- Historic Sites
A child of the Republic looks back on a lifetime spent at—and occasionally in—the movies and discovers how strongly they have shaped the way all of us understand America
September 1992 | Volume 43, Issue 5
The United States and its heroes, aside from Westerns, were largely ignored. There were two films about Lincoln before he was President, none about Washington or Jefferson. Of the pre-war American films the most notable was The Grapes of Wrath , a reasonably nonsentimental look at the Okies and their flight from the dust bowl. There was also Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane . If Welles had been less prodigal with his great gifts, he might have screened a good deal more of our history for us. Welles was steeped in politics; he had worked with Roosevelt; he was a miracle of empathy, and he knew all the gradations of despair that the oyster experienced as it slid down his gullet. But he was a romantic genius, and they aim not for perfection in their art but for poignant glamour in their ruins.
My first response to Citizen Kane was shock. There, on the screen, was William Randolph Hearst, my grandfather’s ally and my father’s enemy (our family tended to divide in such things). But thanks to Welles’s empathy for the subject, I thought I understood Hearst, as I still do.
Finally, David Selznick gave us a significant part of our history in Gone with the Wind , just as we ourselves were about to become history, thanks to Franklin Roosevelt. Our generation, he told us—indeed, ordered us—had a rendezvous with destiny, all of it to be screened as it happened.
In June of 1939 I set sail for Europe, with several boys and two masters from Washington’s St. Albans School. We were to spend a month “perfecting” our French near Versailles. Then on to Italy and England. War was about to break out, but we were intrepid. I could not wait to leap up, as it were, onto the screen where so much history had been revealed.
Dover cliffs. Eiffel Tower. The battlefields of the First War and the cemeteries where we saw poppies growing in glorious Technicolor, thanks to the mysterious, if evercredited, Natalie Kalmus. We saw the Maginot Line. These fortifications, the French assured the world, could never be breached by any mortal army. So Hitler sensibly went around them, to the consternation of the French general staff, for whom I had very little respect after their behavior in the Dreyfus case, where innocent Joseph Schildkraut was sent to Devil’s Island. The next year, I was not entirely surprised when France fell despite the French soldier, the poilu, the finest fighting man on earth, according to Henry Luce and all the others who were busy screening the world for us.
On July 14, 1939, I stood on the steps of the Petit Palais and watched France display its military glory in a parade most notable for the North Africans, old comrades of mine from the Foreign Legion movie Under Two Flags . I was awed by the parade until I saw an open car containing a bald man in a business suit. I could spot a politician anywhere in any country. This one was the prime minister of France. He was called Daladier, and he was known to the press as the Bull of Vaucluse. That July 14 he looked very nervous. Later he proved to be more heifer than bull when he fell captive to the Germans.
Despite the heat of Rome in August, I was ecstatic. I was finally where I belonged. I haunted the Forum and the Palatine. In addition to all the Roman movies that I had seen, the first serious book that I ever read was a Victorian edition of Stories from Livy . I was steeped in Rome, and I also lived in Washington, a city whose marble columns were a self-conscious duplicate of the old capital of the world, even though our city lacked six of the seven hills and a contiguous world empire.
D uring this time did I ever see a good movie? The answer is yes, probably, but how would I have known?
On a hot evening we attended the outdoor opera in the Baths of Caracalla. Turandot was being staged. Next to us, under the stars, sat Mussolini. He wore a white uniform, and he looked almost as worried as Daladier. At the first intermission he got up and left. As he passed within a yard of me, I got a powerful whiff of cologne, which struck me as degenerate. A moment later Mussolini was on the stage, taking a bow with the diva. The crowd shouted “Duce”; then he was gone.
At the end of August the border between Italy and France was shut. Luckily we were aboard one of the last trains to get through. We hurried on to London and stayed in Russell Square, Bloomsbury. On September first Germany invaded Poland. We stood outside 10 Downing Street and watched the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, come out and get into his car, en route to Parliament, where he would tell the world that the war had come at last.