The Douglas Sirk discovered by criticism has gone through numerous phases. For me, the most telling is the one which has excavated from his work not only an extended and devastating critique of the bourgeoisie in general and of 1950s America in particular, but has also recognised a compassionate portrait of characters trapped by social conditions of which they’re scarcely even aware.
In the films upon which his reputation largely rests – All I Desire (1953), All That Heaven Allows (1955) and There’s Always Tomorrow (1956), Written on the Wind (1956), The Tarnished Angels (1957) and A Time To Love and A Time To Die (1958) and Imitation of Life (1959) – Sirk inflects his material via an elaborate mise-en-scene which provides a concise commentary on his characters and their circumstances.
Locked inside cyclical narratives which constantly suggest a legacy being passed from one generation to the next, they’re frequently dwarfed by their physical surroundings, like their homes or work-places, framed through the bars of staircases or by ceilings that seem to press down on them, and often entrapped in what is tantamount to a hall of mirrors, reflections of reflections. Put simply, the dramatic function of Sirk’s mise-en-scene is to define the material and psychological parameters of his characters’ lives and to delineate the limits of their liberty.
Most of the writing about Sirk over the past 50 years – the books, magazine articles and scholarly essays – has focused on these films. But to reduce our sense of Sirk as an auteur operating within the Hollywood system to such a small selection is to take a blinkered view of his career. The limits his working environment imposed on him and the opportunities it provided laid the foundations for an ongoing exchange between his creativity and the sometimes stifling realities of studio filmmaking in the 1950s.
That exchange took place well beyond the films on which his critical reputation largely rests. No less than the better-known ones, the lesser-known films underline the German expatriate’s love affair with American populist art, which he took very seriously. In his later years, looking back over his time in Hollywood, he would talk repeatedly about how much he enjoyed the challenge of working within the various constraints imposed by The System. (1) They might have been “ridiculous”, but they became catalysts for his creative juices. “You have to bend your material to your style and purpose,” he said, “and, when somebody tells you that you can’t do something, then you have to find another way of doing it. And you usually do it better as a result.”
Many of these films have been absent from critical overviews of his work simply because of their general inaccessibility and, perhaps, the presumption that this must mean that they’re not worth pursuing. Yet they remain important in any examination of Sirk’s status as an auteur, their failings frequently as illuminating about his working methods and his circumstances in Hollywood as are the works upon which his standing rests.
Among them are two noirish but relatively bland thrillers (Lured, 1947 and Sleep My Love, 1948), three of the edgiest romantic comedies you’re ever likely to see (Slightly French, 1948, Weekend with Father, 1951) and No Room for the Groom (1952), an engaging trio of folksy small town musicals (Has Anybody Seen My Gal?, 1952, Meet Me at the Fair, 1953 and Take Me to Town, 1953), a western (Taza, Son of Cochise, 1954), a war movie (Battle Hymn, 1957), a highwayman yarn (Captain Lightfoot, 1955), even a costume epic (Sign of the Pagan, 1954). Most were made during the same period as the films that provided the basis for the director’s (re)discovery during the 1970s, but they’ve been largely neglected in overviews of his career.
Aided by the release of a series of DVDs of previously hard-to-find Sirk movies, (2) this is the first in a projected series of articles about the films that filled out Sirk’s Hollywood career but have generally only been noted in passing, if at all. To begin, I’ve chosen three of the eight he made with Rock Hudson, all produced under the Universal International banner and designed to exploit the actor’s ascending star appeal: Taza, Son Of Cochise, Captain Lightfoot and Battle Hymn.
While much can be said in these films’ defence, none deserves the kind of critical acclaim that the domestic and romantic melodramas have received, their flaws primarily the result of Sirk’s failure to fully overcome the formulaic aspects of the material and to mould it to the shape of his will. Sometimes the material will simply not be bent. The films might be less satisfying for this, but they’re also no less fascinating in what they reveal about an artist, an auteur, at work.
In all of them, it’s possible to identify Sirk’s attempts to bring their material into line with the vision that informs his best work, working against the grain of the generic conventions they deploy, casting shadows in places designed to be filled with light, introducing ambiguities where others would find clear moral purpose.
They all also deal with real-life characters and draw, albeit loosely, on historical events. Taza, written by George Zuckerman (who later collaborated with Sirk on both Written on the Wind and The Tarnished Angels) and adapted by Gerald Drayson Adams from his own story, is a western about the struggles of a chief of the Chiricahua Apache tribes on behalf of his people.
Based on the exploits of two actual 19th-century highwaymen, Captain Lightfoot is the best of the trio, adapted from a 1955 novel by W.R. Burnett, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Oscar Brodney (who’d worked with Sirk the year before on Sign of the Pagan). A rollicking adventure set in Ireland with some light comic flavouring, it’s about an aspiring highwayman trying to walk in the footsteps of his hero. Battle Hymn, a psychological drama set during wartime, tells the story of Colonel Dean E. Hess, an Ohio minister who flew with the US Air Force in the Korean War during the early 1950s. Although it shares its title with Hess’s autobiography, which was published at the same time as the film was released, (3) it is not an adaptation. Instead, it’s based on an original screenplay by Charles Grayson (The Barbarian and the Geisha, 1958), The Woman on Pier 13, 1949) and Vincent B. Evans, a real-life bombardier on the Memphis Belle during WW2 whose only other screen credit was for Chain Lightning (1950).
While the three films offered Sirk the chance to work on location, which he loved to do – he said that the main reason he agreed to direct Captain Lightfoot was that it gave him and his wife, former actress Hilde Jary, a chance to visit Ireland for the first time – they were all plagued with production problems. “Taza was shot entirely in Utah, during an oppressive summer, with a cast that included ‘real Indians’”, as he told Jon Halliday, (4) “ones who hadn’t been spoilt by Ford,” most of whom he could communicate with only through an interpreter. (5) Universal also decreed that it should be made in 3D, “which was no help to me.” (6) Captain Lightfoot was shot during the summer of 1954 but almost entirely in drizzle, with all the attendant problems, even if it ended up looking splendid.
For Battle Hymn, Arizona played Korea reasonably effectively, although Sirk remained unhappy with the finished film for a variety of reasons. As he told Jon Halliday, (7) he found Hess’s constant presence on the set inhibiting, broke his (own) leg during the shoot, was subsequently confined to a wheelchair, had to deal with studio intrusiveness (such as its addition of the opening statement on behalf of the United States Air Force, made direct to camera by General Earl Partridge), (8) and blamed himself for the miscasting of Rock Hudson. While the actor’s presence as an immovable force lends weight elsewhere, Sirk believed that, here, it’s ill-suited to the kind of “split character” that he wanted. “An actor like [Robert] Stack would have been much more fitting,” he said.
All of this is exacerbated by how Sirk appears to be uncomfortable filming action sequences and not the least bit interested in fleshing out any excitement they might potentially offer. In Taza, in particular, perhaps a consequence of the language barrier, his extras often stand around in the background looking lost, frequently fixed in place in a way that suggest figures posing for portraits, given nothing more to do than occupy space in the frame.
This said, though, these films are important additions to the Sirk oeuvre, each in its own ways. What appears to have caught his interest in them are the political and/or personal tensions that drive their stories. All are about men who find themselves in positions of leadership in times of turmoil, all of whom are played in a straight-down-the-line way by Rock Hudson, and all of whom remain divided characters, pushed this way and that by their circumstances, declaring their certainty about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it, and yet somehow blind to the realities around them.
Taza, Son of Cochise
Taza is the final instalment of an unofficial Cochise trilogy, whose parts are bound together by the casting of Jeff Chandler as the legendary Apache chief in each of them and by a sequence of historical events which occurred over a period of eight years. Jay Silverheels plays the film’s chief antagonist, Geronimo, in the first two films, to be replaced by Ian MacDonald in the third. The trilogy was made out of order, but in terms of the chronology of the events depicted, The Battle of Apache Pass (George Sherman, 1952) comes first, set in 1862 (and written by Gerald Drayson Adams, who also wrote Taza), followed by Broken Arrow (Delmer Daves, 1950), set in 1870, and then Sirk’s film, set four years later.
All three follow more or less the same narrative trajectory that was a regular feature of the western. (8) Except in those films where all Native Americans are presented unambiguously as The Enemy, whooping wildly as they swoop on wagon trains or massacre innocent settlers, a clear opposition was established between good Indians and bad Indians, defining those co-operating with the “white eyes” as good and those refusing to as bad. It’s a dichotomy in clear evidence here.
A further opposition is frequently created in the genre between a hawk-like martinet committed to oppressing Native Americans and a lesser officer more sympathetic to the Indians’ situation (classically in John Ford’s Fort Apache, 1948), this tension generally accompanied by a blood-brother kind of relationship between the officer and a good Indian. This too is present here.
A key issue in the trilogy for, first, Cochise, and then, Taza, is to decide whether Apaches should maintain control over Apache affairs or pass all legal responsibility for them over to the whites. Alongside this is the depiction of the mismanagement of the situation by the US authorities, also a recurring feature of many westerns.
In the first two films in the trilogy, Cochise is befriended by a sympathetic white man – an honourable cavalry officer, Major Jim Colton (John Lund), in Sherman’s film, an army scout with clout, Tom Jeffords (James Stewart), in Daves’ – and persuaded that it would be best for his people if he sought a peaceful rapprochement with the white forces. In Taza, Cochise dies soon after the start and his son replaces him as the chief of the Chiricahua Apache, but the story arc remains the same, the well-meaning white man another cavalry officer, this time Captain Burnett (Gregg Palmer).
In all three of the films, rebellious Apaches and xenophobic whites – cavalry officers rigidly citing orders from Washington as their guide; racist settlers summoning God as theirs – become obstacles to peace. But Geronimo is presented the key stumbling-block, a leader who refuses to make peace with those he regards as oppressive forces of occupation and vows to drive them out.
And each of the films depicts him as the chief villain. The poster line for Taza, in fact, exclaims of its protagonist: “He led the Apache nation against Geronimo’s pillaging hordes!” And when Taza is made chief, an army scout’s assessment of him – “He’s got it in him to be a greater chief than Cochise or a worse devil than Geronimo” – appears to speak for the film.
Despite this, in their sympathetic presentation of peace-loving Indians, the three films can reasonably be described as “liberal westerns” for their time. (10) But, equally, they’re also fundamentally conservative in their depiction of Geronimo as an unapologetic warmonger and of his refusal to compromise with an enemy that has taken his land in the name of “manifest destiny” as a moral flaw.
What makes Taza different from its predecessors is the way it places its title character at the centre of the action, shifting the focus of attention away from the white blood brother. It’s unlikely that the films were made with this in mind – except, perhaps, for Taza – but there appears to be a logical progression in their structure that steers the Indian protagonist more and more into the foreground.
The problems in The Battle of Apache Pass and Broken Arrow are all about the whites sorting out their differences with the Indians, with Major Colton and Tom Jeffords, respectively, in the driver’s seat. Captain Burnett is a key figure in Taza, but, whereas Cochise is a significant but secondary character in the earlier pair of films, here, Taza’s struggle is central as he finds himself caught between his desire to maintain peace and the need to assert his people’s rights in his negotiations with the whites.
Although considerable weight is given to the increasingly isolated position in which Cochise finds himself in Broken Arrow, it’s a struggle that’s more fully fleshed out in Taza than in the earlier films. For a start, Geronimo is shown to be speaking for others intimately acquainted with Taza as well as himself and this lends the new chief’s quandary a potent emotional dimension. After the leadership is thrust on him and he accepts the terms of the peace brokered by his father, others in the tribe – his brother, Naiche (Rex Reason), and Grey Eagle (Morris Ankrum), the father of the woman he loves, Oona (Barbara Rush), as well as Geronimo – regard Taza as a traitor to the Apache cause. They are discredited by the film, but the personal consequences of their hostility towards Taza leave him especially torn.
“He is my most symbolic in-between man,” Sirk said, (11) and this is clearly signalled in his embodiment of Taza’s divided sympathies in the outfits he wears during the course of the film. Even if Hudson’s performance never quite lends Taza’s torment the intensity it requires, the film’s script and costume design make it unmistakable.
“It will easier fit my body than my mind,” Taza says regarding the uniform of the reservation police that Captain Burnett gives him to wear in line with the responsibilities he has accepted. It’s effectively a cavalry uniform, with only a bandana worn under the hat and a shell necklace as reminders of Taza’s identity as a Chiricahua. Significantly, he casts off this outfit when Burnett’s short-sighted superior, General Crook (Robert Burton), breaks the agreement that had been made to allow Apaches to punish Apaches for any transgressions.
Sirk identifies the world in which Taza moves as a divided one, even structurally pairing him with Captain Burnett in the way that both men find themselves in conflict with those who wear the same uniforms as they do. Indian customs are contrasted to those of the white man, pointing to the ways in which both cultures are born of differing and sometimes irreconcilable ways of viewing the world. Sirk pays close attention to the rituals that shape their existence, to the different ways in which they communicate and to how they conduct themselves in battle, the Indians’ whoops and flexible strategies in combat in contrast to the more orderly approach taken by the cavalry with its bugles and rigid troop formations.
Intriguingly, as if pointing to what the Apaches are missing in the way they conduct their lives, and underlining another aspect of this divided world, (12) Sirk constantly films sequences so that women’s business occupies the foreground of the images while the bellicose activities of the men are, visually at least, pushed into the background. Along the same lines, the film’s narrative rhythms and the shifts from one sequence to the next evoke a cycle of peaceful activities constantly being interrupted by warlike ones and never reaching a resolution. (13)
In its immersion of its central character in a swirl of contradiction and compromise, Sirk humanises a Native American chief in a way that few westerns have managed. At the same time, he links Taza to all of those other characters in his films whom we encounter trying to make sense of their lives but forever being thwarted by their circumstances and their uncertainties. It’s not hard to see how Robert Stack, or another actor more malleable than Hudson proved to be, might bring an emotional urgency to Taza’s situation and to the film’s narrative momentum that’s missing here.
In the only western he made, it’s instructive to see what Sirk was able to do with such a heavily formularised genre, and what he failed to do. On the one hand, his decision to make an Indian his protagonist was an adventurous move, in the wake of Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (1950) and in the same year as Robert Aldrich’s Apache. On the other, his failure to move beyond the clichéd genre opposition of the good Indian/bad Indian prevents Taza from offering the same kind of social critiques that he pursued elsewhere. (14)
That he might have taken a far more subversive approach is evident in Captain Lightfoot, which he made two years later.
Although Captain Lightfoot is equally ruled by convention, it seems less constrained by it. The film sits comfortably amongst those tales of men (and, occasionally, women) who lived outside society and its laws before the 20th century, stealing from the rich and, now and then, passing on the proceeds to the poor. Sometimes they’re depicted as free spirits, adventurers who’ve simply cut themselves loose from society and its proprieties and gone their own way; sometimes they’re cast as villains; and occasionally their motives are given a political edge.
In Europe, they’re generally known as highwaymen, in America as outlaws, in Australia as bushrangers. Robin Hood, Jesse James and Ned Kelly might come from different continents (to name three of the most famous), but they’re spiritual brethren. Captain Thunderbolt (real name: John Doherty), as played by Jeff Morrow, and Captain Lightfoot (real name: Michael Martin), as played by Rock Hudson, the heroes of Sirk’s film, clearly belong in their company. (15)
The setting is Ireland in 1815, fifteen years after the country found itself being ruled from Westminster rather than Dublin. An opening scroll announces that what follows is to be a story about “the Ireland of deep, black rivers and red-coated dragoons riding through a land bitter with resistance against foreign rule, the Ireland of secret societies and highwaymen on the Dublin road, the Ireland of dark deeds performed with a light heart”. And the “bad, good old Ireland” which Sirk depicts in Captain Lightfoot proves to be a divided world with more than a few similarities to the one depicted in Taza, Son of Cochise.
Michael is a reckless young man whose hero is the famous Captain Thunderbolt, a leader in the struggle to oust the occupying British forces. After he discovers that the man whom he’s befriended on the road and has come to know as John Doherty is actually Captain Thunderbolt, he joins forces with him. When Doherty is injured, Martin reluctantly accepts the invitation to fill in for him as a rebel leader, the transaction an echo of the passing of the leadership of the Chiricahua Apache from Cochise to Taza. (16)
In its depiction of the attitudes of the Irish towards the British interlopers, Captain Lightfoot also makes for a fascinating contrast with Taza. Our sympathies here are unquestionably with the two Irish rebels, their fellow freedom fighters and their struggle against the unwelcome intruders. Any inclination to negotiate with the enemy is regarded as little more than a betrayal of the cause. When the uptight Regis (Denis O’Dea), a fellow member of “the Society”, speaks in measured terms about how best to maintain a spirit of rebellion, Michael is contemptuous of him. “Words, words, words,” he scoffs. “A mask for a coward to hide behind.” And the British also regard Regis as malleable.
However, all is not as it seems and Regis is subsequently revealed to have an abundance of cards up his sleeve. Towards the end, it appears that he has betrayed “the Society”, but that turns out to be a ruse to allow him to help Michael to safety after he’s been captured by the dragoons. Which is entirely consistent with the film’s thematic pattern that appearances are not to be trusted in this world. As Doherty explains to Michael, “We live in a world of phantasmagoria, fake forms and fake faces. Each man wears a mask against his fellows…”
Nevertheless, the film endorses Michael’s view of Regis’s apparent failings, its case clearly loaded to favour the men of action. This is to take a very different view from the one Taza offers about how best to deal with occupying forces. The discredited ideological position Regis occupies until he reveals his true identity, makes him the film’s equivalent of Taza, while Michael and Doherty are more like Geronimo in their refusal to roll over and play nice.
That said, though, Michael is repeatedly shown to be misguided, allowing himself to be led by his instincts rather than his intellect. He might be nominally the film’s hero, but the colourfully romantic name he acquires – “Captain Lightfoot” – is bestowed on him ironically by Doherty’s daughter, Aga (Barbara Rush), in honour of his social awkwardness. In Burnett’s novel, he’s described as a “young rustic barbarian” (17) and the book presents its story as an account of the education of an innocent, a narrative map also roughly sketched out by the film.
Michael is headstrong, impulsive and not especially bright. A policeman unkindly but correctly observes of him at one stage that he sees “with befuddled eyes”. Moreover, his exploits fit neatly into the film’s general cycle of misadventure which has the major characters repeatedly embarking on missions that prove to be counter-productive. Naïve Michael gets by overall on a wing and a prayer rather than sound strategies and it remains unclear throughout – even to Michael himself – whether he’s driven by a genuine concern for the future of Ireland in its struggle against an occupying force or simply an impatience for adventure, an inability to sit still and contemplate life’s complexities. The film might appear to be charting the course of his education, but it’s finally hard to see what exactly he’s learned.
Doherty is a much smarter operator, although it’s not easy to grasp what exactly he sees in Michael that makes him believe that the young man he found by the side of the road would be a suitable leader for the rebel movement. They’re both on the same side, but Doherty’s Captain Thunderbolt is a clever strategist who knows how to use the enemy’s failings against it, whereas Michael, without ever becoming unsympathetic, seems to be simply going along for the ride. Hudson makes him terribly earnest, awfully foolish and poignantly vulnerable.
The most successful of the three films under discussion here, Captain Lightfoot has an appealing playfulness that makes it very different in tone to the others. Eschewing the melodramatic potential of the material, it instead metaphorically winks at us, unfolding as an ironic comedy, with Hudson’s performance much more in tune with its wry tone. Rather than being required to carry the film’s emotional weight, the actor is allowed to loosen up a little, his statuesque heart-throb looks at odds with his less than heroic stature. “Hudson was playing comedy and I realised his talents might lie there,” Sirk said of his contribution. (18) As a result, the director was able to bring a festive dimension to the film, a mischievous sense of fun that one doesn’t usually associate with his work.
Ostensibly about the psychological consequences of inflicting what has now become known as “collateral damage” during wartime, Battle Hymn tells the story of Dean Hess, or at least a part of it. Hess was both an Ohio minister and a member of the US Air Force during World War 2 and the Korean War, although the film begins “in the summer of 1950, five years after the end of WW2 and one month after the invasion of South Korea”, as General Partridge’s opening statement informs us. He also adds that what we’re about to see is a tale about “the essential goodness of the human spirit”, which is not exactly untrue, although it’s something of a simplification of the impact of war on Hess and his responses to it.
The film proper starts with the Reverend Hess (Rock Hudson) at his Ohio pulpit, delivering a sermon about guilt and its consequences. Hudson’s solidity oozes decency and good intentions, although subsequent scenes seem designed to indicate that he’s a deeply troubled man. “Nice sermon, Dean,” Deacon Edwards (Carl Benton Reid) tells him, “though, if you don’t mind me saying so, you might dwell less on guilt and more on the hope that Heaven holds for us.” In one form or another, Hess receives the same counsel from two others during the course of the film.
The source of his discontent is an incident he was involved in during WW2 when a malfunction in the missile trigger of his single-pilot fighter plane resulted in him accidentally bombing a German orphanage and killing 37 children. His wife, Mary (Martha Hyer), has been living with his guilt and is sympathetic to his efforts to deal with it. A brief flashback presents the incident and reveals that Hess’s nickname, apparently bestowed on him by his pilot buddy, Dan Skidmore (Don DeFore), is “Killer”.
Then, for reasons that seem unaccountable, Hess returns to the Air Force as a volunteer. Mary wonders why he would return to the battlefield since that was where his problems began, and he has no answer for her. “One doesn’t always have to have a clear reason for the things he does,” he tries to explain. “It’s just how I feel, that’s all. This is what I have to do.” The suggestion is that he’s placing his trust in God, or at least his own instincts, to guide him, and he’s surrendering himself to whatever destiny holds in store for him.
Counsel offered by two other characters stresses the point. One is an African-American pilot in Korea, Lieutenant Maples (James Edwards), who strafes a truck filled with refugees, believing it to be a North Korean convoy, and is traumatised by his actions. Hess goes to comfort him, his empathy colliding with Maples’ determination to deal with it. “Sir, it’s…. the way of things, I guess,” Maples says. “I figure it’s all God’s making and will…. Doesn’t the book say it: ‘No sparrow shall fall to earth unless He first gives his nod’? Well, He must’ve given his nod to what happened out there today too. He must have… He’s the almighty, isn’t He? We have to trust Him, sir. How can we live without that?”
The second is Lun-Wa (Philip Ahn), an old South Korean craftsman who reassures Hess about the decision he’s made to return to war, implicitly endorsing the US’s entry into it after the North Korean invasion of its neighbour. “What must one do when a choice between two evils is all that is offered? To accept the lesser sometimes can be our only choice. In order to save, at times we must destroy and, in destruction, create new life.” The choices Hess makes by returning to the Air Force give him a second chance, providing him with the opportunity to clear the way for the building of an orphanage in South Korea (celebrated in the final sequence) and allowing him to make at least some kind of reparation for the earlier accident, for the bombing that continues to haunt him.
All of this is asserted in the film – in both the dialogue and the narrative trajectory – but its presentation is unconvincing, largely because one never gets the sense from Hudson’s performance that Hess is torn by guilt or divided about how to deal with it. The structure of the film proposes him as a man on a mission, but he seems to have little emotional investment in the incidents that transport him from one scene to the next. Again, an actor like the Robert Stack of Written on the Wind might well have proved to be better casting.
Further complicating the matter are the very “Sirkian” suggestions in the film that Hess is, like many of the director’s protagonists, flailing around blindly trying to come to terms with his troubles. Central to this is the uniform motif which pervades the film and provides the characters with a cloak of identity. It gives them a sense of who they are, but that reassurance is also persistently undermined. It’s fundamental to the sense of dividedness that is also crucial to the film.
The opening shot precisely establishes this: a stained-glass window connoting a church is to the left of the frame, a pilot’s helmet and goggles is to the right; on the soundtrack, a chorale of “heavenly voices” (evoking memories of Magnificent Obsession, with which Battle Hymn has much in common) (19) is set against the stirringly patriotic “Battle Hymn of the Republic”. It’s also taken up in Hess’s move from a preacher’s suit to an Air Force uniform, a shift naturalised by the flow of events – as are the costume changes in both Taza and Captain Lightfoot – but lent a special resonance by the significance that is attached to dress in what follows.
A Korean woman (May Lee) who has brought some orphaned children to the base where Hess’s Air Base unit is stationed turns out to be a saboteur when she’s shot with a grenade in her hand by a South Korean officer (James Hong). The point that appearances are not to be trusted is underlined: the woman had used the children as her disguise, pretending to be caring for them in order to inveigle her way into the camp and do her dirty work. It’s the reverse of the situation in which the truck that had appeared to Lt. Maples from the air as another of the enemy vehicles they’d been attacking turned out to be filled with those the US forces had been deployed to defend.
Then, in the following sequence, Hess and Sergeant Herman (Dan Duryea) are driving through the countryside when they come upon Lun-Wa and a group of children who flee the jeep’s approach. “They mistrust anyone in uniform,” the old man explains. To which Hess replies, “They’ll have to learn that there’s many different kinds of uniforms.” He thinks that the uniforms he and Herman are wearing provide some guarantee, that they should reassure the locals that they’re trustworthy. Yet earlier, at the base, we’ve seen the US flyers patronising the Koreans and chasing the children away, their racism palpable. Hess might be trying to change this, but it makes his claim that the children should place their trust in anyone wearing the US uniform naïve at best.
Later on, in a sequence included to provide some conventional “comic relief”, uniforms are again cast as unreliable guides to the truth about those wearing them. Herman has been sent by Hess to Seoul to fetch candy for the children. An impossible mission, he thinks, until he spies a US Navy depot, doffs a Shore Patrol officer’s jacket as a disguise and uses the navy man’s jeep to requisition the requested supplies.
For his own part, Hess returns to service without letting his unit know of his prior life as a minister. His Air force uniform becomes his disguise, allowing him to remain silent when a fellow officer asks if there’s anyone better able to offer grace at a Thanksgiving celebration at the base. Later, when a letter from the Deacon is addressed to “Reverend Dean Hess”, he’s exposed, the officer expressing anger that Hess had said nothing. And when the Reverend/Colonel challenges Skidmore for disobeying orders, his former friend asks, “Whatever happened to ‘Killer’ Hess?”
These details do much to subvert any straightforward notion that, with Hess, what we get is what we see. Appearances can be deceiving and, while he might be presented as a decent man trying to do the right thing – and to salve his stricken conscience – there is also a suggestion that he’s reaching out for a mirage, that he’s deceiving himself. His beliefs about what he’s doing and why, embodied in the uniforms he wears during the course of the film, might be what make him human but are no guarantee at all of “the essential goodness of the human spirit”.
One of the most striking features of these three films is the way that, for all their flaws, contradictions and unresolved tensions, Sirk is clearly endeavouring to shape them according to his own readily identifiable concerns. (20)
Critics might read his “vision”, his view of humanity and the artistic means he brings to its expression, in a variety of ways. My reading of Taza, Captain Lightfoot and Battle Hymn, for example, might seem to be an endorsement of Fred Camper’s argument that Sirk is “an epistemologist of despair, arguing that we can never really see or know anything.” (21) It seems to me, though, that, even in his lesser works, his embrace of his flawed protagonists and the dramatic support he lends to their efforts to do the right thing – even when they get it wrong – make him at least as much a humanist as a fatalist.
But whatever readings one brings to his films, there’s no mistaking his voice.
- All uncited quotes during the course of this article come from my interviews with Sirk in Lugarno during the 1970s and ’80s.
- Bless their souls, Madman Australia has released a nine-film DVD box set entitled Douglas Sirk – King of Hollywood Melodrama, made up of a mix of the rare and the readily available: No Room for the Groom, All I Desire, Magnificent Obsession, Taza, Son of Cochise, All That Heaven Allows, There’s Always Tomorrow, A Time to Love and a Time To Die, The Tarnished Angels and Imitation of Life. The company has also released individual DVDs of several of these films including Interlude (with John Stahl’s When Tomorrow Comes, 1939, of which it is, officially at least, a remake) and Imitation of Life (with Stahl’s 1934 film of the same name). Captain Lightfoot and Battle Hymn are both available on DVD through Universal in anamorphic widescreen.
- Dean E. Hess, Battle Hymn, McGraw-Hill, USA, 1956
- Jon Halliday, Sirk on Sirk: Conversations with Jon Halliday, Revised Edition, Faber & Faber, 1997, p. 104
- While it is true that Sirk used Native Americans as extras, as was the custom in Hollywood westerns, all the Indian characters in the film’s foreground were played by white actors.
- According to IMDb, the World 3-D Expo which took place in Hollywood during September, 2006, premiered a newly restored print of Taza, Son of Cochise, offering the original, high quality Polaroid version with clear glasses, not the inferior red/blue anaglyph form of 3D.
- Halliday, op. cit., pp. 122 – 126
- In the flag-waving style adopted by Hollywood during wartime, officers from the armed forces would, by way of forewords, provide official endorsement of the stories about to be told. The studios responsible were thus seen to be doing their part for the war effort, celebrating the endeavours of the men fighting for the nation and ensuring that their missions were seen by audiences in the correct light. See also, for example, Bombardier (1943).
- See Ed Buscombe’s excellent ‘Injuns! Native Americans in the Movies, Reaktion Books, UK, 2006 for an insightful elaboration of this strand of the western.
- Based on Elliott Arnold’s 1947 novel, Blood Brother, Broken Arrow was adapted for the screen by Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz, under the pseudonym, Michael Blankfort.
- Halliday, op. cit., p. 104
- Also perhaps prefiguring the shooting style and thematic preoccupations of Kelly Reichardt’s revisionist western, Meek’s Cutoff (2010).
- This strategy echoes the one persistently used in Sirk’s romantic and domestic melodramas where intimate exchanges between characters are forever being interrupted and left unresolved.
- In Geronimo: An American Legend (1993), directed by Walter Hill and written by John Milius and Larry Gross, the title character (played by Wes Studi) is presented with far greater insight and empathy and given a charisma lacking from earlier depictions.
- Sirk’s film provided the initial inspiration for Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) – apparently one of Cimino’s favourite films of the ’50s – in which the action is transplanted to smalltown America in the 1970s.
- In Burnett’s novel, which is divided into three sections, Doherty/Thunderbolt dies at the end of part one, whereas in the film, he’s wounded and withdraws from the action, but is alive and well through to the end. In both cases, though, as a result of his injuries, he passes the baton of leadership on to Martin/Captain Lightfoot.
- W.R. Burnett, Captain Lightfoot, Macdonald & Co., London, 1955, p. 42
- Halliday, op. cit., p. 118
- Structurally the film has much in common with Magnificent Obsession, which was shot three years earlier. Both deal with an accident and its consequences, the course of Hess’s attempt to redeem himself matching the one followed by Bob Merrick (Hudson again) in Magnificent Obsession: from overwhelming guilt through involvement in a course of action designed to make reparation for his mistake. Pervading this is a strategic uncertainty attached to the characters’ motives, the film casting a shadow of ambiguity over the “magnificent obsession” that guides them towards redemption. Alongside this, a recurrent motif in Magnificent Obsession has Merrick bursting into the frame, as if afraid of being left out of the life going on inside it. For Hess, the movement is in the opposite direction, Sirk repeatedly presenting him moving out of the frame, as if in retreat from the unfolding action, as if seeking a kind of oblivion.
- This runs directly counter to the view proposed by George Zuckerman, in a letter to Michael Stern (first published in Bright Lights Film Journal, Issue No. 6, 1977, and available on-line at http://brightlightsfilm.com/48/sirkzuckzug.php): “Sirk, much as I admire the man, wasn’t and couldn’t have been an ‘auteur’ the way the studio was run in those days … Your ‘hero’ should be Ed Muhl, who ran the studio. I don’t mean to demean Sirk’s work. But he had no chance. The budgets were tight, the schedules tighter. A director who went over budget or shooting schedule never worked at U-I again. Sirk knew this. He was rushed, he was harried by the stars. He did what he could – which was better than the other directing talent on the lot.”
- Fred Camper, “The Films of Douglas Sirk: The Epistemologist of Despair”, The Chicago Reader, April 14, 2006.