FILM MAY 7, 2011
The march of time is putting out a collection of old newsreels, stock shots and many bridging reenactments that runs the length of a feature picture and tells all in the title: The Ramparts We Watch. It is history and also rub-a-dub-dub. There are indications in the early sections that under the corporalship of Mr. Luce time was marching two ways at once, and that there might possibly be two sides to how fast we tossed young fellers into the overseas furnace; but by the end the purpose is pretty well straightened out.
Whatever the purpose, the effect of a thing like this lies in how well it is done. There have been several collections of World War shots that reached a higher emotional rise and climax—back in the days when raising boys to be soldiers was not being done in the better magazines, remember? But its over-all coverage of how the country felt and how the Wilson Cabinet and New York streets and ladies’ hats and new Packards looked; what people were saying and singing and dancing to; what happened in church and in the schools and town meetings; who was being elected or run out of town—in this recreation of an era it is a handsome thing to see. In spite of the inevitable trace of stiltedness attaching to the people in documentaries who are set doing things as actors without really being actors, the little representative groups of students, gals, doctors, lawyers, politicians and journalists are put in motion with a nearer approach to things as they were than you find in memory. And the sound division has done a major job of recreation: you will hear every song of those days you can remember, and as many more you’ve forgotten. (But may I hope that some day some man who scores music will go listen to how a bugle call is played by a bugler, not a second desk trumpet brought up on the Egmont Overture? It's a lot to ask, but a hope worth hoping, for a good bugler is one of the joys of life and may not be copied.)
Very well, the job is well done. And it touches on the mighty theme of a nation coming to life and to arms. It is stirring. Very well, stirring to what?
Here is where the objections come in, and the question: even granting it is all truth, which it isn’t, how much of the whole truth is it? Was the war as easy as that? A few ships, a few shell-bursts, many men marching and some of them rather dirty? A German or two eased off a home-guard committee? Liberty Loans for liberty and not to buy up the bag Morgan and Company was holding? Khaki and shoes and guns turned out with a busy will for the boys over there and none of them paper, or backfiring? No disillusion but a few brave tears of a mother? American boys in France saying “Vive la France” and Frenchmen in cabarets saying “Vive Vilson” and nothing, absolutely nothing else to the AEF? Barracks and no slackers, no objectors? No beatings and witch hunts? Really?
The fever, the national will, the whoop and hoorah were all true at the time, no doubt. So was the world square once; so were the lives of men dependent on the will of the little people. Now we know otherwise—or we did yesterday. And to leave out what we have learned, to say for truth what we know was false, to pass over the misery, the stupidity, the greed, the waste and slaughter, is to blowup a great recruiting poster, an invitation to leave your head outside. We may be proud to be America. We may be ready to stand back of it. But these are just the times when we should turn away from any group of cheapjacks using such times and such high and noble emotions for nothing in the world but to sell their stinking little tent show. I’m afraid this film comes with very good timing, and I know it is done as smooth as oil. But we should have learned by now. If that’s what you want, America, take it away.
This article originally ran in the August 4, 1940, issue of the magazine.