Top Sergeant

D.A.N. Jones

  • An Autobiography by Fred Zinnemann
    Bloomsbury, 256 pp, £25.00, February 1992, ISBN 0 7475 1131 4

Fred Zinnemann’s movie, From Here to Eternity, came out in 1953. I saw it in 1955, when I was a conscript soldier in Hong Kong. Since it was a story about a peace-time army in an exotic station (Pearl Harbor, Hawaii), eventually surprised by the Japanese attack of 1941, it seemed to me and my fellow-rankers markedly relevant to our situation – though we were less unprepared for invasion and insurrection than those surprised Americans at Pearl Harbor. The movie (and James Jones’s novel, on which it was based) presented that peace-time army as a community wherein a vicious and slothful officer might neglect his duties, turning over his responsibilities to the Top Sergeant, while the Other Ranks (or the Enlisted Men, as the Americans say) might be unjustly convicted of trumped-up offences and made to suffer cruel and unusual punishments. A young British soldier might say to himself: ‘Yes, it is all true. Armies are like that – so why are you rather enjoying this life?’

Admittedly, the sympathetic hero, Private Prewitt, seemed to have retained an irrational near-mystical devotion to the Platonic idea of The Army, despite all his sufferings. Then there was a scene to console and reconcile an audience of soldiers. While the most contemptible officer was behaving particularly badly, two very senior officers happened to pass by – looking god-like or vice-regal, rather like General MacArthur – and they said something like: ‘Who is that officer? Take him and break him.’ This was satisfying, a gesture towards the fairy-tale happy ending, with the villain getting his just deserts.

When I interviewed Zinnemann some twenty years later, about his new movie, Julia (1976), I mentioned the circumstances in which I and my fellow-rankers had seen From Here to Eternity, how we had read the long, baleful book of the film and found it relevant to our own grievances. He listened with an expression of grave, compassionate respect: he seemed to feel that I had suffered a bitter experience and his movie had rubbed salt in my wounds. But when I mentioned the scene I liked, with the deus ex machina bringing justice, he frowned and confessed that he hated it: ‘To me, it’s just like a wart on a pretty face.’ He had put in that scene in order to placate the US Army: without their co-operation, he would get no real soldiers in his movie, only actors with slapdash square-bashing, idle on parade.

As I hoped he would, he has developed this point in his Autobiography:

The year was 1953, long before the Vietnam War, Watergate and the era of disillusion. There was an automatic respect for Federal authority. To voice doubts about any of its symbols – the Army, Navy or FBI – was to lay oneself open to deep suspicion. McCarthyism was still very much alive.

To make a movie from Jones’s book was considered ‘foolhardy if not downright subversive ... The Pentagon’s position was that no film based on this novel could possibly benefit the Army, therefore assistance would be denied.’ There was need for ‘great tact and wariness’ in making this film and getting over ‘the Army’s nervousness’. Fortunately, his producer was a tactful and wary ex-officer, and Zinnemann’s own previous work with soldiers and military affairs (in The Search, The Men and Theresa) gave him some standing.

I remember another film of the period, The ‘Caine’ Mutiny, wherein a righteous but sneaky bunch of naval officers, trying to get rid of their gallant but insane captain, are suddenly confronted by a glamorous display of naval dash and efficiency – so that the audience may feel: ‘Ah, this is the real navy – or the Platonic idea of the navy.’ Was that scene, too, ‘a wart on a pretty face’, or a beauty-spot on a crone’s puckered brow?

Zinnemann also had to contend with masterful Harry Cohn, the president of Columbia Pictures, who had bought Jones’s book in a gambler’s gesture and had strong views about casting the movie. ‘Thanking him for his interest, I left him screaming (it was Cohn who was screaming),’ reports Zinnemann about one of his victories. A movie director seems to be like the Top Sergeant in From Here to Eternity, the Burt Lancaster part. Above him, often getting in his way, are the officers – the studio heads, the producers, ‘the boys in New York’; under his command are the self-willed, necessary rankers – actors, cameramen, writers – whom he must bully and cajole into a united force, fit to win individual medals.

I must not suggest that Zinnemann, the autobiographer, is a grousing old sweat, vaunting his burden of responsibility, flouting old opponents. He is exceptionally tolerant, even about men like Harry Cohn and Louis B. Mayer, whom others have presented as fearful monsters. Though sharp-tongued, he rarely passes a damning judgment on his colleagues. He was originally an ‘art-house director’ and his movies are generally pretty serious: but he did not sniff at the chance of making the musical Oklahoma! in 1954. He describes the offer thus: ‘After From Here to Eternity and the Oscars, I was suddenly propelled into the big league.’ He delighted in a test for Oklahoma! made by Rod Steiger and the unknown James Dean (though Dean could not sing well enough to get the part): he has been very appreciative of Method acting. That is why Montgomery Clift played Private Prewitt – though not an obvious choice as a soldier or a boxer. (He was, however, ‘deceptively slim’, as James Jones described Prewitt in the book.) Zinnemann led the stage-actor, Marlon Brando, into screen stardom with The Men (1949): it was about paralysed war veterans – and only an art-house movie. He describes Brando’s ‘method’ and writes, characteristically, of the film: it

opened in New York, the Radio City Music Hall, two weeks after the start of the Korean War. Designed as a post-war picture, it was suddenly facing a pre-war mentality ... It folded in two weeks. It was a noble failure.

This is an unusual autobiography, for it is mostly about Zinnemann’s work, in some detail. He does not review all the films he has made, but he gives a chapter each to 20 of them (from 1934 to 1981), including a ‘non-film’, Man’s Lot (based on Malraux’s La Condition humaine): though never made, its history throws light on Hollywood’s disreputable financing. Yet this book is, in a way, a ‘Life and Times’. Besides those 20 chapters, there is one called ‘Early Days’ – about his youth in Austria, where he was born in 1907, leaving in 1927 for Paris, Berlin and Hollywood: there is another called ‘Apprentice and Journeyman’, describing his small jobs under large artists – strong, liberal directors of his own Top Sergeant rank. But it is a ‘Life and Times’, primarily, in its terse references to the audience’s state of mind in particular periods, the relation of his movies to ‘public opinion’ – as in that phrase about ‘a post-war picture facing a pre-war mentality’.

In 1947 he made The Search, a film about orphaned children in post-war Europe, emerging from Displaced Persons’ Camps. Zinnemann writes: ‘It was most important to make the innocent American audience aware of what had happened in Europe, and for this reason we were obliged to soften the truth. Otherwise people would have been unable to bear it. The public was not conditioned and hardened as we are now.’ This chapter is illustrated not only with scenes from the film but with news photos – including German shots of a scene Zinnemann particularly detests, happy Austrians welcoming Nazi troops in 1938. There were films about prisoners of war, post-war cripples, war brides – and then the celebrated High Noon (1951), a Western which has often been thought to carry a ‘topical message’. Zinnemann notes that some thought it an allegory of the Korean War: among his colleagues, one thought it a plea for a courageous defence policy, another thought it a reflection on ‘political persecution in the McCarthy era’. In this chapter, and others, there is a good deal of information about ‘the panicky McCarthy era’ in which ‘a number of people found High Noon subversive!’

‘The abominable blacklist of the McCarthy days was still going strong’ in 1956, forcing the best American writers to live abroad and hampering Zinnemann’s movie about drug addiction, A Hatful of Rain. This film was already endangered by censorship. It criticised the counter-effective treatment of a man with a heroin addiction (contracted in a military hospital after service in the Korean War): this was made at a time when ‘the drug situation in New York was not totally out of control.’ It was a powerful movie which, says Zinnemann, ‘very few people went to see’. There was Behold a Pale Horse in 1963, directed against the Franco regime then flourishing in Spain: as a consequence of this movie, Columbia Pictures lost its Spanish distribution business.

Another anti-Fascist movie appeared in 1976. This was Julia, adapted from one of the autobiographical stories in Lillian Hellman’s book, Pentimento. She told of her friend, a young American woman called Julia, whom she assisted in her work with the Austrian underground against the Nazis in the early Thirties, before Julia became ‘the victim of a political murder’. It was, as Zinnemann says, a moving story, and it became a moving picture. Unfortunately, the story seems to be untrue. The original Julia had survived: not only had she received no assistance from Lillian Hellman, she had not even known her. It looks as if Hellman’s autobiographical story was an essay in wish-fulfilment. This little scandal is tersely summed up by Zinnemann, concluding: ‘The mystery remains – if it is indeed a mystery?’ It must have been saddening for him. He had hoped to remind Americans about the dangers of Fascism, by telling the truth about events of forty years before. (Julia was far more successful in Europe, ‘where it touched many witnesses and survivors of that monstrous era’.) For much of his long life, Zinnemann has been trying, against all odds, to make realistic and truthful films, with genuine heroes. So much depends on the writer: we may feel that James Jones served him better than did Lillian Hellman

‘Americans as a whole,’ suggests Kingsley Amis in his recent Memoirs, do not really care for works of art, for works of fiction with all their subtleties, doubts and surprises: ‘they like the generalisations that can be drawn from them or put into them, the messages, the bits of uplift or downpush, the statements, the large imponderables.’ We do not have to be ‘Americans as a whole’ to feel like this, but perhaps it is sometimes true of Zinnemann. His movies resemble best-selling novels by a responsible and trustworthy writer (like J.B. Priestley) who is thought fit to speak for the nation in times of crisis: they are like melodramas (in a good sense of the word), using music and spectacle to point up the virtues of the hero and the strength of the opposition. However, it is interesting that his favourite picture was not at all like that. It is A Member of the Wedding (1952) from Carson McCullers’s novella of the Deep South, with 12-year-old Frankie played by 22-year-old Julie Harris, he remarks of his actors that they presented ‘one of the most moving scenes I have witnessed (I say witnessed not directed).’ Even so, it was ‘a resounding flop, declared by the establishment to be fit only for art-house cinemas’.

Though Zinnemann gives very little space to his non-working life, his personal opinions and experiences, we have enough to go on. He is rather proud of his young brother, who joined him in Los Angeles, aged 18 in 1938: he signed on, retiring from the US army in 1975, with the rank of colonel. (There is a photograph of the colonel mounting a grand staircase in Versailles, matching a still from Julia of the playwright, ‘Lillian’, triumphant on the same stairway.) The brothers’ parents did not long survive: they waited in Austria for their US visas and ‘they died, separated, in the Holocaust in 1941 and 1942 – two out of six million.’

We may sense that he is bitter about the people of Austria, public opinion in Vienna – where, even in his youth, ‘a Jew was an outsider, a threat to the country’s culture.’ What he liked about the place were the music and the mountains, commemorated in such films as Five Days One Summer (1982). The first grand photograph in the book shows Franz Josef in 1907, the year of Zinnemann’s birth (‘people were trained, from childhood, to adore him’). The Emperor is parading his troops. A similar photograph in the Julia chapter is sternly captioned: ‘Vienna 1936. The Austrian fascist militia on parade, two years before the Nazi “invasion”.’ We note the quotation marks.

Apparently Zinnemann had difficulty in finding a co-operative publisher for this long, handsome and reserved memoir, whose large photographs from fact and fiction might make it seem merely a picture-book. He seems to have got his own way with Bloomsbury. He can be quite stern. There is a scene in Julia, wherein a Jewish student is murderously thrown off a balcony by young Nazis. With a bright smile, I asked Zinnemann whether he had noticed that the Jew looked like Kafka. No, he had not. What he had noticed was that the Nazis were all smiling. So I wiped the silly grin off my face.