Completely screwy. 20th Century-Fox's Cinema Archives line of hard-to-find cult and library titles has released Farewell to Yesterday, Fox's 1950 feature-length compilation of various Fox Movietone News newsreel clips, haphazardly stitched together with several different narrators, in an effort to give a slapdash 90-minute overview of the origins of WWII, its battles, and its Cold War aftermath in the shadow of the Korean "police action." Undeniably powerful images of the lead-up to the worldwide conflict, and the resulting devastation, all from the brave Fox Movietone News cameramen, are the only saving graces here, as Farewell to Yesterday's grasp of the historical details of the conflict is embarrassingly superficial, while its overall warning message of peace through United Nations strength--as long as nobody actually gets killed--is amusingly conflicted. No extras for this only-okay black and white fullscreen transfer.
When Fox News Channel first started, they had a weekend show that featured vintage Fox Movietone News newsreels in an effort, no doubt, to fill in as-yet unsold air time, as well as to draw in all those cash-soaked seniors who spent their weekends with The
Hitler History Channel blaring in the background. It didn't last long, but it was always fascinating to see not only the rare, raw images of "history" captured by those intrepid cameramen, but also the context that was woven around those images--contexts that one might rightfully assume were in part driven by the politics of the Movietone organization and its staff at the time. When Farewell to Yesterday was released in 1950, the fate of newsreels as a commercially viable form of news for theater moviegoers was already written on the wall, at least in America. The emerging television industry would rapidly take over the responsibilities of bringing visual counterpart to mainstream journalistic endeavors, by first contracting out to the established newsreel services for footage featured on their evening news and short subject-oriented series (there were quite a number of these documentary programs on early network television's scant prime-time schedules), before the networks eventually produced their own on-the-spot film footage. The most famous of the big-screen newsreel services, The March of Time, would fold just a year after Farewell to Yesterday was released, in 1951, with Pathe News and Paramount News hanging on until 1957, and Hearst Metrotone News and Universal Newsreel somehow managing to limp along to 1967 (Farewell to Yesterday's Fox Movietone News would fold U.S. operations in 1963, but, rather remarkably, would continue to provide big-screen newsreels in the U.K., as British Movietone News, until 1979). Considering the impact television was already having by 1950 on the newsreel series and their Hollywood studio counterparts, I suspect that Farewell to Yesterday was an effort by 20th Century-Fox to cheaply re-purpose old, unsalable newsreel footage as a possible new revenue source--feature-length newsreel documentaries--while simultaneously providing cheap filler for the studio's rapidly declining theatrical slates.
Seen today, there's very little to recommend in Farewell to Yesterday, aside from the inherent historical significance and the basic human interest/curiosity in the often-harrowing images. These stark, painful shots of bombed-out buildings, exploding tanks and ships, crying refugees, exhausted G.I.s staring blankly into the camera, and desiccated bodies piled up like cordwood, speak eloquently in their own right, without the need of any biased or inconsistent context, of the horrors of war. Now, whether those images alone, no matter how terrible or overwhelming, have the power to change human behavior, is a debatable subject to be sure (decades and decades of this kind of footage hasn't really changed anything so far, has it?), but Farewell to Yesterday's intent surely is to do just that, with the aid of a loosely structured documentary narrative. Four narrators (an annoying, disconnecting result of the movie's patchwork assembly of previous docs)--Sidney Blackmer, John Larkin, Kermit Murdock, and William Post Jr.--drop in their pithy, generalized pronouncements inbetween the abrupt, choppy transitions of the newsreel clips, for the plainly stated purpose of waking up the American viewer to another impending world crisis--this time at the hands of the evil, grasping Russkies--by showing how history is indeed repeating itself again. Farewell to Yesterday says the weak, lazy, corrupt West--the doc condescendingly sneers at prosperous, happy America at play during the 20s-- brought WWII on itself, with all signs pointing to WWIII happening again if the West, through the auspices of the U.N. no less, doesn't do something (i.e., Korea) to nip it in the bud.
The problem, however, with Farewell to Yesterday delivering on its mission to awaken, to alert, and to stiffen the resolve of the average 1950 viewer for the inevitable coming world conflict, is that its rendering of the historical record is deeply flawed, a serious-enough defect that is then fatally compounded by the movie's contradictory central message: war is hell, and there are no winners in it...so we better goddamn A-bomb the sh*t out of those Commies right now. Looking first at how Farewell to Yesterday tells its history, you can't, from a so-called "tolerant" 2013 viewpoint towards those "primitive" newsreel docs fashioned from spit and bailing wire, just excuse away the fact that this doc grossly glosses over and outright ignores salient facts to back up its argument--a big problem with Farewell to Yesterday that was even noted by those "primitive" movie critics back in 1950. Superficial generalities abound here, from statements like, "Folly, fear, and selfishness...from the Great Nations of the West [brought WWII on themselves]," to "we [the West] washed our hands of the whole mess [of post WWI Europe]" as "America reached for the skies." What the hell does any of that vague gobbledygook really mean, in a so-called serious look at such a complex series of historical events? The rise of fascist Germany and Italy is put down largely to that rigorously researched historical socio-economic political theory known as, um..."evil," with clips of Hitler ranting--a standard for these facile WWII docs--for punctuational proof (if the movie makers had bothered to subtitle these ultimately pointless images, then they would have to go beyond the mere visual impact of the crazy little house painter, and into some depth explaining what he and his sick movement were all about).
Finally, Farewell to Yesterday gives up altogether and just starts showing battle footage for the next hour or so, without even the most cursory historical documentary mile markers...like dates and locations (Anzio is dealt with thusly: "When we hit Anzio, they were sleeping. But when they woke, it was rough." Jesus.). For a documentary about how America needs to wake up before borscht-fed tragedy strikes again, one would think the events that drove the U.S. into actual hostilities in WWII would be of paramount importance here, but nope: forget finding out anything about Pearl Harbor. It isn't covered. First we're shown the "unpredictable, treacherous, fanatical Japs" ("Krauts" or "Jerry" are scrupulously avoided) laying waste to China, followed smartly by our boys training for war, all with a "job to do." It's a major omission...but certainly not the only one here in Farewell to Yesterday's hit-skip timeline (another reviewer here at DVDTalk theorized that this sequence was missing because there's a jump cut in the print, perhaps indicating that stock footage was cannibalized for some other project. It's a good theory, but considering how there are jump cuts all throughout Farewell to Yesterday's crappy print, and more importantly, how Farewell to Yesterday resolutely fails to specifically implicate the U.S. in any of its "Great Nations of the West" slams, I'm betting any detailed exploration of America's and Japan's pre-war relationship was deliberately left out of the movie from the start. You can fudge America's hands-off approach to the war in Europe all day long in one of these things, but if you're talking why the Japanese started hostilities and how they managed to bomb Pearl, you've got to answer some uncomfortable questions about U.S. political and military policies at the time...and glib, facetious Farewell to Yesterday doesn't want any part of doing that).
Worse still, Farewell to Yesterday's overall message is bizarrely schizophrenic...not unlike in a way, all those pulse-pounding, exciting big-screen war movies that tell you not to enjoy the war you're enjoying on the screen. Unlike those fictional war movies, there's nothing romantic or exciting or thrilling about Farewell to Yesterday's actual battle footage, or its sequences documenting the after-effects of war. They are, in a word, "horrific," as they should be. No, Farewell to Yesterday willingly pulls down its pants while crying "rape" by laying on a heavy message, backed up by a lot of religiosity, that war is hell and that there can be no winners in it...while childishly and naively asking the viewer to support tastefully unspecified--and therefore reassuringly non-troubling to the viewer's mind--"action" to stop further war-making aggression. Uh...huh? Farewell to Yesterday opens with a title card quote from the Bible ("Wide is the gate and broad the way that leadeth to destruction." Matthew vii.13), and ends with the narrator solemnly extolling the providence of the U.S. having an A-bomb ("Thanks to our ingenuity, resourcefulness and the Grace of God, we developed the A-bomb first,"), before his doom-laden voice suggests that only through never-ending vigilance ("Never relaxing for a moment,") can we "live on this Earth as all-mighty God meant us to live." Okaaaaay, now...how's that going to happen, exactly? By bombing the hell out of Russia? I'm neither criticizing nor defending that political solution, I'm merely questioning Farewell to Yesterday's vague, wobbly, indefensible argument: war is hell...but we the West have to stop aggression. So...how do you do that? With the U.N. as the world's policeman, as Farewell to Yesterday suggests? And what backs up the U.N. (at least in 1950)? Well...I'm pretty sure that the idea was, after all the useless talk and resolutions went unheeded, that, um...the threat of war was the final resort. Do what we resolve, or we'll send in the blue helmets. After all, talk doesn't work, Farewell to Yesterday--your narrators said so themselves: appeasement and weak wills encourage aggression. And yet, those narrators also said war, ultimately, doesn't work, because there are no winners: we must never have another war. So? Which one is it? Of course, like all soft, "well intentioned," "well meaning" lessons like Farewell to Yesterday, its uselessness is deep down in its DNA, its failure genetically preordained in the very equivocation of its own half-baked ideas. Farewell to Yesterday may be mildly interesting strictly from a visual standpoint, in order to get a feel for the historical events detailed here...but it's laughably compromised in terms of its wishy-washy, dumbbell message.
The fullscreen, 1.37:1 black and white transfer for Farewell to Yesterday is fairly rough, with scratches, jump cuts, splices, and lots of grain, due to the original sourcing, no doubt. Not bad if you're used to these old docs, though.
The Dolby Digital English mono audio track is a bit warbly at times, with hiss, but again, vintage doc fans won't even blink. No subtitles or closed-captions.
No extras for Farewell to Yesterday.
Can't we all just get along...particularly since I have the power to blast you to atoms? Farewell to Yesterday is a truly useless documentary; not because one looks at it from a different perspective today--it wasn't any good back in 1950, either--but because its history is sketchy, woefully superficial cherry-picking at best, and its moralizing hilariously naive and foolish. I might say turn off the sound and watch Farewell to Yesterday for the newsreel footage...but a lot of this stuff you can find elsewhere, in better WWII and Cold War docs. Skip Farewell to Yesterday.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published movie and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.