For Memory's Sake: John Schlesinger's Yanks (2)

For Memory's Sake: John Schlesinger's Yanks (2)

Posted by Daniel Kremer on Jan 29th 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 conclusion of a two-part essay, he gets personal and probative about a powerful period romance now on Twilight Time hi-def Blu-ray.

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In his diary, Schlesinger wrote during the pre-production of Yanks (1979), “I have a very strong feeling that, whatever the outcome of this picture, whether it’s commercially successful or not, I’m making the right move at this point in my career.” In hindsight, he later expressed to his biographer William Mann, “It made me very nostalgic, to go home to England to make another film.”

Yanks is sharp in its evocation of the era, even at an inevitable distance. Directors making period pieces are constantly challenged – and stymied – when debating how much to spell out versus how much to simply evoke. Often in such an enterprise, the latter approach yields better results than the former. Innately, Schlesinger understands the things that we as humans hold onto…what we choose to keep in the deepest recesses of our hearts. He asks what specific magic of the past is infused into the certain somethings that we consider indelible. When does the experience (or the memory) of love, of longing, of our sense of hopelessness during tragedy, of our sublime happiness in the moments we frustratingly cannot freeze, preserve, live in forever – and all those other occasions that lie between – transcend the incidental to become always part of us? Can cinema’s aforementioned “implanted memories” do the same? It is therefore telling that the film’s anthem is I’ll Be Seeing You.

I’ll be seeing you

In all the old familiar places

That this heart of mine embraces

All day through.

In the small café,

The park across the way,

The children's carousel,

The chestnut trees, the wishing well.

Yanks is replete with specificity, elements of the period that normally are backgrounded: the vivid street décor amid the blitzed, bombed-out buildings, the local cinema organist leading the sing-along before the Movietone newsreels, the air-raid sirens, the morning ration queue for oranges at the local grocer, the night fog that engulfs the town during a stroll home after a Betty Grable double feature, and the fish-and-chips brigade of local boys tasked with delivering orders of that British cuisine staple to the guys at the base. We’ve seen the like in films like John Boorman’s Hope and Glory (1987) – however, this writer prefers Schlesinger’s vision of the British homefront.

Schlesinger somehow captured the three romances in Yanks with, simultaneously, an acute knowingness and a curious but wise remove. Los Angeles Times critic Charles Champlin celebrated the film’s subtlety, “with its emotions strong yet far removed from the tonight-we-love-tomorrow-we-die simplicities of the genre.” In other words, Yanks is not another Waterloo Bridge (1940), nor is it a piece of romantic pulp or pap. It does, however, retain just the right amount of gloss that earmarked those classic Hollywood wartime romances, with a lack of affectation and sealed with veteran collaborator Richard Rodney Bennett’s swooning orchestral score. Much of the same can be said for Schlesinger’s superior (and still underrated) adaptation of Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), another “romance of threes.” (When I saw Madding Crowd at age 14, I saw myself in Peter Finch’s sexually ambivalent Boldwood, a character I believe Schlesinger acutely understood.)

Of course, it helps that the cast is superior. “Vanessa Redgrave represented my mother a bit,” Schlesinger confessed to interviewer Ian Buruma in the book Conversations with John Schlesinger. “I really was too young during the war to realize how lonely she must have felt. And insecure.” There is a nonverbal scene featuring Redgrave – a bit that many might call a throwaway moment – that haunts me on a somewhat regular basis. After returning from a short romantic getaway to Ireland, she has bid farewell to lover William Devane, with whom she has just made love. Returning to her bedroom, she again disrobes, the window bathing her in a gray light that suggests dawn, dense fog, the England of a damp, muted season. As she nestles under the sheets to finish sleeping, she gazes upward with a downbeat, distinctly ashen lover's glow, clearly awash in a torrent of thoughts as a world rages outside these safe but lonely confines. It’s simple, shot and staged in an unfussy manner, but something about that gray light, the sorrowful, nearly diaphanous string score, and the longing expression on Redgrave's face, gives me a chill each time I see it. Sometimes the seemingly superfluous strokes that pace the storytelling wind up providing moments that are the most stirring, the most enduring, and the most resonant.

Devane, a Schlesinger favorite (who also starred in Marathon Man and Honky Tonk Freeway), brings a “Shetland-sweater charm” (to appropriate a Molly Haskell expression she once used for Roy Scheider) to his role as the American officer who carries on a discreet, sophisticated affair with Redgrave. Lisa Eichhorn is alluring, even enchanting – a revelation considering she would turn on a dime just two years later to play a beaten-down, alcoholic wife in Ivan Passer’s Cutter’s Way (1981, another Twilight Time title). Both roles prove she could have been one of the greats of her generation. And then of course there is her paramour Richard Gere, young, beautiful, understated, and on the threshold of breaking into the big time with American Gigolo (1980).

Rachel Roberts is exceptional, perhaps the strongest and most memorable performance in the whole cast. She reminds us why we couldn’t take our eyes off her in pictures like Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960) and This Sporting Life (1963). Even in small gestures, like the way she unwraps the cake Gere has made, taking special care to preserve the string, every choice she makes as a performer is breathtakingly precise and lived-in.

As the last in Schlesinger’s trilogy of intimate epics, Yanks is calculated for vivid evocation of a lost time, without being calculated. Consider Joe Buck’s memory flashes in Midnight Cowboy, or Glenda Jackson’s character Alex’s in Sunday Bloody Sunday. Schlesinger’s works in varying plains of memory throughout his career. He has certainly toyed with my own, even outside the occasions of viewing and re-viewing his work.