem in the same category of the disasters of war. But a film deemed too long, too slow and too sad for times in need of "uplift" was slashed and recut. The lost footage has never been found, but maybe American morale was protected. A lot of movie-makers went to that war – Frank Capra, John Huston, Clark Gable and Jimmy Stewart; grips, clerks and cooks you've never heard of. There were movies made to boost the war effort, and there were economic restrictions. It was far harder to build lavish sets, so dark masked their absence. That was one way film noir came into being – a style driven by economy, but felt as poetry.

That's an odd thing with war – a tricky thing – even in a good, old-fashioned war. You ship enough of your guys overseas, and you can't tell how they'll come back. Winston Churchill became a great hero in the years of war, but the electors threw him out in 1945. They'd seen too much, and had too much of officers, "team spirit" rhetoric and official bungling. In the years after 1945, in America, there was a fascinating balance between a realistic, grown-up mood the country had not known before, and the paranoia that every battered, impoverished, desperate soul in the world might be red, and itching to get in our bed.

Good, old-fashioned wars are not easily found these days. Instead of poor radio reception from 6,000 miles away, there is the grim intimacy of a mobile phone eavesdropping on a dying plane. You can't find the enemy; you have to forget that he was once an ally against the USSR. But the United States has become a nation with a chronic aversion to history. It prefers action (that fatal alternative to thought), scapegoats and uplift. Who knows how many "Arab" types (like Anthony Quinn in Lawrence of Arabia) may now be detained? Who knows how far a tense, alarmed president may beg extra powers to aid his indecision?

Hollywood has been stricken with sudden, too-late shame. It recognises how many of its films don't quite "fit" with the new world disorder – because they're fatuous and so fantastically violent as to inspire the wicked. On city streets, America has become reacquainted with realities that remind its commentators of the Battle of Antietam (1862). For the rest of the world, however, bombing or slaughter are closer at hand and sometimes it has been Americans who unloaded the destruction and then marvelled at being hated.

All of which can still be said and printed in the United States. That is a principle worth many lives, and fundamental to the notion of an intelligent and intact republic (those two must be congruent). America now has a chance to regain its sense of history, which includes the greatest, most God-fearing country in this world sometimes trampling on its own freedoms, and its tradition of rational, humane thought.

A few weeks ago in Hollywood (in the last days of gossip), I heard that Michael Bay, the director of Pearl Harbor, was in deep depression (because of the film's relative failure), while the Disney company had put that disappointment down to young America's inability to get a fix on the Second World War – ie to have heard of it. Well, for Bay and all of us the chance has come again – how many more do we get, or deserve? – to study history as the best means of imagining the future.

I doubt anything is all over. But our "all" is an untidy mess that requires precise description and understanding.