Pioneer Ancestors

Make Your Movie Now

Filmmaking Stuff - How To Make, Market and Sell Your Movie

Get Instant Access

Despite the Great War's appearance in 1920s prestige films such as Wings and The Big Parade, America's unusual and even remote relationship to the war restricted the purely American forays to elliptical examinations of wartime America and the postwar veteran's anonymous struggle for survival. With the exception of Chaplain Duffy and Alvin York (and the more obscure Robert Elliot Burns), real historical figures or heroes were almost nonexistent. As historian Dixon Wecter wrote in 1941, York was

"the greatest individual hero of the war," achieving a traditional heroic status that even General John Pershing and Woodrow Wilson lacked.24 Instead, the doughboy or veteran became an Everyman, a nameless and passive American reacting to the horrors of war and the poverty of the aftermath. In many ways, Hollywood's historical attitude toward the war concurred with contemporary reportage and postwar writings about 1917 and 1918. Heroes were extremely hard to locate in a nightmare of mechanized killing. Even Britain's T. E. Lawrence, pursued and exploited by both the American and the British press, was hardly the establishment's idea of a traditional military hero. Pershing and the American press had even more difficulty finding an American war hero. Two decades later, popular historian Samuel Taylor Moore reasoned that "it was not alone because of censorship, nor the comparative brevity of large-scale American participation that no military heroes comparable to Grant, Lee, Sherman, Stonewall Jackson, Phil Sheridan and J. E. B. Stuart emerged from the war."25 The unprecedented scale of the battles meant that commanding officers were removed from the fighting. Instead, doughboys and their officers of the line saw the action. But the casualties were such that audacity, courage, and leadership often earned death, not lasting remembrance. Even ace flyer Eddie Rickenbacker, whose solitary aerial exploits recalled an era of individual wartime heroism, could not completely acquire the status of America's greatest war hero. In the eyes of many, his German surname and ancestry compromised his reputation, and throughout the war he was subject to persecution by anti-German warmongers and spy hunters.26 Anglo-Saxon Sergeant Alvin York became the press's answer when they discovered that he had walked out of the Argonne forest in October 1918 with 132 German prisoners.

The public was astonished to learn that he was a Tennessee mountain man, born in a log cabin in Fentress County, largely self-educated, poor, devout, lean, lanky, and a dead shot with a long rifle. This twentieth-century Hawkeye resisted being drafted on four separate occasions, even appealing to President Wilson that his pacifism was the conviction of his church. His appeals were all denied. Eventually he would meet a Georgia-born major who attempted to convert him to the war effort with a barrage of Bible quotations. After the religious duel and a last leave in the mountains, York, transformed into a muscular Christian crusader, embarked for France. In the last days of October 1918, York was part of a detail ordered to clear a hill for the American advance. When the rest of his company was killed or wounded, he managed to capture a German machine gun company single-handedly. Imagining that the advancing

Germans were "wild turkeys," he shot the back ranks first, then the front. When he finally returned through the enemy lines, he conveyed 132 prisoners into American hands. The story leaked out slowly, but when it appeared in the Saturday Evening Post, York became a household name. In the closing weeks of the war, he proved that American heroism and individual action were still viable.

Curiously, though, neither York nor the army seemed anxious to capitalize on his achievements.27 York's report was sparse and matter-of-fact. It was his commanding officer and the members of his company who endorsed his actions and spread the story. Yet the events were not widely known until George Patullo's Saturday Evening Post story made York a national hero in 1919.28 In fact, Patullo claimed that General Pershing was annoyed with the article, since it publicized York and scuppered the general's attempts to highlight the heroic deeds of a professional soldier. Pershing's reluctance to publicize York's work in the Argonne forest is understandable. Americans had been fighting in Europe for months, and when an individual heroic action finally captured the public's fancy, the hero was not a professional soldier but an uneducated, uncouth backwoods sergeant, a draftee, and, to top it all, a conscientious objector. Yet from the beginning of Sergeant Alvin York's appearance in printed history, his biographers emphasized the very qualities of the reluctant citizen-soldier. In writing York into the history of the Great War, Patullo stressed his subject's simple and devout background, his mountain-man independence that linked him directly to America's canon of rugged individualists and citizen-soldiers: Daniel Boone, Andrew Jackson, Sam Houston, and, of course, Abraham Lincoln. Patullo's article connected York to the country's righteous Christian heritage, work ethic, simplicity, and modesty. He was an old-fashioned hero for a rapidly changing America, a throwback to the nineteenth- or even eighteenth-century generation of pioneers. York's life in the mountains enhanced the public view of him as a traditional American and a vanishing type in the wake of industrial and urban progress.

Sergeant Alvin C. York was not an anonymous doughboy, yet he seemed to have another quality that might have restricted his impact on the American public — namely, his modesty. From all accounts, he was a shy young man, deeply conscious and ashamed of his lack of formal education. He shunned the press. After his discharge, he returned to the quiet of his prewar existence. York might have disappeared from public view forever had it not been for Tom Skeyhill. A veteran himself, Skeyhill was an unsuccessful journalist who knew that York's story could change his fortunes. But York refused to work with him on an autobiography until Skeyhill slyly implied that proceeds from the book's publication could be used to finance a school for the underprivileged mountain children of Fentress County. In 1927 they set to work.

Skeyhill's first York publication was well timed. Sergeant York: His Own Life Story and War Diary was published shortly after American veteran Hervey Allen's Toward the Flame, but it preempted the glut of British memoirs in the late 1920s and early 1930s.29 The book concludes with York's terse daily journal, begun shortly after his training in Georgia, but the majority of the text is a reputed narrative autobiography. Former secretary of war Newton Baker wrote the foreword and stressed the transformation of modern warfare from "pomp and parade" to "industrial" terror. But Baker was proud to point out the persistence of American heroes like Alvin York: "It is often said that the glory and the opportunity for individual exploit have all been taken out of war, but every now and then circumstances still make opportunity, and certainly one such was made when Sergeant York, with his little band, found himself surrounded by machine-gun nests in Chatel-Chelchery on October 8, 1918." For Baker, York's life was particularly relevant for modern Americans, for it taught "the priceless value of individual character and may warn us here in America from allowing our children, who have to use machines, from being themselves made into machines."30 Skeyhill's preface also bolstered York's life story with pointed reminders of York's status as a reluctant draftee and a pure descendant of American pioneers. Although the book concludes with York's war diary, York did not write the bulk of the narrative. Advertised as York's "own life story," it is nonetheless retold by Skeyhill in an imitation backwoods dialect. Skeyhill astutely realized the importance of displaying the book as York's own, of connecting his heroic individual actions in the war with an equally autonomous autobiography. Yet as Baker indicates, York's own life was insignificant compared to the abstract principles and historical tradition he stood for.

Skeyhill corroborated this conviction, beginning the "autobiography" with chapters on the historic "long hunters" of Fentress County, Tennessee, outlining York's pioneer ancestors and "pure stock," and relating family stories of Daniel Boone. Only by chapter 14 does Skeyhill describe York's youth and boyhood. The narrative describes York's pacifism, his resistance to war and eventual conversion, his war career, and his return to Fentress. He rejected all efforts to commercialize his fame, including an offer to act in Hollywood, and he returned to the peaceful anonymity of life in the mountains. The account portrays the war as merely an inter ruption with no lasting effect on this old-fashioned American hero. The counterpoint between York's fame as a traditional hero and his desire to return to a pioneering past also captured the nation's own feeling about the war's effect on modern America. As historian T. J. Jackson Lears has pointed out, Americans have always maintained an antagonistic attitude toward modernity and industrial development.31 This conflict was especially evident in the language with which the canny Skeyhill represented York.

In 1930 Skeyhill published York's official biography, tellingly subtitled The Last of the Long Hunters, thereby solidifying York's claim as a descendant of Daniel Boone.32 Yet even as Skeyhill emphasized the "pure" Anglo-Saxon and pioneer blood in the Tennessee backwoodsman's veins, Skeyhill's notion of York's place in history retained the uneasily subjective quality of postwar American historiography and anticipated the tone of many Hollywood historical films. "Sergeant York's life story is one of the greatest stories in the world today," he wrote. "It is stranger than fiction, stranger than life itself, and just as intangible. Edgar Allen [sic] Poe, nor H. G. Wells nor Dumas would have dared to create such a character."33 That same year, Fred Pasley, another journalist-turned-biographer, said much the same thing when attempting to summarize Al Capone's historical appeal. It was a subtle way of attributing modern events and people with an unruly and subjective power that defied the bloodless conventions of traditional historiography. For these historians, creative imagination was necessary to understand and interpret York and Capone. Yet York was not one of those modern heroes who operated in a corrupt and hostile world. It took an almost fictional imagination to conceive of him precisely because he was like a displaced pioneer hero—a part of America's legendary heritage. Skeyhill spent the bulk of his biography tracing York's pioneering ancestors and remarked in one definitive passage that "the log cabins of the pioneers were the outposts of civilization. They tell more plainly than the historian the heroic story of the conquering of the wilderness. They are distinctly, uniquely American. Many of the greatest Americans that ever lived were born within their rough-hewn walls. Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Daniel Boone, David Crockett, and Sam Houston first saw the light of day in log cabins." As Skeyhill narrated it, York's childhood was spent with his parents telling him family stories of these pioneers "as though they still lived." For York, the past was not dead; it was literally the contemporary text on which he based his life. American history "was their patrimony."34 York never learned this history from books; instead, he learned it orally as a family tradition.

If York's early life reads like a modern American myth where historical personages flit in and out of past and present tenses and the mountain men live in a timeless frontier landscape untouched by industrialism or specific dates, then Skeyhill's account of York's war experience was written as a deliberate contrast. His exploits in the Argonne forest, of such epic proportions that "at first even the officers refused to believe it," are examined with scrupulous and even documentary attention. Skeyhill first quoted the "official story" from American war records and the statements of confirmation made by members of his company; then he compared these with York's own statement made shortly after the events. Skeyhill quoted extensive passages, and there were no discrepancies in the documents. Having won such historic fame in Europe, with his quiet return to Fentress County in 1919, York became part of an even more illustrious company. Fentress County, untouched by the modern world, was, for Skeyhill, the cradle of the American pioneer: "This is the land of pioneers and of the Long Hunters. Alvin York is their lineal descendant. He is an eighteenth-century character living in the twentieth century, and has been fittingly referred to as 'one of our contemporary ancestors.' The mantle of Boone and Crockett, of Houston and 'Old Hickory,' has fallen on worthy shoulders in Alvin Cullum York, the Last of the Long Hunters."35 Skeyhill's was a curious metaphor, linking York to James Fenimore Cooper's most famous historical novel, The Last of the Mohicans: A Narrative of 1757. Whereas Cooper intended his novel to be read as a corrective to traditional history, Skeyhill and others saw York's actual life as a metaphor for one of the most hallowed traditions in American history: the pioneer hero. Within a few short years, York was transformed into an eighteenth-century myth. York's connection to the pioneer heroes of the last two centuries was essential to his screen biography by Harry Chandlee. The September 1940 temporary script text foreword began, "When America was young, only the most daring pioneers—the followers of the long hunters led by Daniel Boone—threaded these mountain labyrinths."36 Although the reference to Boone was later curbed, the opening foreword still announced York as the inheritor of the pioneer's mantle, relating the Great War story to the nation-building struggles of our ancestors.

Although a number of westerns, mainly by Warner Brothers, had stressed the determination and toughness of the nineteenth-century American pioneers, it was Hollywood's pan-studio involvement in marshaling the formative defensive period in America's past from the colonial era through the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 that truly captured the contemporary war aims. Even in the Great War and the modern eras of York's life, filmmakers ignored any divisive and bewildering transformations in favor of recounting the pioneer myth. Lasky and Warner Brothers' film drew on an impressive body of historical pictures that described the unification of the nation in times of oppression.

In 1936 both Daniel Boone and Hawkeye returned to American theaters. Although Boone had appeared in MGM's The Great Meadow in 1931, RKO's small production Daniel Boone was the first sound-era Boone biopic. Starring George O'Brien, the film continued RKO's economical biographical work in Annie Oakley and The Arizonian. Although it began with a lengthy text foreword declaring, "No figure in early American history stands out more heroically than Daniel Boone," the production's historical trappings covered only one episode in his life, a 1775 trek with settlers to Kentucky. Contrary to what many film historians have asserted, classical Hollywood films of this era were not solely preoccupied with great men.37 Daniel Boone's name was not a sufficient draw for audiences, and the film had an insignificant run. Instead, audiences preferred to watch the gormandizing good-timer Jim Brady (Diamond Jim), the romantic escapades of Peggy Eaton (The Gorgeous Hussy), the wild life of San Francisco's Barbary Coast (The Barbary Coast, San Francisco), and the gaudy Broadway of arch-philanderer Florenz Ziegfeld (The Great Ziegfeld). These were hardly the professional historians' chosen national figures and events. The brand of traditional heroism would not regain filmmaking status for several years. Eighteenth-century history and pioneers were not the focus of Hollywood's prestigious historical cycle. Although The Last of the Mohicans was one of the most respected historical films of this period, Edward Small's production was not an ode to the fictional hero Nattie Bumpo (Hawkeye). Deeply indebted to the early traditions of historical filmmaking, Small and his filmmakers told a history of British and American relations in 1757, rather than a classic myth of America.

Toward the end of the decade, several major American historical films focused on the eighteenth-century pioneer and his connections to the American Revolution and nation making. But films such as RKO's Allegheny Uprising (1939), MGM's Northwest Passage (1940), and Twentieth Century-Fox's Drums along the Mohawk (1939) were seen as vehicles for contemporary political propaganda, and the studios cut any excessive anti-British sequences. In Allegheny Uprising, the British government began as the colonials' enemy. After fighting for the king in the French and Indian War, they are enraged when the government ignores their appeal for help against raids. The bureaucracy is so corrupt that arms smugglers manage to sell their wares to the tribes in defiance of British law. Law has simply lost its meaning. From the moment P. J. Wolfson's screenplay shows a British officer attempting to court-martial Jim Smith (who has been a captive for several years) as a deserter, the British government proves its inept and obsolete management of the New World. Very quickly, the British become the standard against which Smith and his Black Boys pit their rebellion and the growing definition of Americanism.

The film's indictment of the British was so strong that in the 1940 rerelease and British versions, RKO ordered Wolfson to rewrite the opening foreword, whitewashing the film's new critical history. Roosevelt had strengthened ties to the former imperial governors, and by 1940, it was less advisable to show American patriotism in conflict with British interests. "This is a tale," it began, "laid in the Allegheny Mountains, of Jim Smith and his Black Boys, loyal subjects of His Majesty King George III — and their fight against the Delaware Indians in the year 1759." Unfortunately, the polite foreword did not fit the narrative, even when RKO cut several scenes of British pigheadedness and outright brutality. But the executives needed to salvage what they could of foreign profits; Britain and the empire constituted one of the few stable foreign markets left to Hollywood films in 1939, and RKO needed the overseas proceeds. With George Schaefer in charge of production, RKO had constructed a risky and expensive prestige lineup (purchasing Abe Lincoln in Illinois and hiring Orson Welles). RKO's policy of historical innovation was too expensive and partially succumbed to the pressures of national policy and fiscal necessity.

MGM had more success cementing American-British relations in an adaptation of Kenneth Roberts's colonial tale Northwest Passage.3 In producing Roberts's popular historical novel, Hollywood's wealthiest studio avoided RKO's practice of developing untouched and potentially controversial revolutionary heroes, as well as Wolfson's predilection for rebels and lawless mavericks as the definitive American heroes. Northwest Passage's setting was far enough from the Revolution to avoid any Anglo-American spats. As Indian fighter Rogers growls to his fractious Rangers, "You're not Americans and you're not British—you're Rangers." The problem with Northwest Passage was that it took two years and more than a dozen writers to complete the script.39 The screenwriters' major efforts were devoted to adapting Roberts's enormous narrative, not to historical embellishments or portentous forewords; the producers simply could not agree on the basic narrative.40 As film historian Rudy Behlmer noted, despite the considerable resources that Hollywood's wealthiest studio expended for long-term location shoots, it spent nearly as much on hiring and rehiring writers for extensive rewrites.41 Northwest Passage cost twice as much as the average American historical film (nearly $3 million), and although audiences and exhibitors were relatively happy with it, was not an unusual success.42

It is difficult to imagine MGM's troubles affecting Darryl F. Zanuck's productions. Of all the Hollywood studios, Twentieth Century-Fox had the fewest problems when constructing a historical film. This was due in large part to Zanuck's clear vision for his studio's developing productions and, as Nunnally Johnson remarked, Zanuck's respect for screenwriters. Over the past several years, Zanuck had initiated film confrontations with America's more controversial historical figures, but by late 1939, even he was persuaded to place archetypal American heroes within a framework of historical compromise. Shortly before Margaret Mitchell published the spectacular and divisive Gone with the Wind, Walter D. Edmonds published his historical novel Drums along the Mohawk, the story of a young New York couple's repeated attempts to settle their land in the Mohawk Valley during the Revolutionary War.43 The studio quickly purchased the screen rights, adding the story to its prestige lineup. By 1939, Zanuck was prepared to cast Henry Fonda as Gilbert Martin. Fonda's last three films for Twentieth Century-Fox—Jesse James, The Story of Alexander Graham Bell, and Young Mr. Lincoln — had cemented him as a major studio star and earned him acclaim for creating a variety of American historical roles (Frank James, Thomas Watson, and Abraham Lincoln). Gilbert Martin was to be Fonda's first fictional period role for the studio in a year, but extant production records attest that Zanuck was going through one of his periods of historical angst.

Zanuck first hired Bess Meredith to adapt the novel and then William Faulkner to write the script, but Faulkner's episodic country tale and densely dialogued script was quickly turned over to occasional historical screenwriter Sonya Levien (In Old Chicago).44 Levien, no doubt familiar with the American historical bias in Zanuck's production line, read Edmonds's fictional narrative and Meredith's meticulous condensation and constructed her script as a historical document.45 Unlike the beginning of the novel, she planned to fade in on a close shot of the opening paragraph of the Declaration of Independence and then include a lengthy expository conversation between scout Martin and General Herkheimer, commander of the rebel militia. The gist of the encounter outlines the settlers' major difficulties: the colonial government refuses to send troops west to protect the settlers and expects the impoverished farmers and militia to fight the British and the Native Americans, tend their crops, and produce enough tax money for the new government. Martin and Herkheimer are furious, and the general dictates an appropriate letter to the politicians: "The wish of our hearts is to raise enough wheat to feed our army, but if you don't help us, you can tear up the Declaration of Independence and save yourself the trouble of the Revolution because you ain't—aren't going to win. Soldiers can't fight on empty stomachs, Governor, and victory depends on us farmers!"46 This was evidently too critical of the founding fathers for Zanuck. He crossed out the first twelve pages of Levien's prologue and directed her to begin the script with Gilbert and Lana's marriage in Albany, free of the political conflicts of the Revolution. Already Zanuck was planning to replace Levien and have Trotti or Dunne simplify the narrative. He wanted not a critical historical film but a "great simple love story of pioneers."47 Zanuck also cut Levien's additional criticisms of the colonial government by Herkheimer, who called the legislators "dough-faced, pot-bellied war-winners," dither-ers who only crippled Washington's efforts with ineffective military supply.48 It was a curious and somewhat uncharacteristic choice for Zanuck on a historical picture—after all, he had openly courted controversy in American history throughout his career. But after reading her script, he wrote, "Wherever possible, keep British out of brutality and blame all on Indians and Tories."49 Zanuck intended Drums along the Mohawk to be a patriotic romance, not a critical piece of American history.

Zanuck's vision of Drums along the Mohawk as a romantic period drama rather than Levien's densely documented historical screenplay was arguably closer to Edmonds's intent. Although Edmonds claimed in an author's note that a historical novelist possessed "a greater opportunity for faithful representation of a bygone time than a historian" because of his attention to the prosaic details of everyday colonial existence, he was not as interested in true historiography's preoccupation with "cause and effect" presented "through the lives and characters of 'famous' or 'historical' figures."50 Not all historical novelists believed this. Margaret Mitchell's contemporaneous Gone with the Wind managed to convey the lives of southern women from 1861 to 1873 through a cause-and-effect study of the Civil War, its aftermath, and its effect on major characters from Scarlett O'Hara to Generals John B. Gordon and Nathan Bedford Forrest. Mitchell's novel, although focusing on "fictional" characters, contained extensive diegetic and nondiegetic discussion of historical events, crises, and arguments. Documents were evaluated; historical positions were criticized. Edmonds's novel, in contrast, consisted mostly of dialogue among the characters and interior monologues. Direct references to the

"damned Yankee-controlled Congress" were scarce, and Edmonds, unlike Mitchell, did not explore congressional inefficiency and corruption with the thoughtful and direct discourse of the historian. Instead, Gilbert and Lana witnessed paymasters defrauding militia widows of their husbands' pay and the government overtaxing the settlers even though the army had consistently failed to protect them.51 Broader historical issues appeared indirectly.

Zanuck was certainly justified in seeing the novel as a romance. It began not with a description of a historical document but with Gil and Lana's postnuptial trip to German Flats. After cutting Meredith's and Levien's versions, the producer hired Lamar Trotti, a screenwriter known principally for his historical work, to plot the script. Rather than expunging the historical framework, Zanuck wanted someone to manage Edmonds's indirect but potentially explosive jabs at the colonial government and the British. Levien's script enhanced many of Edmonds's sly barbs directed at the feckless colonial government, its neglect of the settlers, and its early love of collecting taxes. The brash General Herkheimer and Mrs. McKlennar articulated what Edmonds had vaguely implied. Yet Zanuck excised these in his plan to represent early America. For the producer, the colonial government had to remain beyond reproach, and the British (who were rapidly becoming America's allies in the newspapers) were to be almost nonexistent enemies. He replaced red coats and political and military conflict with red skins and romance.

Zanuck outlined his view in a conference in April 1939: "This book should be dramatized for the screen in the same manner that a playwright would dramatize it for the stage. We must not let ourselves be bound by the contents of the book — but simply retain the spirit of the book . . . we are in the business TO GIVE A SHOW. . . . Were we bound by some specific world-famous event, our problems would be more difficult—but here we have a successful book and that is all."52 He nonetheless wanted the film adaptation to approximate the prestige of his last American historical films, among them In Old Chicago, Alexander's Ragtime Band, and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell. In effect, Zanuck wanted the feel of a historical period without the constraints of a major historical film. Levien's forewords were to be dropped and the romance accelerated. In spite of the film's latter-day reputation as a pillar of American political ideology,53 Zanuck specifically ordered any overt patriotic discourse to be cut. "Whatever patriotism comes through should come from inference — let the audience write in the flag-waving for themselves," he ordered. Yet Zanuck was sly; he insisted that Trotti cut out any obvious gibes at the revolutionary government in Edmonds's book and Levien's early script. When Trotti had finished, Zanuck handed the script over to John Ford, who had just finished shooting Trotti's Young Mr. Lincoln. In spite of his antihistorical attitude in conferences, Zanuck gave the story to a pair of proven American historical filmmakers. Yet the producer maintained a growing determination to reduce the impact of history on screen entertainment, perhaps aware that the American historical cycle was headed toward its critical and audience saturation point by 1940.

Upon its release, Drums along the Mohawk had two modes of cinematic responses. On the one hand, it was advertised as a "historical melodrama," a Revolutionary War epic restoring to importance the anonymous farmer-heroes of the war. Gilbert Martin, however fictional, stood for much of what the common American had endured in 1776—the derelict colonial government, the British oppression, the Indian raids. Yet in the final frames of the film, Martin's mission to find the rebel army and bring it to the besieged fort succeeds. A new flag, symbolic of the new nation, flies over the fort. On the other hand, the narrative was a collaborative invention of Edmonds and Twentieth Century-Fox filmmakers. Gil Martin is no Washington or Franklin, and his wife Lana is no Molly Pitcher or Betsy Ross, but in trying to describe the lives and fears of thousands of colonial farmers, Martin's anonymity is an affecting historical choice. And this is how the critics received the film. Variety wrote that Drums along the Mohawk narrated the tale "of pioneer American home-making and nation-building along the colonial frontier," "telling a tale of patriotism when patriotism was a simple, elemental thing of getting down the flintlock and defending a man's house amidst the clearings, his family and his neighbors against Tory intrigue, subsidized tomahawks and flame-tipped arrows."54 Like any prestigious historical film, the script's craftsmanship received special commendation. Zanuck's attempts to modulate the history seem to have failed, yet some reviews were distinctly weary of the theme of settlers versus Indians.55 It had become an all-too-familiar part of Hollywood's history, principally because it was told in the same way. Perhaps the reviews would have been less indifferent had Zanuck retained Levien's or even Trotti's criticisms of the British and colonial governments. However, even Columbia's rare historical effort, The Howards of Virginia, which did criticize both Tories and the racially thwarted concept of American liberty, failed at the box office in 1940.56

A few months later, MGM's Northwest Passage received its jaded reviews. Its fantastic expense and floundering script recalled The Big Trail's reception some ten years earlier. Late in production, director King Vidor

(who had replaced W. S. Van Dyke) attempted to place the film within the tradition of recently released American revolutionary productions by writing a foreword that proclaimed that American history "made simple men, unknown to history, into giants in daring and endurance."57 However, neither author Roberts nor the public liked the film or respected its historical discourse. People were undoubtedly weary of the onslaught of pretentious historical films that celebrated a pioneer narrative formula that was already numbingly familiar in 1940.

Even Zanuck was cutting corners by 1940. In July, in a note to Kenneth Macgowan and William Koenig, Zanuck directed them to keep production costs down on Hudson's Bay (1940): "This means that you have to cut corners in every direction . . . from the standpoint of production, sets, costumes and locations, I want this picture to be a 'cheater.' . . . I do not want a lot of extravagant or elaborate plans made for the picture in advance that will only have to be thrown out eventually."58 Later that month, the leader in American historical productions fumed, "The failure of Edison the Boy, of Edison the Man . . . and the only mild success of Alexander Graham Bell emphasizes again the fact that whenever we deal with subjects or titles of this nature there is always a grave danger of keeping people away from the theatre who are looking for entertainment instead of education, who want a show instead of enlightenment."59 Zanuck knew that Twentieth Century-Fox's less-than-stellar gross in 1939 was due in part to the expensive American historical films he had released.60 Knowing that MGM had also lost money by copying his biographical films did not ease the sting; MGM could afford an expensive failure or two. As New York Times critic Frank Nugent noted in 1940, the cycle of American historical epics was beginning to pall, mainly due to "dog-eared script[s]."61 After observing the 1939 and 1940 Hollywood seasons, Leo Rosten, never a fan of Zanuck's, was caustic: "The producer, steeped in the Hollywood tradition, headstrong with authority, often makes decisions which are psychologically gratifying rather than economically wise. Million-dollar movies are sometimes an expression of a producer's ego rather than his business judgment. For it is profoundly satisfying to produce movies on an immense and dazzling scale. Reputations are made in Hollywood by movies, not balance sheets."62

By 1940, Zanuck had made his reputation; now he needed money. But he was not the only filmmaker affected by audience indifference and critical sneers. Earlier in 1938 and 1939, when Hollywood did depart from conventional historical narratives, the filmmakers were often met with resistance, revision, or incomprehension. Only Sergeant York met with critical and box-office success. Although Alvin York's tale was deeply linked to the tradition of American pioneer history, and in spite of the fact that Warner Brothers' filmmakers constructed his screen life with an impressive array of printed text inserts and pioneer references, York was a man dealing with twentieth-century conflicts. Since his exploits were only a generation old, he was familiar to the present generation of filmgo-ers. Wecter's canonical book of American heroes put him in the same category as Daniel Boone, Lincoln, and Buffalo Bill, but York, a traditional hero, still had to suffer through the twentieth century's greatest calamity. Hollywood was free to draw on Skeyhill's helpful historical metaphors without condemning the narrative to the staleness of Drums along the Mohawk and Northwest Passage. When York hunted Indians or went out on a "turkey shoot," he bagged Germans, a pastime that Americans in 1918 and 1941 could understand.


This page intentionally left blank

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Film Making

Film Making

If you have ever wanted the secrets to making your own film, here it is: Indy Film Insider Tips And Basics To Film Making. Have you ever wanted to make your own film? Is there a story you want to tell? You might even think that this is impossible. Studios make films, not the little guy. This is probably what you tell yourself. Do you watch films with more than a casual eye? You probably want to know how they were able to get perfect lighting in your favorite scene, or how to write a professional screenplay.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment