The Curmudgeon


Friday, March 12, 2004

Review of James Cameron's "Lusitania"

The defeat of Russia by the Third Reich in 1943 and the resulting evaporation of the spectre of Communism, together with the revitalisation of the German film industry under the auspices of Goebbels and UFA, did not immediately enable a 1950s equivalent of the famous "Rat Pack” to desert the sinking ship of Roosevelt’s America. Not even the total destruction of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor, and the final Anglo-Japanese victory at Midway, which have been so glamorised by interminable production-line war films like Midway (1947) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1952) were able to put the Hollywood film industry to rest.

The decline of Hollywood came about largely because of the technological revolution which took UFA by storm in the 1960s and 1970s. Although constraints on political statement and artistic freedom remained, if anything, more rigorous in Europe than under the Hollywood studio system, the availability of modern special effects and the lack of censorship when it came to depicting sex and violence, drew a great many talented directors to Germany.

The inauguration in the late sixties of the World War Two movie boom coincided quite naturally with the end of the Hollywood western. Indeed, many of the values touted and explored in the western can be seen in only slightly transmuted form in the war film: comradeship, conquest of new frontiers, men who fight to protect their land and to initiate their sons into the sphere of struggle, etc. There is a natural evolution, for example, in the John Wayne films Stagecoach (1939) through The Searchers (1956) to his final role in Patton (1968).

The gung-ho trend reached its peak with Star Wars (1975), a fairy-tale set in space depicting the defeat of an evil republic at the hands of a benevolent empire, which became a huge worldwide success and spawned innumerable sequels and spinoffs which married the values of the western/war film with the imagery of science fiction. The tone in these films, which include the Sternmarsch series (1978 onwards), as well as Planet des Untermenschen (1976), Superman (1978), and Alien (1979) was relentlessly upbeat, depicting the victory of true humanity over hostile alien species which threaten basic human values (Planet), law and order (Superman) or human existence itself (Alien and its sequels, as well as the third entry in the Sternmarsch cycle, Der Jagd vor Spock).

Although films of this type persisted well into the eighties (e.g. Starman (1986), in which a widow’s virtue is threatened by a slimily seductive creature from outer space), the historic European release of Nagisa Oshima’s Tojo the Hero (1982), with its ironic and critical stance towards the revered founder of modern Japan, brought about a resurgence of the earthbound war film. Among the first was Apocalypse Now (1983), a hallucinatory picture of the ambitious but unsuccessful attempt between 1965 and 1975 to destroy the entire native population of Indo-China. Though controversial for the emphasis it placed on the damage to the natural environment and the incompetence of the military command structure which helped make the enterprise so unpopular (the film was even blamed for a falling-off in custom at the Greater Hong Kong tourist resort, for the sake of which the bombing was begun in the first place), Apocalypse Now was immensely popular and profitable on both sides of the Atlantic.

Others followed in rapid succession, among which the most popular was perhaps Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986), which aroused a storm of controversy with its explicit depiction of the sufferings of Wehrmacht soldiers during the Polish campaign of 1939. The idea that soldiers in a victorious campaign could have a brutally tragic dimension to their experience was a new and uncomfortable one for the cinema-going public; but many were able to take comfort in the increasing freedom of artistic expression indicated by the film’s release.

Since Platoon, Indo-China and the Polish campaign have become standard subjects in the Euro-American cinema, either for triumphal revenge fantasies or for masochistic breastbeating about the loss of National Socialist youth and innocence. The quantity has been enormous, the quality very largely undistinguished, and the popularity of the films variable. Immensely popular were Sylvester Stallone’s Rambo trilogy (1984-86), in which a traumatised Italian war hero kills off, in succession, the official and covert armies of Russia, Indo-China and the Chinese Republic. Equally risible, but less profitable, was John Milius’ Red Dawn (1984), which (marketed under the slogan, “yesterday Palestine, tomorrow the world”) depicted an airborne invasion of southern Europe by the Judaeo-Communist forces of Greater Israel. Perhaps rather ill-timed, in view of the mid-1980s shift in German policy from anti-Jewish to anti-Arab, the film flopped disastrously. The genre has been more or less moribund since, particularly in light of the Velvet Revolution, whereby the doddering National Socialists and the Grand Old Party under Reagan were simultaneously toppled in the near-bloodless Syndicalist coup of 1990.

James Cameron’s new epic Lusitania, released on the eightieth anniversary of the now-controversial sinking, may perhaps go some way towards revitalising the nostalgic war film by reaching back beyond recent conflicts to the Great War, and taking still further the questioning, ironic stance which has distinguished such directors as Oshima and Stone. With a few notable exceptions, the Great War has been largely ignored in the cinema, except for mentions of Versailles and the Stab in the Back as prologues to present conflicts, and the film has aroused considerable controversy, particularly in the Anglo-Saxon Protectorate, where the Electorally Renewable Democratic Life President, Baroness Thatcher, denounced it in the Daily Mail as a “distasteful fabrication of events” and ordered a ban which is still in force.

The bare facts of the Lusitania’s sinking are well known, but have been somewhat obscured by the controversy surrounding them. On 7 May 1915, six days out from New York, the liner was torpedoed by the U-20 under the command of Leutnant Walter Schweiger, and sank with 1195 fatalities. The British and American propaganda departments made much of the disaster, in which all the casualties were civilians, and it was portrayed as a sign of German ruthlessness, depravity and barbarism. In fact, the sinking aroused more ire on both sides of the ocean than the Final Solution some forty years later. Certainly the Lusitania’s fate was the final nail in the coffin of any hopes of bringing the USA into the war on Germany’s side; probably it did much to reconcile the isolationists there with America’s eventual intervention on behalf of the enemy.

The German claim had always been that the Lusitania was carrying illegal munitions, and there have even been allegations of a conspiracy to make this known to German intelligence so that the ship would be sunk and bring the USA into the war on Britain’s side. It is true that such a hare-brained scheme would be quite in keeping with the character of its alleged originator, Winston Churchill, who, as Martin Gilbert has pointed out, was also responsible for the loss of hundreds of thousands of lives in the abortive Dardanelles Campaign. However, it is equally true that maritime torpedoes in 1915 were hardly sophisticated enough to give a reasonable chance for such a scheme to succeed. The fact that no trace of such an idea has been found among the papers of any of those involved, of course proves nothing either way. Such a secret and involved conspiracy would naturally generate as little paperwork as possible, and any that did exist would certainly be destroyed once the stratagem succeeded.

The conspiracy theory, as promulgated in popular form by Oliver Stone in his Dardanelles epic WSC (1993), which postulated that Churchill originated the Lusitania scheme as a distraction from the failure at Gallipoli, has focused debate away from the question of whether the Lusitania was actually carrying contraband or not. Most participants in the debate view the matter as settled: the liner was carrying munitions. The damage was too extensive and the sinking took place too fast to be accounted for by a single torpedo explosion. However, in 1993 an international team of scientists under Dr Robert D Ballard was able to explore and photograph the wreck for the first time and, as everyone is aware, the facts were revealed to be rather less straightforward.

Cameron uses a fictionalised version of this expedition (the captain in the film is a descendant of Walter Schweiger hoping to clear his ancestor’s name) to counterpoint the scenes set in 1915. After a brief, silent prologue of 1915 footage (both real and skilfully faked) of the departure from their respective ports of both the Lusitania and the U-20, the film opens with the expedition finding the wreck and diving down in order to photograph it and, hopefully, to prove the innocence of the U-20’s commander by proving that the liner was carrying contraband. Initial discoveries do seem to show that this was indeed the case: the hole in the prow certainly looks too large to have been made by one torpedo, and there are definite indications of a second, much larger explosion after the torpedo struck.

At this point Cameron reverts to 1915 and shows the buildup to the liner’s departure on 1 May, mixing fictitious characters with real and important figures who were actually present and, in one important sequence, showing the holds being loaded, but with absolutely no indication of anything underhand going on. (Actually, there is one indication: a red herring involving 4200 cases of Remington rifle ammunition which were undoubtedly – and legally – on board.) Following the liner’s departure from New York, Cameron cuts back to the present day, when the divers find in the wreck a metal strongbox containing a jewel and a portrait of a woman. The model for the portrait is found to be still alive, though nearly a hundred years old, and is flown out with her great-granddaughter -– an Irishwoman and (in 1915) an aspiring singer, or rather a singer whose mother aspired for her. The romance which develops between the singer and an impoverished German-American who won his third-class ticket on a bet constitutes one of the two romantic plots of the film, paralleling the relationship which develops between the singer’s great-granddaughter and the modern Captain Schweiger.

The military plot is developed through the crew of the U-20, who, after their brief introduction during the credits sequence, are shown in a couple of sequences during the first half of the film which, despite their brevity, effectively convey the danger and claustrophobia of submarine life and begin to flesh out the eminently sympathetic character of Leutnant Walter Schweiger, who hitherto has been depicted only through the statements of his descendant, and then only in terms of his military record. In the latter half of the film, Cameron gives more screen time to the U-20, but the film never slips into the simple-minded triumphalist/apologist mode of, for example, Wolfgang Petersen’s Das Boot (1989). The emphasis is on danger, squalor, and the difficulty involved in determining what is happening outside – the last point supremely important in view of the catastrophe.

One of the reasons why the film is banned in the Anglo-Saxon Protectorate of Great Britain and the Channel Islands, explicitly cited in the statement of the British Board of Film Classification and Public Enlightenment through Cinema, is that it shows the captain of the Lusitania in a sympathetic light while leaving no doubt as to his incompetence. William Turner, who survived the sinking, disregarded Admiralty directives on how to avoid U-boat attacks and kept his course on a straight line instead of zigzagging to hamper the aiming of torpedoes. For this negligence Turner has been almost as much vilified as Schweiger, though only since 1918. Turner also failed to order passengers and crew into their lifebelts when the Lusitania entered dangerous waters – a standard precaution in wartime – and even failed to ensure that passengers knew how to use the available lifebelts. Some of the most terrible scenes in the film show people drowning because their belts are too loose, or because they have them on the wrong way and are floating, grotesquely, upside-down.

In fact, the film shows Turner as guilty of complacency and inflexibility – qualities which characterise the English and their minions throughout the film, particularly the Irish singer’s would-be-British mother. This attitude paves the way for the resolution, which shows the notorious second explosion to have been caused, not by contraband munitions in the hold, but by coal dust from the boiler rooms, which has piled up during the voyage and which is ignited by the detonation of the torpedo. The lack of an active conspiracy, however, does not absolve the British from their part in the disaster. Aside from the lifebelt fiasco, we discover, the ship’s name was painted out before her final voyage, apparently as a protective measure. This, we learn, is why the ship was torpedoed – the captain of the U-20 thought he was aiming at the Lusitania’s sister ship, Mauretania, which was at the time being fitted out as a troopship and would have been a legitimate target, presumably with its name painted out also. Cameron thus leaves open the question of whether the passengers on the Lusitania were, in fact, used as a decoy for German U-boats, and whether, as one of the 1993 characters bitterly puts it, “they didn’t hope for the sinking, no– the sinking was a bonus”.

Rumour has it that Cameron originally planned to make his film about the Titanic, but changed his mind at the script stage, tripling the original budget and nearly doubling the cast. It seems likely that, with his attitude towards British complacency, a Cameron film Titanic might run into difficulties in the Protectorate not altogether dissimilar to those which have hampered Lusitania. (“Remember the Titanic,” says the doomed German-American passenger at one point, referring to the earlier liner’s fatal shortage of lifeboats – like its predecessor, the Lusitania was much touted as “unsinkable”.) But it is hard to see how this hypothetical Titanic film could have been much better than the one we have, even if it might conceivably have cost less. A film about the earlier ship would have had only the elaborate historical-romance setting, the interaction between past and present, and the superb special effects to recommend it. By choosing the Lusitania as its subject, Cameron has been able to add a whole new dimension to his film, and, in the end, to portray the citizens of three nations – Ireland, America and Germany – united against the ravages both of time and of a dying empire’s bungling, self-satisfaction, and duplicity.