David Thomson: 'I'm sorry, but this isn't the time to invoke the spirit of Pearl Harbor'

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The Independent Online

This is no time for cynicism (with so many US citizens "detained" without charge or much legal advice) but still there are those of us interested in the movie business who remain unimpressed by the urge of tycoons to sit down with government authority.

In a horribly ironic way, this is not the time to invoke "the spirit of Pearl Harbor". After all, too many of us recall that it was only last May when a movie named Pearl Harbor opened as proof of the many idiocies that obsessed Hollywood, to say nothing of its indifference to history, to politics and to the way wars are fought. Just let the explosions roll – isn't that what movies are about?

Yes, it's true that in the months and years that followed 7 December 1941, there was a great, honest rallying in Hollywood – just as there was in the nation. In time, such leading directors as Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston would go off to dangerous theatres to make documentaries. Many actors actually put on uniform: Robert Ryan was in the Marines; Jimmy Stewart flew bombers; Ronald Reagan was posted ... he recollected later that it was overseas – and not just Culver Cit –, but he was a romantic with a poor sense of geography.

More than that, there were movies not just about war, about families separated, and about encouraging America to fight (many Americans still believe that war began in 1941).

Not all of them were really good pictures (for propaganda can lean too hard on creativity) but still the list includes Casablanca, Mrs Miniver, Since You Went Away, Air Force, They Were Expendable, The Best Years of Our Lives and A Walk in the Sun. There are many ways in which those movies capture the educational process that foreign travel, battle, loss, hardship and enough spare time to read books meant to America. It was a tough time, to be sure, and even mighty America was fearful of being invaded, but it was also a moment of intense comradeship, of shared sacrifice, and of that rare feeling of a war being clear, necessary and just.

For some, it was even fun – after all, that's when Orson Welles sawed Marlene Dietrich in half at troop shows, and the kids were asked which half they wanted.

That was a long time ago, and it was an undeniable war. This one is far more mysterious and it affects an America far more lost in the deluding effects of showbusiness and mindless prosperity.

Some of us wonder, can Hollywood grow up or grow back to that past again? We also ask ourselves how long it will be that the great American public really believes this is war if no one can see or find the enemy, if no one is called up, and if Hollywood keeps assuring itself that it really means to get behind the effort? The trouble is now that the effort involves the deepest reaches of cultural identity and national purpose – and that is where America has done itself so much damage in the years since 1945.

I wish there was more reason to feel encouraged.