William Katz: Van Johnson, RIP

William Katz is our occasional contributor and the proprietor of Urgent Agenda. Today he reflects on the life of Van Johnson:

The recent death of Van Johnson at 92 reminds us of a time when Hollywood actors played American military heroes, the studios wouldn’t have it any other way, and audiences cheered.

That was a long time ago, when most Americans alive today hadn’t even been born.

Van Johnson was one of the top movie stars of the World War II era. With his reddish hair, good looks and simple manner, he was the guy tinkering with the jalopy down the block, who went off to war and did what he was asked. We expected him to get the girl because he deserved to. I remember him best as a young flier in “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo,” Mervyn LeRoy’s film about the Doolittle raid of 1942, in which Army Air Force pilots, flying from the carrier Hornet under the command of Lt. Col. James Doolittle, attacked Japan in a raid designed less to do damage to the enemy than to raise American morale.

Today, a film like “Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo” could not get made. Today, Hollywood portrays American soldiers as heavy-handed instruments of evil Washington policymakers. This last year alone has seen a group of so-called “anti-war” films, largely ignored by the audience, but adored by the artsy crowd in America’s declining film industry.

Why is this? What happened over the years to an industry that once saw American soldiers as heroes, as rescuers of democracy, and now sees them as men to be feared, or, at best, as victims of sinister forces?

These are the things that happened, that created today’s film culture:

1. The enemy changed. It was easy in World War II for Hollywood’s leftist crowd — and there’s always been one – to go with the patriotic flow. We were fighting fascism, and the red groups were, supposedly, on our side. Even in the postwar world, as the fight turned to one against Communism, the basic patriotism of much of Hollywood prevailed, at least for a time.

2. The studio managements changed. The Hollywood of World War II is long gone. It was run by moguls, some of them immigrants, who loved the United States, and whose names were often on the studio water towers – Mayer, Warner, Goldwyn. They had a sense of pride, and of shame. They also had remarkably good taste. Today the studios are plaster palaces owned by conglomerates. The executives are anonymous, except within the industry itself. No one’s name is on the water tower. Many of those who run today’s Hollywood have been taught by the culture of their time, not to love America, but to doubt it. They often were educated in colleges that won’t even host ROTC. Further, the movie business once made most of its money in America. Today there is a large overseas market, and foreign viewers don’t resent anti-American films. They may well cheer them.

3. The audience changed. There was a period when the movies were the visual entertainment form for almost all Americans. It was an era when 90 percent of us would see a movie every week. The audience today is a fraction of that, is mostly young, heavily urban male, and not exactly respectful of traditional American values.

4. The leftists won. One of the effects of the so-called “McCarthy era” was to strengthen the left, especially in the film industry. The congressional probes of Hollywood of the late forties and early fifties, designed to uncover Communist influence, were incompetently done, often obnoxious, and eventually offended most Americans’ sense of fairness, even though many of the concerns about red influence were accurate. (President Reagan once quipped that he learned about Communism by dealing with the Marxists in Hollywood.) The leftists used the revulsion toward the congressional committees to create an atmosphere in which anti-Communism wasn’t quite respectable. This allowed them to solidify their strength within the industry.

5. The news media changed. The news media of World War II would have been enraged at today’s anti-military films. But the media of today is filled with journalists trained in the same colleges that turned out the current crop of film honchos, and they see an anti-military film as just another “point of view,” another “narrative.”

6. There is no draft. Most Americans don’t have a personal identification with the military. An anti-military film doesn’t hit home the way it would have 40 years ago. Many Americans don’t even know a soldier, or a soldier’s family.

7. Liberals drifted away from the military. In the 1950s a writer named David Boroff warned, in the old Saturday Review, that liberal families no longer sent their sons to the service academies, and that this would have a negative effect down the line. Liberals separated themselves more and more from the military, whereas in World War II they saw themselves as part of it. Today they frequently see the military as a different and distant culture, and they too often believe the worst about it. And liberalism dominates Hollywood.

8. Vietnam happened. Much of the tone of Hollywood today derives from the crazed, adolescent culture of the late sixties, when trashing the American military became popular, even required, in certain “artistic” circles. Hollywood never quite recovered, and no countervailing force emerged to push the industry in the opposite direction.

9. A contempt for the audience happened. In Van Johnson’s day, Hollywood identified with the American people. There was a respect for the audience. In the mid-thirties, David O. Selznick, who later produced “Gone With the Wind,” premiered “A Tale of Two Cities” before a group of sailors, who may have had an eighth-grade education…and the sailors cheered. Today’s “educated” Hollywood would laugh at such a stunt, for surely “those people out there,” the “flyover people,” would never understand a classic.

They do understand. It’s Hollywood that no longer understands. Hollywood today believes itself superior to its audience, and superior to the institutions that audience admires, like the armed forces.

So R.I.P. Van Johnson. You made good movies for a good nation. Your kind of films are rarely made today. Yes, there are the occasional exceptions, like “Saving Private Ryan.” But they are rare, and getting more rare as we drift further and further away from the early days of the war on terror. The trend is clear, and the nation is poorer for it.

Among the honorable exceptions to which Bill alludes in his conclusion, I would add the 2001 HBO series “Band of Brothers” (produced by Tom Hanks) and the 2003 film “Black Hawk Down.”

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