[Originally published in Movietone News 64-65, March 1980]
As the donkey regards the carrot, so John Schlesinger looks on his screenplays: he either follows or swallows them. A follow-my-leader under the deadly misapprehension that he is an auteur, Schlesinger is happiest when partnering writers who share his tendency to scream Look at me, I’m an artist! With a Frederic Raphael (Darling) or a William Goldman (Marathon Man), he’s in show-off’s heaven, and his inability to provide the real impetus, the backbone, the solid core of a movie, the way a real artist would, is snugly disguised amidst a great deal of visual and verbal shouting. The cheesy verbal wisecracks of Darling are fleshed out by Schlesinger’s no less cheesy imagistic ones (e.g., fat ladies wolfing down the eats at an Oxfam bash), just as the greasy, lapel-seizing prose of Marathon Man is aptly pictorialised via such characteristic Schlesinger conceits as the shot of Lord Olivier framed distortingly through a glass tray whilst he slavers hammily at its contents, assorted gems. In both these movies, writer and director are as one in pretentious mediocrity, and each butters up the other. But with Schlesinger’s new film, Yanks, the screenwriters are two gentlemen with reputations for low-key, understated work, who would furthermore seem to have no great keenness for Schlesingerian ego-tripping. Colin Welland (the actor who played the cleric in Straw Dogs, and one of Britain’s best TV playwrights) and Walter Bernstein (The Front) appear only too ready to put their faith in their director and let him be the boss, guiding their scenario where’er he would lead it. And Schlesinger has no idea at all of how to be the leader, with the result that everyone gets swiftly lost.
Yanks aims at being a mood piece, and its central idea is very promising. In 1943, a lot of American soldiers arrive in Lancashire; over the space of a year or so, we follow three soldiers in particular as they get to know the British. All three have romances with English females on three different social levels. A chirpy prole (Chick Vennera) woos and then weds a busty bus-conductress (Wendy Morgan). A sensitive sergeant (Richard Gere) has an up-and-down relationship, inconclusively concluded, with the daughter (Lisa Eichhorn) of the local postmaster. A debonair officer (William Devane) knocks off the local lady of the manor (Vanessa Redgrave) and they call it quits just before her husband comes home. All very symmetrical on paper; but in fact, the division of time among these three couples is nothing like equal. Heterosexual relationships appear to interest Schlesinger only to the degree to which they are unutterably miserable, so the jolly antics of Vennera and Morgan, by far the most likeable pair, are given short shrift indeed – and one can’t escape the notion that Schlesinger finds the girl frightfully common, for all that Ms. Morgan gives quite the best performance in the movie and is the very model of a buxom British lass. The officer and the lady are pretty uninteresting, and no one can think of much for them to do except have sex. This does allow a brief shot of Redgrave in the nude, for which much thanks; but in all other respects, her role demands nothing that Deborah Kerr wouldn’t have been required to do in an M-G-M weepie of 30 years ago, and for an actress of Redgrave’s skill, that’s criminal waste. (She does invest a simple shot of her sawing away at a cello with a lovely, tigressy integrity).
By far the most footage – something like half the movie, which runs over 2 1/4 hours – is given to Gere and Eichhorn, and it’s here everything really comes unstuck. Not to put too fine a point on it, all their sequences are, from top to tail, sheerest drip-torture. Cliches abound. She feels guilty at consorting with Gere because of her local steady, away fighting Jerry. He gets off with her by rescuing her from a tandem of venal would-be rapists, one of whom has a big black moustache and a foul-smelling cigar. Her mother (Rachel Roberts) has a bias against Americans. He splashes too much money about and is too keen on sex. She can’t choose between him and the steady, who returns home inopportunely. Steady goes back to the front line and is killed. Mother accuses girl of being glad about this and guilt wells up all over. Boy and girl hit the sack, but it’s all too, too ghastly (all that guilt, you see). Mother croaks of unnamed disease. Girl races from the funeral to give her departing Yank light-o’-love one last wave to prove she really cares, and catches his eye just before smoke obscures him from view and his train departs from the local station to take him off to D-Day. Wrote it yourself, didn’t you?
There’s very little Gere and Eichhorn (who’s actually American, just as one American character is played by the British Annie Ross) can do, especially with Schlesinger really piling it on behind the camera. Familiar tics from his other films manifest themselves with thudding inevitability: the mother is a vicious, dried-up virago (like Thora Hird in A Kind of Loving); family life is an incredible drag (as per A Kind of Loving, Billy Liar, Darling, Sunday Bloody Sunday); sensitive young men have a hellish time of it, especially where women are concerned (any Schlesinger film). Interview after interview demonstrates that Schlesinger has delusions of being a school-of-Renoir filmmaker, making tender human dramas full of warm, concerned observation. Yet every one of his films reflects a thoroughly misanthropic view of the world, and the most characteristic element in his work is his enthusiasm for depicting petty but all-pervading nastiness (often building to nastiness on a grand scale, as in Midnight Cowboy, The Day of the Locust and Marathon Man). This isn’t anything so grand, or so valid, as a “despairing vision.” More often than not, it’s just condescension. The cynical calculation behind Yanks, with its colours keyed to the fading browns and greens of nostalgic old photographs, its lazy failures of detail (surely Americans of 1943 didn’t go around saying “No way!”), and its poke-in-the-eye tearjerker techniques (freckled kids wondering at The Folly of War), is pretty gross, right down to the big-band soundtrack. One should note in fairness three good scenes: one at the start, where an Oklahoma sergeant (Arlen Dean Snyder) finds his tough talk wasted on an elderly Lancastrian (Joe Gladwin, the waiter in Charlie Bubbles), who insists on finishing his cup of tea before switching on the camp’s plumbing; one quick one where Gere and Vennera do their damnedest to stay polite and cool whilst being baffled by the surreal business of buying a ticket on a British bus; and, at the end, one quicker still (just one shot, in fact) where a young lad playing at a bomb site finds a used condom, peers perplexedly at it for a long moment, and then inflates it.
© 1980 Pierre Greenfield
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.