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The Lonely Scientist as Hero – Dr. Serizawa in Gojira (1954)

Dr. Daisuke Serizawa is my lonely scientist of choice, from the original film Gojira. What attracted me to the character was how differently he is portrayed, for a lonely scientist, that is. Most lonely scientists inadvertently cause destruction…or at least their own downfall. But in Gojira, Serizawa’s loneliness is actually a sign of his heroism and humanitarian integrity, rather than instability or pride.

The original Japanese film was released in 1954 and launched one of the most famous – perhaps the most famous – movie monsters in history. His only competition is King Kong. What makes the original Japanese film so good, however, is not the special effects or even the monster, but what the monster evokes. It is a beautiful evocation of the trauma of war, evacuation and dislocation, and nuclear warfare.

The monster, Godzilla (or Gojira) actually looks rather unimpressive today. Whenever he rises from the sea, he sways woozily, like he’s had too much to drink the night before. He’s also a bit pudgy and ponderous. It does lend him an aura of unstoppability, though. Slow-moving, but invincible and inevitable.

But when he rises from Tokyo Bay and begins to lay waste to Tokyo, the burned out city he leaves in his wake is a painfully accurate image of how many cities in Japan (and around the world) did look after bombing. While the monster is stalking through Tokyo, a woman hugs her three children tightly and tells them that they are going to see their father soon, who no doubt died during the previous war.

The film surprisingly does not flinch from showing what must have been nightmare memories for many people. Children crying in hospitals, cities on fire, military machines ineffectually firing as the monster keeps coming. The monster represents not just the war, but also nuclear warfare. In the film, he  is a prehistoric dinosaur released by the testing of atomic weapons.

The only one who can save Japan is the lonely hero of the film: Dr. Serizawa. Serizawa himself is a living reminder of the war, having lost an eye while fighting during WWII. He is engaged to the daughter of a colleague, zoologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura). The daughter, however, is in love with a ship’s captain

But Serizawa spends all his time in the lab and everyone wonders what he’s working on. The only person he shows is his fiance, Emiko (Momoko Kochi). Oddly enough, I think that was his way of telling her that he loved her. He’s a more reserved man, but after her shows her what he’s experimenting on – which horrifies her – he tells her that she is the only person he would show that to.

What he’s working on, however, turns out to be an inadvertent weapon of mass destruction. It’s an Oxygen Destroyer, which he discovered accidentally and deprives all living things in an area of water of its oxygen. He’s afraid of sharing it with the world for fear it would only add to the already lengthy lists of ways people can kill each other. Hence his isolation and refusal to see others.

The dilemma for Serizawa is to decide whether or not to use it to destroy Godzilla. If he uses it, then the world will know and he fears will want him to create a weapon for them. If he doesn’t use it, then Godzilla will go on destroying cities.

(Spoilers) His solution is to destroy his research, use his Oxygen Destroyer to kill Godzilla, and end his life in the process so that not even the knowledge in his mind can be used for ill. This only works because his research is entirely in his control, because he works alone. The lonely, principled hero standing up for right.

I can’t help but think, however, that once it is even known that such a thing as an Oxygen Destroyer exists, then it will be invented again by somebody. No one ever really does have a monopoly on scientific knowledge and scientists never can ultimately be alone – it’s there for everyone to find. As was pointed out to me recently, the knowledge is out there on how to create a nuclear bomb; the hard (and expensive) part is actually building one.

This is my contribution to The Movie Scientist Blogathon, hosted by Ruth of Silverscreenings, and myself. Be sure to check out all the other posts, which can be found here for Days 1, 2, and 3.

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Posted by on September 10, 2017 in Movies

 

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Ethel Barrymore in “The Spiral Staircase”

The Spiral Staircase (1946) is a tense post-WWII thriller that manages to both thrill and also explore the results of the belief that some people are stronger or better than others.

Post-WWII people were appalled at the widespread eugenics practiced by Nazis, culminating in the nearly unimaginable horror of the Holocaust. What made it so unsettling, however, is that such beliefs in eugenics had been embraced, though less aggressively, by many other countries and people. For me, Ethel Barrymore’s character embodies this position perfectly in The Spiral Staircase.

The story is an old dark house thriller. Someone is murdering women with disabilities in a small town set in the early 1900s (when cars and horses briefly shared the road). Helen (Dorothy McGuire), is a servant at the Warren mansion, on the outskirts of town, who has been unable to speak ever since witnessing her parents burned alive in their home (PTSD was another concern for post-WWII audiences). Everyone is concerned that she will be the next target and insists she stay safely inside the house. Except that the killer turns out to be one of the people inside the house.

It’s a stormy night, people come and go, but eventually it seems as if one-by-one the killer is neutralizing everyone until there is only Helen and the killer.

Ethel Barrymore plays Mrs. Warren, the owner of the house. She is the second wife of the now deceased Mr. Warren, a dynamic man’s man who despised weakness and only admired strength: physical endurance, the ability to hunt and shoot, etc. Mrs. Warren lives in the house with her step-son (George Brent) and her own son (Gordon Oliver), but agrees with her late husband that they are both “weaklings.”

She herself is a dynamic character, though now bedridden and with her mind wondering. But she remains fixed on one idea the entire night: the need to get Helen out of the house or to hide Helen, because she knows that the evil is within the house, not outside it, as everyone else supposes.

(Spoilers) I think what I admire about Ethel Barrymore’s performance is that she really doesn’t try to make her character sympathetic, though she does want to save (and ultimately does save) Helen. She’s wily and cunning, demanding, querulous and openly disdainful of people she despises. She also share’s her late husband’s views about strength and weakness, though she would never take it so far as to actually murder anyone. She is even appalled by murder.

Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy McGuire

But she’s also complicit in the crimes. She believed the murderer was her son (as opposed to her step-son) and could not bring herself to denounce him. As a result, the murders went on. She only finally musters the strength of will to shoot (somewhat like you shoot a mad dog) the killer when she realizes that it is not her son.

(End Spoilers)  The the sheer power of Ethel Barrymore’s personality suggests what Mr. Warren must have been like…and what it would have been like to live in a house with two such people.

Power, I think, is the word for Ethel Barrymore in the film. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a man being stronger-willed then her…though her character clearly idealizes the late Mr. Warren as a man of power. But despite being bed ridden and with a wondering mind, she can suggest what Mrs. Warren would have been like when well. And one can see how her step-son and son might have been warped by it.

This post is part of “The Third Annual Barrymore Blogathon,” hosted by In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. The rest of the posts about the three Barrymore’s can be found here.

 
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Posted by on August 17, 2017 in Movies

 

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The Young Lions (1958)

The Young Lions was supposed to be a turning point in the career of three men: Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift, and Dean Martin. It turned out, however, that the only person it really helped was Dean Martin, who successfully made the transition from comedy to dramatic actor.

The story is taken from the novel by Irwin Shaw, though it feels a bit like two separate stories put into one film. One story follows Christian Diestl (Marlon Brando with blonde hair), a ski instructor and shoemaker who becomes a lieutenant in the German army during WWII. Initially, he is optimistic about Hitler, thinking he will make Germany strong and prosperous. But as he witnesses the horrors of war and the crimes of the army, he becomes increasingly troubled and disoriented, unsure of what his duty is.

Meanwhile, America is preparing for war. Both entertainer Michael Whiteacre (Dean Martin) and department store clerk Noah Ackerman (Montgomery Clift) are drafted into the military. This part of the story initially feels like From Here to Eternity, with the Jewish Ackerman encountering antisemitism in his barracks and having to fight to earn acceptance. Eventually, however, both men end up in France and Germany, pushing back the German army, which is disintegrating.

The film culminates with the discovery – both by Diestl, who is wandering behind enemy lines, and Whiteacre and Ackerman – of a concentration camp, filled with starving people, and their attempts to grasp the full horror of it.

What is interesting about the film is that it does not deal with ideologies per se: Nazism, freedom. It comes off more like three men – who aren’t really that different from each other in terms of basic principles – who are not ideologically motivated. Mostly, what we hear from the German officers is the imperative of obeying orders, with a few who have qualms. In fact, it isn’t hard to imagine someone like Whiteacre or Ackerman fighting for the Germans (apart from the fact that Ackerman is Jewish). These are not guys fighting for any other reason than because they have been drafted and who’s loyalty is to their comrades.

Clift and Martin

In truth, Diestl comes off more like a pacifist than a man who specifically takes issue with the Nazi party line. He reacts negatively to the German occupation in Paris (I wonder what he would have made of Poland – France was mild in comparison) and seems more appalled by the cruelties of war than the specific crimes of Nazism.

All three men – Brando, Clift, and Martin – had high hopes for the film, but it doesn’t quite live up to all it could be. It feels, at times, like the story lacks cohesion or direction. Is a bit lethargic. But the actors themselves do well and were clearly giving it their all. Brando was seeking to revive his sagging box office appeal (which didn’t quite work) and probably has the most interesting role in the film.

The Young Lions was the first film Montgomery Clift made after having reconstructive surgery on his face after a terrible car accident. He was hoping also to make a comeback and perhaps even win an Academy Award, but sadly the reaction of most audiences was shock at his changed appearance and apparent ill health (he looks like someone who more likely would have been turned down by the draft board).

Dean Martin, however, was far more successful in achieving his goals. He had just broken up his partnership with Jerry Lewis and wanted to show that he was a viable dramatic actor. The very next year he would make Rio Bravo and receive much acclaim for his performance.

In The Young Lions, his more natural and laid back approach to acting is actually a very nice contrast to the method approach of Brando and Clift (who do not share a scene in the film, adding to the sense that we are watching two separate stories). Martin’s Whiteacre is a slightly spoiled singer and performer who thinks he is a coward. He spends part of the film hating himself for trying to get out of service, but eventually he conquers his fears in a sense of shared camaraderie.

He was actually fortunate to get the role. It was originally intended for Tony Randall, until it was decided that Randall was not suited for the part. Dean Martin, however, seems perfect.

This is my second contribution to the “Dean Martin Centenary Blogathon,” hosted by Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Be sure to read all the rest of the posts from days 1, 2, and 3 of the Blogathon!

 
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Posted by on June 7, 2017 in Movies

 

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