Review: Yanks

[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]

Yanks is probably John Schlesinger’s best movie since Sunday Bloody Sunday, and certainly one of the best of his career. But for me that’s not really saying much, since I continue to have serious problems with this director’s approach, a self-congratulatory mock-sensitivity that seems insincere at best and often downright wrong. Here, at least, for the first time in years, Schlesinger has foregone his irritating penchant for unproductive intercuts and flashbacks, opting instead for a straight, period-faithful, romantic storyline about the impact of American soldiers-without-women on a Britain without men. But no matter how polished and relatively controlled he gets, there is always something about Schlesinger’s work that strikes me as shallow and ultimately inconsequential.

Yanks, around the sparest of storyline, does little beyond cataloguing the differences among its characters: men and women, officers and enlisted men, upper, middle and lower classes, differences of nationality and of race. Little is achieved by this “melting pot” approach; and to say that that is the point is merely a copout. For something in the Yanks experience must have seemed important to Schlesinger, though he is unable to convey that importance to the viewer. With the exception of Rachel Roberts’s subtle, sensitive, uniformly superb performance, and Lisa Eichhorn’s calling up images of the young Maureen O’Hara, the most exciting aspect of the film is the sound-mix, which imposes new emotional tones on several otherwise pedestrian scenes. The original music, despite some borrowings from Rachmaninoff, is also quite good; but less effective is the incidental use of period music, a sort of “musical memories” tactic that recalls Hal Ashby’s evocation of the late Sixties in Coming Home.

In fact, in a film in which period authenticity is almost everything, Yanks comes at its milieu rather sloppily, with anachronistic dialogue—the characters, particularly the captain played by William Devane, talk like children of the Sixties, not the Thirties—and at least one major error in properties: the very noticeable use of a Coke bottle design that wasn’t marketed until the mid-Sixties. Schlesinger is not above borrowing, either—never has been—and one of the worst moments is a shot of a troop boat pushing through the green hills of England, with no water visible, a long-lens trompe l’oeil straight out of Lawrence of Arabia. Apparently, the shot is supposed to represent the intrusion of home-thoughts into the idyllic holiday of Army cook Matt (Richard Gere) with British shopgirl Jean (Eichhorn); but it’s so out of step with the soft realism of the rest of the film that the momentarily surreal note it strikes is discordant rather than meaningful. The film’s opening capsulizes the best and worst aspects of Schlesinger’s approach, beginning with a tilt-shot of a monument to the World War I dead (reminiscent somehow of the gratuitous lady-at-the-town-square shot that ended Darling) and a pan to pick up scores of trucks filled with GIs pouring into rural Britain. Bennett’s music is stirring, creating the atmosphere of a military operation more delightful than dangerous, and underscoring the lightheartedness of the subsequent montage, in which several bystanders comment on the coming of the Yanks. One of them asks a question, just before the main titles, that sets the tone for the film, and that the film never really manages to answer: “Makes yer wonder, does’n’it? .. what women see in ’em?” It does.

© 1980 Robert C. Cumbow

YANKS
Direction: John Schlesinger. Screenplay: Colin Welland and Walter Bernstein, after a story by Welland. Cinematography: Dick Bush. Production design: Brian Morris. Editing: Jim Clark. Music: Richard Rodney Bennett.
The players: Richard Gere, Lisa Eichhorn, William Devane, Vanessa Redgrave, Chick Vennera, Wendy Morgan, Rachel Roberts, Tony Melody, Derek Thompson, Simon Harrison, Annie Ross.

A pdf of the original issue can be found here.


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