Force of Arms (1951)

As far as I am concerned, the chief work in directing a film is in preparing a story for the screen.

–Michael Curtiz, Movie Director, 1886-1962


The expatriate Hungarian director, Michael Curtiz, with nearly two hundred films, Silents to Talkies, to his credit (including Casablanca [1942]) and accordingly possessing an immense, hard-won mastery of making drama in cinema using timeless techniques to immerse the viewer in the story, making the viewer acutely aware on various levels purely (that is, without the engrossed, speeding-along viewer knowing why–the old never-failing storifying “magic tricks” are invisible in the moment), has given us one of the handful of great love stories in the movies with the obscure, almost forgotten wonder, Force of Arms, a drama of wartime romance set in Italy in 1943 during the brutal Allied battles to dislodge the Wermacht.

You must not miss this 1951 release. Having escaped much notice, it’s just now wandering in after the ensuing years from the Plain of Neglect. It will stamp you.

Why sixty-seven years of obscurity? Well, in the history of the arts that sorry outcome, too frequent to pass off as a mere accident, more or less finally remains inscrutable. At least when you watch Force of Arms now, Curtiz and his wonderful collaborators will Come Back in a certain noble sense and, with a little unscientific luck, get a late vindication.

Curtiz is blessed with two writers, a cast, and a crew who are all of the highest talent. Having thought about all this after watching Force of Arms–the problem of how to parcel out credit for a masterpiece created by a collaboration of artists and trusting that despite the Earthly problems in doing so there is even now in Elysium a Prominent Committee of Great Storytellers working definitively on all such cases–the chief heroes are two: Curtiz and actress Nancy Olson who turns in a simply sublime performance as the female lead, WAC Lt Eleanor MacKay (“Ellie”). William Holden as the male lead, Sgt/Lt Joe “Pete” Peterson and Frank Lovejoy as Joe’s commanding officer, Major Blackford, are superb. I can’t think of any Holden performance in the movies that isn’t compelling.

The story of wartime love has a grand tradition, from Chaucer’s supreme Troilus and Cressida set in Troy during the Greek siege all the way down to Hemingway’s almost perfect A Farewell to Arms in World War One Italy. Richard Tregaskis, himself banished to the Plain of Neglect despite his indispensable Guadalcanal Diary (1943), and the mega-experienced author of the novel version of Force of War, is clearly well-aware of the tradition, one in which the Love-War theme is fundamentally the human theme: which will triumph? And as he should, Tregaskis faces up to it and asks this most crucial question–sets the essential historical and personal drama–in a time of the darkest days, the general Night of History.

And so, Pete, back to an Army rest camp near Naples for a brief pause after savage combat, runs into Ellie at dusk in a military field cemetery of dim rows of white crosses, the two war-ravaged, lonely, and dismayed souls there rather than out On the Town for R&R, Ellie pausing over the grave of a dead GI she “almost married” and Pete there because he’s seen too much killing and can less and less get over it. The chance (“chance”) meeting goes poorly. But, of course, there is something there. And from there, Curtiz et al. proceed to give us an absolutely beautifully paced falling-in-love story. After a few more meetings–some of them are coincidental, but I always say that if coincidence is good enough for Jane Austen and Charles Dickens, it surely ought to be good enough for us–Ellie and Pete want to be together somewhere else for the rest of their lives. The progression from the cemetery to here is perfectly paced and entirely believable. And the Somewhere Else, as described unforgettably by Ellie, is a small town in New Hampshire and in a house near a pond where life may be lived not as a cheap wartime life with death everywhere but in a pastoral setting of a natural dignity and wisdom that shows me Tregaskis has read Thornton Wilder and listened to Aaron Copland.

So how do things work out? They don’t in Chaucer and they don’t in Hemingway. And they don’t in more than a few others.

See the movie. The worst thing I could do would be to tell you. (And don’t go to Wikipedia unless you want to find a spoiler.)

Finally, some Notes on a Masterpiece:

–Curtiz intersperses desperately realistic and harrowing combat scenes in the mountainous Italian countryside with the uneasy Romantic interludes in Naples. Back and forth between the two worlds. His selectivity is impressive. Most notably, Curtiz shows in the battle scenes an exceptional understanding of the World War II technological advances in deadly warfare as a sub-plot of Force of Arms. The combat scenes include some actual battlefield film footage skillfully woven in. Examples: A bespectacled young GI you like instantly–a kid you’d kid around with happily–jumps with esprit from a foxhole and is cut down. The dread German anti-tank gun, the”88″ (8.8cm Flak), is shown at length as a terror–the telltale whirring of the incoming rounds and the ability of those gunners to perform saturation shelling. In his Churchill and Orwell (2017), Thomas E. Ricks shows the importance of an understanding of such modern armaments: “Relying too much on his experience of World War I, (Churchill) failed to appreciate how much the mechanization of military power during World War II devalued the role of foot soldiers and elevated the importance of artillery and tanks.” Curtiz’ rendering of the World War II Italian Campaign combat operations greatly dramatizes Ricks’s point.

–The dialog is exceptional. Pete’s bitter witticisms entertain. Ellie’s realizations stop you.

–Here are some directorial/narrational “tricks”:

*An actress named Amelia Cova plays a consequential character, Lea Maduvalli, a young Italian citizen and friendly co-worker of Ellie’s in the 5th Army Logistics facility. In a scene in which Ellie’s commanding officer, Major Waldron (veteran character actress Katherine Warren) is privately telling Pete to stay away from Ellie, Curtiz has Lea (this is the second time we’ve laid eyes on her–we barely glimpsed her standing in front of Lt. McKay’s desk in Logistics in an earlier scene–and we have no idea of her later role in the story) pick up a piece of paper from a table across the crowded, busy room and, frowning, approach Pete and Major Warren and then, at the last moment, turn away before engaging them. It turns out that Lea later offers a room at her villa to Ellie and Pete after they marry and suddenly is an instrumental figure. Obviously Curtiz is here acutely conscious of managing the expectations of his audience. In Force of War Curtiz does several versions of this trick–a sort of smart cue below your full grasp that “invisibly” engages and prepares your mind–makes you notice a sign of a coming plot twist, if fleetingly–just as your mind should be engaged and, above all, does what he is wonderful at doing: impose unity on the story from every point. He ties things together forward and backward. And if Nancy Olson’s performance in Force of Arms is sublime, we might think of Curtiz as placing sublime sublimities such as Lea’s early and brief appearances at strategic points in the movie.

* Ellie, with Pete, sees a church steeple in the Italian town as a lovely, peaceful symbol. It is destroyed before their eyes in a bombing raid. But  they find a deeper and unassailable beauty, one beyond the present violence, in the beauties of the Italian language, specifically in a poetic phrase about endearment. This is a most definitive little scenario, a telltale clue.

* Tregaskis is at home with the timeless conventions of the Love Story which go back to ancient poets. The essential ones might be rendered as: (i) Romantic love is an ennobling force; (ii) The lovers must be separated at many turns until order is restored, i.e., Things Work Out or Don’t. Curtiz takes to these principles.

*Both Ellie and Pete are given the benefit of the doubt at crucial points by senior officers, showing that Tregaskis does not follow the tendency of the time in World War Two novels to vilify officers, e.g., Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. 

* Here is one example of directorial fanatical attention to detail in this film: After Pete receives a battlefield commission from Sgt to Lt, the thread outlines of the removed Sgt patches remain on the arms of his jacket.

*At the end Ellie must desperately search Rome for Pete, and her search is comparable to the famous search in Rome which closes out the classic movie, The Bicycle Thief. High praise.

There is much more here, but the impact of the finished movie is the key, and it is a wallop. I can think of only one serious rival among movie love stories, the great I Know Where I’m Going! with Wendy Hiller (reviewed elsewhere in this blog).

Finally, after Force of War had been released for a while, someone(s) decided to change the title to A Girl for Joe. In a better world, there would be APBs out for the guilty.

Thankfully, archivists have ignored that awful revision. They know that the movie is finally a drama about precisely this: how forceful is war?

Quite a question.