|'); document.write(''); //-->|
This is going to be a short review of a movie with limited appeal, yet one that historians and students of 'official' documentaries might want to take a look at. The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives sends along discs for review completely outside of anything reviewers might wish to cover; this is why the essential noir Cry of the City, withheld for years, remains un-reviewed while I receive an entire series of (cute) Fox comedies from the thirties starring Jane Withers. Anyone for Chicken Wagon Family? It doesn't get listed as one of the bigger releases of 1939.
Farewell to Yesterday is a feature-length theatrical documentary from 1950, which attempts to sum up World War 2 -- the conditions that brought it about, the scope of the fighting around the globe and the Cold War stalemate that followed. It ends with the police action in Korea. I thought it worth seeing because it is made up from the extensive newsreel library of Fox Movietone News, which amounts to an amazing historical record. Whenever a biographical docu needs a short montage of WW2 action, or shots of world leaders, half the time the shots chosen originated as Movietone newsreels. If this sounds dull, it isn't -- provided one has a responsible interest in history. Back at UCLA some brilliant programmer assembled a three- or four-hour compendium of original uncut newsreels covering major events of the 20th century. On the giant screen in Royce Hall the images were staggering -- first generation 35mm with more clarity than one can imagine. The exploding Arizona at Pearl Harbor is impressive when viewed 35 feet tall and you can see every tiny detail. My well-traveled girlfriend had showed me photos from her time in San Sebastián in the Basque country of Spain - which I instantly recognized it in newsreel scenes from the Spanish Civil War, with Fascist warships shelling the distinctive waterfront. And I thought, only forty years later, most of the people in that Basque city were probably unaware of the battle. All this dramatic history just disappears in a couple of generations. Franco could have shown this same newsreel and claimed that the Republicans were shelling the city. How can people remember the crucial lessons? Who gets to teach them?
Old documentaries are "dated" in a way that makes them an invaluable historical resource. This is how filmmakers appealing to the general public viewed political reality in 1950. This is what people were told, right or wrong. Any newsreel with a written narration is going to put forward a particular version of events. In extreme cases they can be called propaganda. Frank Capra's Why We Fight series contains all manner of manipulated imagery, slanted facts and a few outright lies -- but it can be defended as mass communication intended as a Weapon of War. That sounds great until one learns that Joseph Goebbels had the exact same attitude toward truth in public information.
Farewell to Yesterday tells the standard textbook history lesson starting with the cruel conditions imposed on Germany with the WW1 Armistice, the rise of Fascism in Italy and Germany and aggressive colonialism in Japan. Movietone certainly has the good footage: images from Ethiopia in 1935 include a powerful shot of a tribal warrior brandishing his sword in front of his monarch, swearing to defend his country to the death. As can be imagined, the war is shown from the same viewpoint as literally every Western docu since. America is only slowly aroused from its peaceful slumber, but once the fighting starts it gains momentum as it defeats the Axis on all fronts. Nothing wrong with that. As the war nears its end troublesome political realities can no longer be ignored -- the Soviet Union emerges as an aggressive and belligerent nation, and World Communism is holding the Free World hostage in Europe. Having learned the lessons of isolationism, a concentrated and unified United Nations led by the U.S. is stepping up to the plate in Korea, to oppose Totalitarian Evil.
Farewell to Yesterday is a good starting point for viewers sufficiently open-minded to try out Oliver Stone's new miniseries documentary Untold History of the United States, which I'm watching parts of now. No conclusions as yet, but what I've seen so far shows Stone's version of 20th century historical events to be much more compelling than the films made told by documentarians and news outlets forced to stick to the Official Handout version of history. NBC News' 1952 blockbuster Victory at Sea now plays as if it were written by vengeful psychopath, using an exaggerated narration to make every enemy action sound cowardly and perfidious, and every counterblow by the allies a smiting from the sword of God. The '70s docu The World at War is impressive in its comprehensiveness, and includes the Soviet contribution to the war in a big way. Yet it tells history from an Anglo-centric POV that doesn't really question Britain's colonial imperialism.
Short and sweet, this docu comes off as fairly civilized considering that it must end with yet another depiction of Good America once again threatened by Evil, freedom-hating monsters from barbaric lands. I'm glad to have the chance to see it. Most films of this kind are considered "ephemeral", and as such are no longer shown for all kinds of reasons. Historians have corrected some of the facts and 'political correctness' may have made some content embarrassing. I've seen a Disney information film about Cancer from the 1940s that's now highly inaccurate, so it's no longer shown. That's understandable, but one can't begin to understand the past without knowing what people knew and when they knew it. That goes double for historical documentaries.
The 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives DVD-R of Farewell to Yesterday is an okay transfer of this dated documentary; original prints must have been quite a bit sharper. Further limiting one's ability to recommend the film is the fact that Fox hasn't noticed that it is missing a sequence. Just when the narration and images are working up to the Pearl Harbor attack, the show is interrupted by a splice. We see a couple of frames of the Arizona in flames, and the story moves on. The disc appears to be mastered from an incomplete source, and I can't tell if twenty seconds is missing, or two minutes. Perhaps the original negative is intact, but having seen this kind of thing before, I have a theory: some Fox film or TV producer needed a sequence on Pearl Harbor quick, and simply raided this film element of Farewell to Yesterday for his footage to save time and money. An editor friend specialized for a few years in movies about the Holocaust, and found that filmmakers routinely cannibalized earlier documentaries to get what they needed. This is why the famous images we see again and again often seem four or five generations away from a good source: some military or national archive has the original newsreel intact, but only productions with top budgets and connections can access them.
It looks like I'll be referring to Farewell to Yesterday a little bit when reviewing the upcoming Oliver Stone miniseries.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Farewell to Yesterday rates:
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.