As readers of this column know by now, war movies don’t do much for me. It’s a case of too much movie and not enough war. Too much Hollywood, not enough Hürtgen. Everything in real war is confused, bewildering, and ambiguous. Everything in movie-war is certain. I have a feeling that Clausewitz wouldn’t be much of a war movie buff, either, and after I die, I intend to ask him.
There is one kind of movie I can’t get enough of, however: films made during World War II. Or immediately before. Or immediately after. However much they try to deal in fantasy, they can’t help but tell the truth. They are my window into a world that I cannot know. Born in 1958, I can try to understand what it felt like to live in 1938 or 1948, but I usually fail. My introduction to World War II as a boy? The television series Combat, with my boyhood hero, the late Vic Morrow. A few years later, I watched Rat Patrol, and it, too, blew my mind. In neither case, however, do I confuse them with real life, or history, or an objective account of “how it really was.” I’ve grown. I’ve put away the things of a child, as St. Paul once wrote.
The other day, however, I was watching a movie made in 1947, in the very wake of World War II. Its audience had just lived through a war that had killed wholesale—60 million dead by the most recent Wikipedia count, some 2.5 percent of the world’s 1939 population. In many places like China and the Soviet Union, the percentage was much, much higher. This was a movie made in the very wake of holocaust, in other words, not to mention the Holocaust.
Oddly enough, it’s a happy film. Uplifting. A “feelgood,” as wags in Hollywood like to call it today. It’s that holiday perennial Miracle on 34th Street. You all know it: A nice old man with a beard who calls himself Kris Kringle who thinks he’s Santa Claus and who, by the end of the film, manages to convince the US Postal Service that he is, in fact, who he says he is. Maureen O’Hara at her most beautiful. An adorable Natalie Wood at the age of eight.
There is a scene in the middle of the film where Kris, dressed up as Santa at Macy’s, greets a shy little girl. Her mother—actually, we learn, her adoptive mother—tries to explain to him that the girl knows no English, that she is a Dutch refugee, an orphan from Rotterdam recently brought to the United States and placed in a foster home.
You all know what happens next. Kris—miraculously, it seems—begins speaking to her in Dutch. Her little eyes widen in amazement and she speaks back. Sinterklaas, she squeals with delight! It’s the first sign to us, the audience, that there is something special about this old man. Maybe he really is Santa Claus! I watched it last night, and I’d like to say that my wife cried like a baby during this scene, but she wasn’t the only one grabbing the Kleenex.
It’s Hollywood at its classic best. But like I said, I’m not a kid any more, and as I sat there, I started thinking about World War II. About Rotterdam and that Luftwaffe terror raid. It was infamous at the time, a clear sign of Nazi frightfulness. Today, there are historians who describe it more as a result of bad timing: the Dutch had already offered their surrender, it was still working its way through diplomatic channels, and no one bothered to inform the Luftwaffe, which had already drawn up its plans for a raid into the city center.
But here’s something else I thought about. Today, the Netherlands is one of the richest countries in the world. Dutch cities are renowned for their beauty, their architecture, and their hedonistic delights. Back in 1947, however, you could be making a movie that included a crucial scene centering on a refugee child, and it would be the most natural thing in the world to say, “Get me a Dutch girl.”
We live in a world where “refugees” are from faraway lands that Americans don’t think much about. Congo or Yemen or Libya or Haiti or a dozen other places. The Third World, we call it. Lands of tyranny and privation and want. Lands where unfortunate people starve to death, or have to dance to the whims of the local dictator and risk death if they refuse.
This is what I thought about the other night while watching Miracle on 34th Street. You want to talk about the “Third World”? In World War II, that meant the Netherlands. A prosperous First World country descending into hell. Terror-bombed by the Luftwaffe. Overrun by the Wehrmacht. Ruled by a Nazi madman named Artur Seyss-Inquart, and by the end of the war, starved to death during what the Dutch still call the Hongerwinter of 1944–45.
Sometimes I wish I could just watch a movie like other people.
This article originally appeared in the December 2011 edition of World War II magazine.