FF126 - Their Finest

Intro by John Roderick

Any podcast that covered a randomized selection of movies from throughout the history of movies would have to spend time wrestling with the ways that values have changed. They have changed dramatically over the last 100 years, and even more dramatically over the last 10. So even if Friendly Fire focused on courtroom dramas or domestic comedies or movies where even briefly kids were shown playing marbles, the hosts would end up talking about gender relations and representation.

War movies are about fighting, about enemies and politics and conflict between nations, and as such we are always on the lookout for how well or poorly they do depicting peoples of nationalities, races and religions other than those of the filmmakers themselves. It is a major way we evaluate films and we pay special attention to the women in these films because they are comparatively rare, they are frequently on the receiving end of the worst kinds of violence, depicted often only in silhouette or implication, and because we are looking for validation of the contemporary idea that women of the recent past were disenfranchised and stateless beings, held captive by an unchallenged patriarchy.

Interestingly, we have not found that to be universally the case. Women are comparatively rare and victims of unspeakable violence - yes - but we have been surprised to find so many strong female characters depicted as wise or valiant, full of agency, quick-witted and no patsies. They are taken seriously by the films, the male characters seek their approval and alter their choices accordingly, and although they are often two-dimensionally virtuous, they aren't always uncomplicated.

The cameras pan away when the shooting starts, often not returning to them until the end, but in most cases they weren't just knitting. They were nursing or nunning or running a brothel, the three great tentpoles of civilization. We can't help but watch a lot of American movies too, because that is where Hollywood is. Making movies is one of the main things that America does. Believe me, if Friendly Fire could just watch movies made in Mongolia and the Ivory Coast, we would, as long as there was at least one scene where kids were playing marbles.

But being stuck watching Hollywood movies we are also stuck looking through the American lens (except when those lenses are made in Germany), which means in most cases we are thinking about war as something that happens elsewhere. Wars are things we ship out to do and when they are done we come home, but that is not true for most of the world where wars are something that start happening around you and when they are done you are lucky to be alive and everything you knew is in ruins.

In Stalingrad in World War II or in the villages of Vietnam in the 1960s the bombs didn't care what gender you were. In both the USSR and Vietnam, due in part to the social leveling inherent to communism, there were women under arms, fighting unto death, killing and being killed in battle. That is closer to the true nature of war throughout history and in most of the world presently than the post-enlightenment Hip Hip Cheerio war or death from above wars of the American present. War should miss no one!

In the USA in World War II the home front meant victory gardens and Rosie the Riveter and war bonds, but the UK, although never invaded, was blitzed and rocketed all throughout the war. It is a wonder there aren't more films about women in the UK during the war. That is why we were so excited to find a film like today's where a young, ambitious London woman breaks into the male-dominated world of screenwriting, lending her talents to the production of patriotic war pictures being pumped out by the Ministry of Information to bolster the confidence of the citizens of the UK and to inspire the citizens of the United States to join the war.

We have watched plenty of World War II films that were produced during the war, and we will watch plenty more. This movie shows us the other side of those cameras and of the people writing and producing the very films that are our mainstay. It is a fascinating view of how people in the midst of a war might have felt about the propaganda they were helping to make. All that, and we get to spend a lot more time thinking about Dunkirk and all the weird boat-dad appeal that particular event holds.

Truly, this film is aimed at the very heart of Friendly Fire. "Film, Mrs. Cole, is real life with the boring bits cut out. Don't confuse facts with truth and for Christ's sake, don't let either of them get in the way of the story!" Today on Friendly Fire: Their Finest.

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