I just finished watching Passage to Marseilles on TCM. It’s a 1944 Bogart propaganda flick, with those wonderful regulars: Claude Rains, Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre—all of whom play Frenchmen fighting, from England, for “Free France”. There’s a lot of nationalist hooey, a lot of “viva la France!”and “those dirty Germans!” But to be honest, as I watched it I became more and more affected by it. I could see through the blatant political agenda, but still I really started to feel for Humphrey and his love for his nation.
It wasn’t about Bogart. I’m a fan, for sure, but in the end he’s a character actor. He does his Angie, disillusioned character well, but beyond that there’s not much more to him. No, in the end it was about the propaganda. It was the blatant war message that affected me. Why?
Well, it started out by me realizing quickly what kind of movie this was. I tried to imagine it was 1944, and my country was at war with the Nazis, and I was in, say, Illinois, going to the cinema. I didn’t want to get cynical; I wanted to enjoy the movie on its own terms.
And then it worked. When these displaced Frenchmen (they had escaped a colonial prison in order to fight for “free France”) went through hell and high water to fight the Germans, I thought about just how bad the Nazis were. We all know the history. These guys were really bad news. And I, like most young cinema-goers in 1944, wondered just how far I’d go to save the world, or my country, from the Nazi menace.
I’m not a physical confrontation kind of person. That’s part of the reason I write. But, let’s face it, in 1944—or ‘43, when the film was made and before the D-Day landings—there was a real physical threat to the globe in the form of the Nazi empire. And, yes, I would probably shuck my distain for physical violence were I able to assist that fight.
I’m not saying this film made me feel violent. It saddened me. Because my next obvious thought was: Is there a contemporary corrolary? Closest thing is the “war on terrorism”. But do I feel the get up & go when I think of Bin Laden? Not really.
Why not? The guy, like Hitler, is clearly bad news. He’s done his own measure of killing, either directly or in spirit. But I’m not hankering to put a gun to his head. If he happened to be in the same room as me, and I happened to have a gun, then okay. But I wouldn’t work my way into the wilds of some mid-eastern border region in order to track him down, or rush to join the US Army or CIA to do my bit, as I might in 1943.
Part of the answer, I think, lies in complexity. The Second World War is known through the prism of historical propaganda. Passage to Marseilles is a very simple example, but as we all know the victors write history, which makes history itself a form of propaganda. But unlike the First World War or the Korean War or Vietnam, I feel pretty confident calling WWII “the good fight”. Extermination camps prove that.
So back to the present: The Twin Towers are comparable, simply by calling both the camps and the hijackings the slaughter, en masse and with mathematical purpose, of innocents.
So where’s my anger? Where’s my sense of purpose? Because this is the thing World War Two leaves me longing for. Clear, unconflicted purpose.
Well, a major difference is in leaders. FDR, despite whatever faults he had, was unbelievably popular. He’d raised a nation out of the Great Depression by proactive means, and then rallied the public against Hitler with amazing eloquence. In the present, we have a man who hasn’t, say, assisted the economy, and speaks with less eloquence than … well, than someone who really and truly lacks eloquence.
So am I blaming Bush? Not entirely, though in part I obviously am. But I’m not trying to start a political rant here.
I’m thinking more about the contemporary trend of knowledge. Knowledge leads to complexity. The Islamic radicals who want to end Western domination over their lands and the utterly misguided liberation of their peoples via religious doctrine, base their arguments on the historical domination of their countries by the West. While someone else might, I can’t really argue that. Terrorist methods are despicable, but their griefs are often based in historical fact.
Just as, in a way, Hitler’s were. The Treaty of Versailles that concluded WWI essentially raped what was left of Germany. Life was hell, and this hell led to Hitler’s rise. (One reason why the post-WWII Marshall Plan was accepted so readily to rebuild Germany.)
But nothing, no historical argument, can justify the extermination of innocents.
I’m not answering anything here. I’m just bringing up an issue, and perhaps visitors can help me out with this. My problem—if you can call it one—is that I find myself at times longing for the simplicity of purpose that an uncomplicatedly evil enemy gives one. It stabilizes things, clarifies the world. Hitler’s evil wasn’t uncomplicated in 1939, but by 1943-4 it was. He was someone to hate, without worrying that you’re being misled by popular sentiment.
This is no doubt part of the reason I write about the Cold War. I take something that, as I understood it growing up, was simple. Then I complexify it. This, I’ve always felt, is a virtuous purpose for fiction—to make what seems simple and straightforward more complicated, more truthful. Fiction is about the dirty, messy truth, not easy answers.
But once this series is over, I’m going to tackle the contemporary world, which to me is incredibly complex. How do I complexify something that to me is already baffling and overwhelming?
Beyond the writing, though, I keep finding myself nostalgic for a good fight. Tell me what you think. Is the good fight in front of my nose? Or have we simply entered a new period of human history where there are no more good fights—or, where we’re blessed enough to realize there never were any?
(Originally posted at the Contemporary Nomad)