Aug 092017

Laurence Olivier

Twenty years after World War II my combat memories no longer throbbed. Twenty years is more than half a generation. Writing about an event twenty years later is neither journalism nor history. I embarrassed myself because I could not rise again to those first emotions. “Every hero becomes a bore at last.”

Yet World War II had an afterglow unlike any war ever since. The evil that was destroyed was greater than the evil of war.
Victory over evil set the style of “1945,” a broadcast made in 1965.

The images came from the battles of World War II. The bearded, unshaven, frightened, resolute, dirty faces of youths in combat were counterpoint to William Walton’s music and Shakespeare’s words from another war.

Henry V addressed his troops before the battle of Agincourt, centuries earlier. Laurence Olivier spoke these words over the faces of men in battle:

He that outlives this day and comes safe home
Will stand a tiptoe when this day is named.
Old men forget; but none shall be forgot
But he’ll remember with advantage
What feats he did that day: then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words,
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester,
This story shall the good man teach his son
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered,
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
For he that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother…

It took weeks to edit the faces of combat troops into that passage. William Walton’s music underscored Shakespeare’s word and dictated the pace of the editing. When it was finished, it became one of the finest montages in my memory.
It was in black and white, of course. The paradox is that color is the way we see: color images are documentary. Black and white is another time, another place; an imagined reality.

The balance of the text recalled the events of that momentous year: the end of the war; the beginning of the cold war, the atomic bomb. A last sequence was a very long passage without narration after these words: “The human desire to take up peace swept over everything else.”

No words for five minutes. Images of the troop ships coming home. Images of men hugging and kissing their families. The veterans who obviously boomed in bed led to very good long shot of a dozen newborn babies squalling in their hospital cribs.

The sequence was cut to music not often heard in the years that followed. Morton Gould had orchestrated “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” into a brisk and overwhelming hymn of triumph. Trumpets, violins, clarinets marched at a 120 beat.

We have had no reason to sound a note of triumph for the wars after 1945.

The next to the last words of my script:

Somewhere in our atmosphere hang electrons released at Hiroshima; but somewhere in our collective spirit lies the knowledge that we fought for something that is eternally right—and we won.


Laurence Olivier: NY Daily News