Sunday, February 23, 2014

History & Movies

Hollywood has seldom seen a historical event that they haven't been convinced they could improve.  While Pompeii may not have car chases, I'm pretty sure it was initially proposed in some meeting or another.  The current movie isn't getting very good reviews, which doesn't always mean much, but in this case - well, let's just say that, from the trailer alone, the history seems to be a touch off.  Like, in everything depicted onscreen.  In a way, that's okay, as I don't expect Hollywood to make documentaries - feature films are overwhelmingly pure fiction from the get-go and films centered on historical events, as well as biopics, get away with a lot by using that tag of "inspired by actual events."  But there are limits.

What I'm going to spend my time on here is not a movie like Pompeii that takes exciting and dramatic historical events and so twists things that they become fiction, but rather on how films can use fiction to illuminate fact.

Welcome to Bad Day at Black Rock.

We as a country don't like to look too hard at events that make us look bad.  While that's understandable, it's also terribly juvenile, as we can't learn from what we don't acknowledge.  The undeniable fact is that we, as a country, formed national policy in 1942 that uprooted over 110,000 of our own citizens, forcibly relocating them from their homes, businesses, and communities to stark detention centers.  Their crime was simply looking like the people who bombed Pearl Harbor.  We implemented no such policies with regards to American citizens of German or Italian descent, although those countries were also part of the Axis powers.  (Not that I'm saying that we should have!)

When John Sturges (who would later direct The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, among others), directed Black Rock in 1955, the internment issue was one that was touchy, sensitive, and not talked about.  What Black Rock did was create a tense social drama in the New West that has multiple elements of a traditional Technicolor Western - a lone good guy (Spencer Tracy) trying to do a simple, honorable thing who encounters a gang of toughs concealing a secret in a dusty town.  The supporting cast is amazing - Robert Ryan heads the tough guys, Ernest Borgnine is a not-too-bright-but-plenty-violent hanger-on, Walter Brennan is a weak man who wants the truth to come out, and Anne Francis is a conflicted young woman who's not sure which side she's on. It's an astonishingly good picture, made all the more incredible for being made while the wounds of forced internment was still so raw.  Nowadays, there is a real and unfortunate possibility that this crucial piece of history will fade in the public memory, especially away from the West Coast, which was most affected by the internment.

The annual Day of Remembrance for the internment is generally observed on Feb. 19, the day in 1942 Executive Order 9066 was signed, which authorized the mass detention.  George Takei, who will probably always be best known for portraying Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek series, spent part of his youth in internment camps.  He's taken those experiences and crafted Allegiance, a new musical currently in development at the Old Globe theatre in San Diego.

One of the most heartbreaking and dignified responses to this odious action is found in the picture at the top of this post.  The picture, which is from the US National Archives, shows a World War One veteran arriving at the Santa Anita "assembly center," wearing his dress uniform to clearly identify himself as a veteran of the United Stated military.  These centers served as staging areas to assign Japanese-Americans to their internment camps, which were spread throughout the United States. (Takei's family was uprooted from California and spent part of the internment in a swamp in Arkansas.)  Citizens were forced to leave their homes with very few belongings and most sold their homes and businesses at a loss and never were able to reclaim them.  However, a few bright stories emerge - including this one.

Movies - often good, sometimes great, but hardly ever as dramatic as real life.

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