In one of the many great lines from Mel Brooks’ magnum opus “The Producers,” the airheaded director tells would-be producers Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder that the whole third act of the one-night flop “Springtime for Hitler” “has GOT to go…they’re losing the war!”
That line is a little less funny when one of my sons returned from a special screening of the Christopher Nolan film Dunkirk telling me that one of the movie goers asked him just “What was this movie about?”
Contrary to what my adult children believe, I was not born when everybody knew about Dunkirk because it was in the daily papers. And although the ravages of World War II were well before my time, growing up in a large extended family, with uncles and cousins who had fought in the war, gave me a special perspective. I cut my teeth as a chronicler of popular culture (meaning I watched entirely too much television as a kid), at a time when the television beast was fed by countless old war movies. We couldn’t get enough of them. To be sure, many of these movies were propaganda films made to make the home front feel better, but they were also tailor-made for a young boy growing up in the 1960s, where war was abstract enough a concept to still be considered an adventure and not a cavalcade of horror.
All my kids have, to one degree or another, inherited my movie buff and history geek gene, to the extent that my son rolled his eyes at the person in their mid-forties who had no idea what the fuss about Dunkirk was all about—just another misplaced person in a world where information travels at the speed of light and facts at the speed of the Pony Express. I may not have garnered all the necessary facts from war movies like Wake Island, The Sands of Iwo Jima or Back to Bataan, but these movies and many like them inspired me to explore the facts.
It’s important to know about Dunkirk. It was World War II that shaped St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, and when they came out of the other end, they became leading voices in Church renewal and architects of Vatican II. Headlines today tell us how the Vatican still wrestles with the Chinese communist regime, which was fed, watered and came to flower only four years after the end of World War II.
Besides war movies, the other staple on television was the biblical epic. And just as the reality of World War II was steam-cleaned and sanitized in a thousand different ways, in a thousand different war movies, the biblical epics were only modestly attached to the real deal. Somehow, I don’t think Israelites and Philistines in 1000 BC looked much like Victor Mature, Angela Lansbury and George Sanders.
Yet, the gaudiness of these productions sparked our imaginations and when these big biblical epics came to our small television screens, we were transfixed. The Robe, The Ten Commandments and Samson and Delilah were events in our household. They presented a perfect melodramatic approach to Bible stories for viewers like me. And although the historicity of these films was dubious and even some of the “religious-lite” allowances for mainstream audiences were misleading, these films nevertheless did little to contradict what we were being taught in our Catholic school or within the confines of our Catholic home.
With a father who was a big movie fan, a big John Wayne fan and a big Catholic fan, war movies and biblical epics were always on our TV menu. Besides being a window into a deeper understanding of the complexity of history and warfare and the deeper depths of faith, these movies also served as a bonding agent between our dad and us.
It was kind of sad when the movie industry and the television industry lurched, spasmed and eventually morphed into a more complex animal in the 1960s and beyond. Then, having those moments with our dad became rarer—nobody was making biblical epics, and war films were more focused on the damage war creates than on the heroism it can inspire. But the gift was passed on. We learned to love these movies, and they took us deeper into a knowledge of our world and of our faith. I may still be on my own faith journey but at least I know Dunkirk is in France and who is buried in Grant’s Tomb.
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