Tag Archives: World War II

Give me Mrs. Miniver

My husband, myself, and my stepson can rarely find a movie we all want to see together: the latter is 16 so of course all summer movies are made for him, but I can’t stand the bombastic computer-generated imagery and violence and the predictable scripts. When Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk came out, we all wanted to see it and so went together last week: a rare occasion. We did not return home together, however, as I had to run out less than halfway through! It wasn’t that it was bad–it was actually riveting–but also just too painful for me to watch all those men on the beach, so exposed and so vulnerable. I knew the Armada was coming but I couldn’t wait for it.

Dunkirk film

Dunkirk real The film and the reality, June 1, 1940 ©Imperial War Museum, London

It’s ridiculous I know, but I think I prefer the Mrs. Miniver version of Dunkirk, in which the gentleman-architect Mr Miniver takes his pleasure craft (conveniently docked in front of his Hollywood-perfect expansive English cottage) out into the Channel and returns only slightly battered (and bearded) a few days later. During his absence, Mrs. Miniver battles a downed Nazi in their kitchen. She wins, of course, but the Director William Wyler gives him a speech intended to bolster the Allied effort (by the time the film was released in 1942, the United States had already entered the war, but during its production Wyler was concerned about American isolationism): We will bomb your cities…Rotterdam we destroy in two hours. Thirty thousand in two hours. And we will do the same here! Combined with all other “inspirational” details in the film, including the bombing of the Miniver house, the heartbreaking death of their new daughter-in-law, and the village vicar’s closing sermon, it’s no wonder that Joseph Goebbels was afraid of it.

Mrs. Miniver 2

Mrs Miniver

It was acceptable to make propaganda films in the 1940s: today things must be as real as (technically) possible and sometimes that is unrelenting, at least for me: I fear my stepson is inured due to a steady diet of video games. I would like to see the Dunkirk miracle play out so I think I’ll have to steel myself to go back and see this film again, but in the meantime I’ll occupy myself with more distant records of this epic event, in paper and a paint. The Imperial War Museum in London has many photographs (including several of the Germans moving in after the evacuation), oral histories, and paintings of Dunkirk among its collections, although after I spent some (digital) time with these memorials I realized they weren’t that distant after all.

Dunkirk collage

Dunkirk 1940 IWM jpeg

Dunkirk painting 1940

Dunkirk Drawing IVW

Dunkirk abstractJune 3 headlines from the Sydney Morning Herald and the Los Angeles Times; a small fraction of the 200,000 British Expeditionary Forces who were evacuated (+140,000 French troops), ©IWM; Charles Ernest Cundall, The Withdrawal from Dunkirk, 1940© IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 305); “little ships” in Muirhead Bone’s The Return from Dunkirk; Arrival at Dover, 1940, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 251); Rudolf A. HaywoodThe London Fire-Boat ‘Massey Shaw’ approaching Dunkirk at 11 pm on the 2nd June 1940, © IWM (Art.IWM ART LD 248).


History by HBO

Much, most, actually all of the last week was spent in bed with the world’s worst cold, which dragged on and on and on. At first I thought fine, I need a break, I’ll just lie here and read, but I was so stuffy and sneezy and miserable that I couldn’t really concentrate on most of the books I had on hand, so I gave in and turned on the television. Hours passed by staring rather blankly at the screen, and my beloved TCM let me down by showing too many Marx Brothers movies and musicals, so I became my own programmer and ordered up a bunch of HBO movies. I know we’re in the (second) Golden Age of Television, but I really couldn’t commit to an entire series–after all, I could have died at any moment. I started with Elizabeth I (2005) which is actually a miniseries, but I have seen it before so I thought I could commit (or live through) four hours–and it always makes me feel better to see or think about Elizabeth. This particular Elizabeth is characterized by a rather plodding narrative of events during the latter half of the Virgin Queen’s reign, but Helen Mirren (of course) gives a tour-de-force performance and the production values are amazing: you don’t feel as if you are jettisoned into Tudor World as completely as with Wolf Hall and its natural light filming, but Tudor texture is definitely there. Nevertheless, I grew increasingly weary of the exclusively romantic focus: the hardest thing to govern is the heart reads the film’s tagline, but that’s not really true.

History by HBO 5

Once I left Elizabeth I, I started searching for something that was a bit more foreign to me–and that brought me to films about the twentieth century. I’ve actually watched some of HBO’s films about the very recent past (Recount, Game Change, Too Big to Fail), but I wanted to go a bit further back: the twentieth century is my least-familiar, least-favorite century, so I knew I wouldn’t grind my teeth over every little detail as with a Tudor film. I landed on a rather inanely titled film named Conspiracy (2001) which I had never heard of but which almost immediately caught my attention–and held it, rapt. Conspiracy is about the January 1942 Wannsee Conference which settled upon the Final Solution in a single afternoon, actually only 90 minutes as it was more of an announcement that a settlement. The whole movie is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil in action: the conversation about “evacuation” happens during a long lunch in the beautiful dining room of a suburban Berlin villa. Not just the idea, but the logistics of the Final Solution are discussed while horrible men (played by wonderful and familiar actors, including Kenneth Branagh, Colin Firth, Stanley Tucci, and Downton Abbey’s Brendan Coyle) are eating and drinking. A really chilling film that deserves a less generic title.

HBO History Collage 2

HBO History Collage 1

Conspiracy was so good I wanted more, but I didn’t really find anything that came close among my options: John Frankenheimer’s Path to War (2002), about LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, probably came the closest because you felt a bit of a chill (when American generals were talking, rather than German Nazis) but it still seemed like more of a “made-for-television-movie” rather than a film. Michael Gambon as Johnson was riveting, though, as most British actors playing American presidents are. Most, but not all: Kenneth Branagh’s performance as a pre-presidential FDR dealing with his diagnosis of polio in Warm Springs (2005) really pales–I suppose it has to–in comparison with his haunting characterization of SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the so-called “Hangman” and/or “Blonde Beast” and chair of the Wannsee Conference, in Conspiracy. Nevertheless, I felt sorry for Mr. Roosevelt and grasped the empathetic development of his social conscience, just like HBO wanted me to. Still in the mood for statesmen, I finished my HBO history film series with two biopics about Winston Churchill: Winston in the wilderness in The Gathering Storm (2002, featuring Albert Finney and Vanessa Redgrave) and Winston at war in Into the Storm (2008, featuring Brendan Gleeson and Janet McTeer). Both were fine, with the first better than the second, which suffered from the Elizabeth I problem: we are not satisfied to focus exclusively on Winston when World War II is on in full force. By that time, even with my foggy brain, I had discerned the HBO formula for a historical film:

  1. A lavish budget: to purchase the services of the best directors and actors, and realistic sets, perfect in every little material detail.
  2. A focus on personalities. “History” is represented solely as the acts or reactions of people, with little or no attention given to larger environmental or intellectual forces, or context. This approach works best with individuals, which is why so much of HBO history is biography. Conspiracy is an exception, as multiple viewpoints are represented, and even though the context is assumed, there is an underlying subtext of SS infiltration of the entire Nazi regime which enhances the complexity of the presentation.
  3. Narrative. Given this biographical approach to history, departures from narrative can be as confusing as multiple perspectives.
  4. The more recent, the better. Because of the reluctance to engage in complexities and the personal approach, the better HBO histories are going to be focused on relatively recent topics and personalities where there is some familiarity or expectation on the part of the audience. This is why, despite all of the above, Helen Mirren, and a reliance on the BBC’s 2005 Virgin Queen series, Elizabeth I seems rather soul-less and unsatisfying.
  5. Intimacy. Ultimately, HBO wants to get us into the room where it happened. And of course, we can’t go there.

The Cartography of Entanglement

Today’s post is a perfect example of how my mind works and why looming deadlines force me out of my home office and into my university one, or to the library, or anywhere but home. I was very quietly reading a great book about English migration in the seventeenth century, in preparation for my upcoming graduate class, when my mind started to wander to maps: first to maps of the Atlantic world, then to maps of the early modern world, then to nineteenth-century imperial maps, then to allegorical maps, then to propaganda maps, then to maps which had spider motifs. This wandering started with the title of the book, The Web of Empire, but it was definitely prolonged by my materialistic instincts, as I have finally ejected my husband’s saltwater aquarium from the lovely little room that I used to call my “map room”, and will again. This room was very damaged by leaks from ice dams this past winter, and has been recently been re-papered and -plastered, so I’m in redecoration mode. I had several old maps and globes in there, but even before our fierce February they were threatened by the vapors emanating from that old aquarium, so now that it is out of there the maps are going back in–and I want more. I’m a huge fan of allegorical and pictorial maps (see here and here and here), so I thought, why not spiders? They’re not quite as obvious a metaphor for world domination as the octopus, but a close second.

Web of Empire Games

I started my search for arachnophobic maps with the early nineteenth century and Napoleon: Thomas Rowlandson had very famously portrayed the little general as “the Corsican Spider” and I figured some contemporary cartographer would be inspired to create a vision of Europe caught in his web. No luck, and nothing from the Victorians either, although one of Lillian Lancaster Tennant’s whimsical maps depicts the old legend of Robert the Bruce and his inspiring spider. This is hardly the arachnophobia I was expecting, or looking for: it will take the ferocious World War I–and the polarizing imperial strategies of the rest of the twentieth century–to produce those kind of images.

Napoleon as Spider

Web Map Scotland Barrons

Thomas Rowlandson’s The Corsican Spider. In his Web. (1808), Royal Collection Trust; Bonaparte with a spider web as a medal, having devoured Russia (1814), Jonathan Potter, Ltd.; Map of Scotland from Stories of Old (1912) by Lillian Lancaster Tennant, Barron Maps.

And so that brings us to probably the most famous spider map:  “L’Entente Cordiale, 1915”. This propaganda map represents the German perspective on World War I, with Britain portrayed as a giant spider literally eating France while the US is entangled in its web in the background and an unfettered German eagle overlooks the scene. This is a mockery of the alliance made between France and Britain  in the previous year, which clearly did not aid/save France. I found several other British spiders in various collections of German propaganda from the Great War, including the map below from (of all places) neutral Sweden, and the “Europa 1915-1916” map which depicts the insect extending its legs across the Channel while Germany is (quite literally) steamrolling the Russian bear: this view conforms to the German rationalization that it was Britain that had woven a web of empire, spanning the globe.

Lentente Cordiale LOC Bordered

Swedish Propaganda Poster 1918 CUL

Europa 19151916 IWM

l’Entente Cordiale, 1915, Library of Congress; England Världens lyckliggörare, 1918, War Reserve Collection, Cambridge University Library. (I’m not entirely certain that this Swedish poster is not depicting an English octopus: there is no web, but it does look quite furry); Europa 1915-1916, Imperial War Museum.

The spider allegory is unleashed in the 1930s and 1940s: Nazi Germany produced many anti-Semitic and anti-Communist pamphlets and posters (and combinations thereof) employing the spider, and then we see all the participants portraying the enemy in arachnidian ways once the war began. The U.S.S.R. is portrayed as a menacing spider by both the Germans and the Americans in the space of five years, and then of course Hitler/Germany becomes the most menacing spider of all. I’m including a well-shared image of “The American Spider” which is dated 1943 because it’s a perfect fit for this post, but I’m not sure of the source: tumblr-and reddit-land never credits! I’ve searched all the usual repositories and come up with nothing, but I would love to know about more about this particular spider map.

Bolshevik Spider 1935 Hoover Institute

Spider Russia Cold War

Nazi Spider Map 1943

Spider Map US WWII

Germany struggles to keep Europe free from Bolshevism, 1935, Hoover Institute, Stanford University; The Russian Spider Sits atop the World and Watches for more Victims, Los Angeles Times, January 7, 1940 (during the brief German-Russian alliance), Barry Ruderman Antique Maps, Inc.; One by One his Legs will be Broken, 1941, Imperial War Museum; The American Spider, 1943, source–Vichy France?

The spider need not be so malevolent. Another map from this era, published by Ernest Dudley Chase, one of the most prolific and creative pictorial cartographers of the mid-twentieth century based right here in Massachusetts, features a spider web as a sort of overcast underworld. Following in the wake of “A New Yorker’s Idea of the United States of America” and “A Bostonian’s Idea of the United States of America”, Chase’s “The United States as viewed by California (Very Unofficial) Distorted and Drawn by Ernest Dudley Chase”, contrasts a distorted two-thirds of interwoven America with a very sunny, happy California. I’ve included a quote from another of Chase’s maps for parity’s sake. And because our own twenty-first century view of the web is quite different from that of the previous century, I’m ending with this great “Age of Internet Empires” map from the Oxford Internet Institute. I could go on–rail transportation maps are often called “spider maps”–but I think I’ve been entangled enough!

Ernest Dudley Chase

Ernest Dudley Chase Map NE

Age_of_Internet_Empires_final

Ernest Dudley Chase maps, Boston Public Library Leventhal Map Center; “Age of Internet Empires Map”, Oxford Internet Institute.


Aid and Comfort

My family does not have a long list of veterans in its present or past, so Veterans Day has always been a bit abstract for me, or just the tail end of another long weekend.  I’m as patriotic as the next person, so I always try to think about war, service, and loss on the actual day, but my thoughts are not particularly personal, and consequently, not very heartfelt. I must admit that several Veterans Days have been “observed” by watching marathons of war films on Turner Classic Movies, or, even worse, going shopping!  This year, however, I am more thoughtful, because I am focused, finally, on my grandfather’s service during World War II.

My paternal grandfather, who died in 1996, was a physician who served as a lieutenant in the  U.S. Navy Medical Corps from 1943-45.  He was the medical officer on board the USS Taluga, which was hit by a kamikaze suicide plane attack in April of 1945, and also worked in a field hospital on the island of Okinawa. I don’t remember him talking about these experiences at great length; his identity was always more physician (and patriarch) than it was veteran.  And sadly, I don’t think I really every questioned him about it, in any detail.  We recently celebrated the 100th birthday of his wife, my grandmother, and while putting together a photographic presentation of her life, I came across several pictures of Pops in uniform, and finally started to focus on his service.  Too little, too late; Nana can answer some questions, and there are letters, but I really wish I had had conversations with my veteran while he was still alive.

Since I don’t have the particulars, I’ll be more general; it occurred to me that medical advances are one of the very few positive outcomes of war, both in the past and the present. Not only did physicians, nurses, and medics provide essential aid and comfort in the midst of war, what they learned about the treatment of battlefield injuries contributed cumulatively to the advance of medicine after the war. War and medicine have been inextricably linked, through the centuries, and most intensively in last century of  total war weaponry and tactics. So my focus for this Veterans Day is on those who healed those who fought.

We don’t have any pictures of my grandfather doing his work during the war, and he wasn’t a surgeon, but I think the picture of a wartime surgery in the Pacific theater is particularly poignant, as is the following one of nurses on their way home, for quite different reasons.

Two pictures from the National Archives:  “In an underground surgery room, behind the front lines on Bougainville, an American Army doctor operates on a U.S. soldier wounded by a Japanese sniper.” December 13, 1943; and   “Nurses of a field hospital who arrived in France via England and Egypt after three years service.” Parker, August 12, 1944. The 9th Field Hospital at Okinawa, 1944, National Library of Medicine.

I can’t imagine how the medical corps of World War I dealt with military innovations of this “great war”, the gas, machine guns and trench warfare for which they had no reference.  And then the aftermath:  the legions of amputees, disfigured, and disabled veterans who would require treatment, rehabilitation, and aid long after the war was over.  The interwar era saw unprecedented advances in medicine due to the military medical professionals who rose to these challenges. Military medicine came to benefit not only those who served, but also society as a whole.

Scenes from World War I and after, from the National Library of Medicinean American ambulance corps at work in France, typhoid vaccinations, and “above knee amputation with peg legs reconstruction class”, 1917-1919.

I could show you picture after picture of injured and mutilated veterans of World War I; their sacrifices were documented by the medical corps for the greater good.  Clearly the nature of the injuries sustained in the Great War was unprecedented but the inclination to learn from such suffering was not:  Civil War injuries were documented as well, by battlefield physicians who were no doubt overwhelmed by the circumstances they found themselves in, and after, by their colleagues who were attempting to learn from the recent past–and probably prepare for the future.

U.S. Sanitary Commission Hospital at Gettysburg, 1863, New York Public Library Digital Gallery; page from The Medical and Surgical History of the War of the Rebellion, 1861–65, United States Surgeon General’s Office, 1870-88:  from the Smithsonian Institution Libraries’ Digital Exhibition “Picturing Words:  the Power of Book Illustration”.

The history of military medicine certainly doesn’t begin with the Civil War; I could trace battlefield physicians back to the Renaissance and certainly there were countless, anonymous nurses on the sidelines over the ages.  But the futility of their efforts in the face of war is important to note:  more soldiers died of disease and battlefield surgeries than combat injuries until World War I. So I’m going to end with a physician who offered even more than his professional skills and expertise in service to his country:  Boston’s own Dr. Joseph Warren, who died fighting in the Battle of Bunker (Breed’s) Hill, galvanizing the will of his fellow patriots.

An illustration from Heisters Surgery (1768), National Library of Medicine; John Trumbull, The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker Hill, 1786, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.


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