Nostalgia, Both Grand and Intimate

Nostalgia, Both Grand and Intimate

Posted by Mike Finnegan on Jan 8th 2019

As director John Schlesinger’s life partner, photographer Michael Childers, told biographer William J. Mann for the latter’s 2005 Edge of Midnight: The Life of John Schlesinger: “John could either have made Yanks or Coming Home. He chose Yanks (1979).” The forsaken project would have reunited Schlesinger with familiar Midnight Cowboy (1969) comrades, producer Jerome Hellman, screenwriter Waldo Salt and leading man Jon Voight, but according to Childers, “he felt he couldn’t relate to the story. It was about disabled Vietnam war veterans, a very American story. He didn’t feel he was the right man for the job and he had the courage and integrity to say no.” Coming off the box-office hit Marathon Man (1976), Mann writes, “he was eager to prove he was still an artist, and [future Chariots of Fire (1981 Oscar® winner] Colin Welland’s gentle, thoughtful script about American soldiers stationed in Britain during World War II seemed just the right antidote to Marathon Man’s violence and excess. ‘It made me very nostalgic,’ John said, ‘to go home to England to make another film. 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.”

So Yanks, starring Richard Gere, William Devane and Chick Vennera as military men billeted in British countryside towns in advance of the 1944 European invasion that launched on D-Day, and Vanessa Redgrave, Lisa Eichhorn and Wendy Morgan as Englishwomen who become romantically involved with each of them, became the next and final collaboration for Schlesinger and producer Joseph Janni (after A Time for Loving (1962), Billy Liar(1963), Darling(1965), Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) and Sunday Bloody Sunday (1971)). Studio financing didn’t come easily for the pair in a movie business that had started being overtaken by the four-quadrant, blockbuster syndrome. In addition to Universal Studios in the U.S. and United Artists for the international arena, more was still needed. “In the end,” Mann wrote, “Yanks received its major funding through German tax-shelter cash. As John said wryly, ‘Dollars and deutschmarks made possible a film about the British home front during World War II.” To ensure that the American point of view got even covered in the storytelling, “some last-minute reworking of the script was done by Walter Bernstein [already in the Twilight Time fold via The Front (1976)], John’s second collaboration with a blacklisted American screenwriter” [following Salt, who won Academy Awards® for the Schlesigner-helmed Midnight Cowboy and the then-recent Coming Home that Schlesigner might have steered but which Hal Ashby undertook instead]. Scrupulously shot on beautiful Northern England locations in Oldham, Glossop, Stalybridge and Stockport by cinematographer Dick Bush (Sorcerer, Victor Victoria),edited by Jim Clark (The Killing Fields, The Mission) and scored by Richard Rodney Bennett (Far from the Madding Crowd, Nicholas and Alexandra, Murder on the Orient Express), the finished product indeed emerged as deeply personal, intensely exacting in its detailed period recreation and, for those swept up in its emotional undercurrents, “an enormously powerful experience. Impossible to watch unmoved…a large movie, both grand and intimate” (Charles Champlin, Los Angeles Times). 

Its methodical pace manages to accommodate the cultural clash between the brash and flashy Americans and the brusque, self-sustaining Brits, the desire for intimacy in the face of tentative futures, the class divides that grew narrower in the face of global struggle, and an evocation of Golden Era romantic filmmaking that had been shunted aside in recent times. “But,” Mann reports, “Hollywood had little patience these days; if a film didn’t start making money right away, it wasn’t worth waiting around and hoping.” The American box-office results disappointed, but “in Britain, Yanks did considerably better business; it would be there, and in Europe, that the film eventually turned a profit.” Forty years hence, the film’s committed performances and sociopolitical textures might find a friendlier reception for “a lush, plush, romantic entertainment” via which “John Schlesinger has proved himself to be a master director” (Bernard Drew, Gannett Newspapers). Even as All That Jazz, Apocalypse Now and Kramer vs. Kramer dominated year-end critical kudos, Schlesinger would win the National Board of Review’s Best Director Award for his work. Invading your home viewing village on January 22, TT’s Blu-ray of Yanks also features an Audio Commentary conversation from the cinematic frontlines as film historians Julie Kirgo and Nick Redman talk to Chick Vennera about his many vivid memories of the shoot. Sign up for duty when Preorders open tomorrow, Wednesday January 9.