Essays by Gerald DiPego
These are films I saw between the ages of ten and twenty, films that, in some way, hit hard and went in deep and mattered, enhancing or awakening some strong feeling in the boy I was then and helping to shape the man I am now. They are in no particular order.
Movie 3 - FORBIDDEN PLANET, ’56
I was fifteen and unworldly, shy and private, laughing at the ‘dirty jokes’ told by my friends, but awed by sex itself as a mysterious, growing power in my mind and my body. If kissing is considered first base, I had made it there only a couple of times and no further. I read paperback adventure books and was thrilled by each torn bodice or revealed thigh. I dreamed of rescuing half-clad women and becoming their gentle hero, and on the movie screen I watched these scenes like a hungry boy at a bakery window.
“Forbidden Planet” offered my 15 year old self weird music, a future universe of space travel, an intricate plot, some scenes of action, but all of this faded away even as I was leaving the theater, because there was only one offering that really mattered to me and that was the lovely Anne Francis wearing a series of very short dresses – mid thigh -- in the fifties!
She played a girl of 19, an earthling, an innocent, stranded on a planet with her scientist father for many years – and now a crew of military spacemen from earth have come to ‘take them home.’ All she had to do, for me, was stand there. She was her own light. I was the moth. Often, when she moved, I kept track of the hem of her short dress, kept track of those bare legs, and I was more than smitten. I was aroused.
Then there comes a moment where she faints or is hurt, and the astronaut hero, Leslie Nielsen, has to pick her up and carry her – and he does this by placing one arm along her back and placing the other arm beneath her thighs, and he lifts her and walks with her, and I’m thinking, my god, he’s actually touching those thighs, actually holding…. But wait. Wait a minute. This scene that I remember as being so striking, so unbelievably sexy – isn’t even in the movie! No. It’s not there. I just rewatched the film last night, and I did this because of all these ten movies in this series, Forbidden Planet was the one I remembered the least – as far as plot and dialogue and storytelling, and I thought I’d school myself in the details and then…see that mighty scene again, the one that supercharged my teenage libido, but it’s not there!
I must have received a suggestion of this ‘carrying-of-my-dream-woman from the film’s poster, which shows Anne Francis being carried this way by the robot in the film (‘Robby’), but that scene, also, does NOT APPEAR IN THE FILM. So that means I created it in my mind. I imagined that scene. I imagined me, and not Leslie Nielsen, performing that scene. I imagined the feel of lifting her, being her rescuer, and…feeling the touch of those bare legs – and because all those feelings felt so strong and true, I have spent years replaying it in my mind, believing it was there, in the film.
I was shocked last night by this realization and also smiling and shaking my head and thinking about that thunderstruck 15 year old me, and realizing how very powerful and evocative film can be – in our minds, in our dreams.
Movie 4 - A WALK IN THE SUN, '45
(The Human Truth)
Like many of the films in this series, I saw this movie not in the theaters but on early television in the late forties and the fifties. The stations had little programming at first and so played the classic and not so classic films over and over, and I was kidnapped by this particular World War Two film, and am still vulnerable to its spell.
It has a few hokey elements (it starts with a song) but it came out after the war and was not pushed toward jingoism but allowed to be faithful to it’s source, the short novel by Harry Brown Jr. – who was a combat veteran and who wrote the screenplay and, for me, offered up the human truth inside the ‘adventure’ and the ‘glory’ that made up most of the war stories I had seen on film – and I was a great fan of war stories, which led to a deep interest in military history that continues even now.
I love the simplicity of the story, one day in the life of one platoon, as they approach their landing on a beach in Italy, as they dig in during the dawn hours, as they begin their mission. They need to capture a German-held farmhouse that oversees an important bridge, but this is more than the engrossing story of that mission and its violence and its cost. The real strength here is the very human observation, the inner story of these men and boys as they move (and sometimes fight) their way toward their objective. The film’s power is in the individualizing of the soldiers, listening in on their conversations, hearing their fears and their humor, their bitterness and friendship – so different from the many films of the time that glorified the conflict and demonized the enemy.
The audience gets to know these soldiers as people as they rise or break under pressure, as they joke and curse and are wounded and lose friends and keep moving on, talking over the bits and pieces of each of their lives.
A soldier is slightly wounded and is okay to be left alone, since the American forces are moving up from the beach and will be along soon to help him to an aid station. A younger soldier asks the wounded man if he will take a letter the youth has written home and will post it. The wounded soldier says yes. The platoon moves on. Later as they take-five along the road and sit or lie down, one worldly soldier teases the youth, saying that wounded man is probably reading his letter right now. “He wouldn’t do that,” says the youth. “Sure he would, and then he’ll probably use the letter on his wound, stuff it into the bullet hole.” “He can’t do that!” Says the youth. “You can’t use paper for a wound!” “Hell, why not,” asks the other soldier, and the youth says, “Cause it crinkles!”
The platoon is staffed with a long list of good actors who create these very human individuals and take you inside of them: Dana Andrews, Lloyd Bridges, Richard Conte, John Ireland… I’ve gone along on their mission a dozen times and will go again – and I’ll read through Harry Brown’s book again, too. Somewhere inside, I’m always that boy who was me, marching along with these soldiers and witnessing their human truth as they move on toward their hellish hour at that farm house. (Directed by Lewis Milestone.)