For Memory's Sake: John Schlesinger's Yanks (1)

For Memory's Sake: John Schlesinger's Yanks (1)

Posted by Daniel Kremer on Jan 28th 2019

San Francisco-based moviemaker and film preservationist Daniel Kremer, author of Sidney J. Furie: Life and Films and currently in production on the new documentary Sidney J. Furie: Fire Up the Carousel, will premiere his new movie Overwhelm the Sky February 10 at San Francisco IndieFest. Other book projects moving toward completion are Joan Micklin Silver: From Hester Street to Hollywood and Susan Sontag on Film. In this first half of a two-part essay, he gets personal and probative about a powerful period romance newly out on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.


Films can give us memories of things that never happened to us. They become experiential in an ineffable way that inspires us to seek further attempts at implanting memories. That is the root of their potency: living the joys and vicissitudes of unique human experience vicariously. Not only do I feel that about John Schlesinger’s Yanks (1979), but it is also a film associated with a vivid memory for me, and I credit it as an unlikely keystone in a map of my developmental psychology, so I will begin on a very personal note.

I broke up with my first grade-school "girlfriend" when I was 12 – and my use of quotations is deliberate. In the entire six months of this awkward pipsqueak romance, I hadn't even dared try to kiss her – not even so much as a peck! I suppose she got restless. Idle, ultimately worthless chitchat allayed any emergence of a fragile moment that might welcome that childish idea of intimacy.

That day, on the street corner where the school bus would drop us off, she had just five words before she made her exit up the hill: “I want to break up.” She said it so coldly and I was inconsolable; it wasn't that I would miss her female companionship per se, but being rejected was an early critical blow to my ego. And deep down, I knew I’d been a chicken, possibly a milquetoast in the making, when it came to relating to the opposite sex in that way. After I pulled myself together and regained my composure, I settled in for an evening movie, as was my routine (then and now), and the movie on that day was Yanks (1979), which I had recently requested my aunt buy me as a present. Yes, I was a strange kid, considering my already often obsessive predilection for titles obscure enough that the adults around me were initially clueless about where to even begin their pursuit.

Yanks was the first John Schlesinger film I ever saw.

In retrospect, the irony is rich. That I would happen to watch a gay director’s consummately romantic vision of three intertwined (heterosexual) World War II love stories in my then-fragile state is quite fascinating in hindsight. Much later in my life, I came out as gay. The day I made it public, everything rushed by in a blur; that night, amid a flurry of emotion, I flashed back to the evening I first watched Yanks. I began the process of putting my own “journey” of identity into perspective. When my skittish 12-year-old behavior burgeoned into adolescence, and when I laid eyes on the passionate Peter Finch/Murray Head lip-lock in Schlesinger’s Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971) at age 14, my awakening officially began. And ditto the slightly more covert Midnight Cowboy (1969). Schlesinger's work was a self-discovery tool for me, and his films evolved for me in each chapter of my existence.

It all goes back to Yanks.

Made betwixt a tenure in Hollywood and a short-lived exile to England (following the disastrous release of 1981’s Honky Tonk Freeway), Yanks is the perfect median point for both of those chapters in Schlesinger’s career. Schlesinger is quoted as saying, “One of the reasons I wanted to make the film so badly was that I’d been looking for a subject which expressed my own dichotomy. I am divided. I’m an English director who loves working in England, but who also loves working in the States where I’ve been given a lot of opportunities.” Incidentally, just before Yanks, Schlesinger had willingly abdicated the director’s chair on Coming Home (1978) because he felt that only an American director could breathe life into Waldo Salt’s story of returning Vietnam vets in a VA hospital; that vacated chair would quickly be consigned to and occupied by Hal Ashby.

As a story of American soldiers stationed near a small British seaside town during World War II, Yanks braids American and British cultural and even cinematic sensibilities with considerable ease, more so than in other “culture clash” stories that mine drama or comedy from such circumstance. The success of this blend can be partly credited to the writers, the British Colin Welland and the once-blacklisted American Walter Bernstein. “I must say, an American point of view is what we have badly needed for sometime,” Schlesinger admitted in his diary. One of the best examples of this confluence is the sequence in which soldiers from the Jim Crow south bring an unwanted taste of Alabama to a New Year’s ball, resulting in a violent altercation between black and white men in uniform; this is immediately followed by a scene with a dour, very British hotel proprietor (played by the great Joan Hickson).

Schlesinger had grown fatigued with the type of overgrown productions he helmed for Paramount. The Day of the Locust (1975) especially had worn him to a frazzle, and its cool critical and commercial reception rattled him (though its reputation has rightly improved over time). The perceived “failure” of such an ambitious, pricey project made him a bit more ripe to take the reins on a more outwardly commercial property. After scoring a hit with Marathon Man (1976) under the producership of Paramount Pictures wizard Robert Evans (who had then just resigned his position as head of production to become an independent producer for the studio), he told the press, “I’m not making any more adventure thrillers. I’m going back to my roots.” 

Read part two here