The Fallen Sparrow, by Richard Wallace (1943)
by Nandia Foteini Vlachou
The Fallen Sparrow is a mediocre, hybrid film. Although the mediocrity can be, for the most part, attributed to its director, the hybridity was not unusual during the period. World War II provided inevitably new subject matter for the Hollywood industry, but the latter often failed to adjust genre conventions in a meaningful manner. Dorothy B. Jones, who served as the head of the Film Reviewing and Analysis Section of the Hollywood office of the OWI (Office of War Information) during the war, was remarking in an article published in 1945: “Although there were more films about the enemy than in any other category, this subject by and large received a distorted and inadequate portrayal on the screen. Features of this type were the first to be produced in any quantity in Hollywood, because they required only a slight adaptation of the usual mystery formula and thus provided an easy means for capitalizing at the box office on interest in the war”.
The Fallen Sparrow is just such a film, that combines not only the ‘mystery formula’ with Nazis as spies on US territory, but also using – unsuccessfully – many of the film noir’s topoi: the hard-boiled protagonist who is investigating a murder (although he is not a detective), various untrustworthy women, seedy eroticism, night clubs etc. The film was based on a 1942 novel by Dorothy B. Hughes, perhaps more known as the author of In a Lonely Place (the material of Nicholas Ray’s 1950 masterpiece) and perhaps the book’s plot is just as preposterous as the film’s. It focuses on ‘Kit’ McKittrick (John Garfield), who protects an inconsequential object with his life, while simultaneously trying to solve his friend’s murder and overcome his crippling anxiety, a result of his incarceration and torture in a Spanish prison during the civil war.
The film’s interest lies mainly in the attempt to depict the psychological effects of torture realistically and in this sense it might be the first of its kind. John Garfield does his best as the traumatized war veteran, although he might have fared better in the hands of a more skillful director. But this is not why The Fallen Sparrow merits our attention. What’s fascinating about it is that one learns absolutely nothing about the Spanish Civil War (never once mentioned in the film), although this is where Kit fought and held prisoner. As a friend who saw the film observed, contemporary viewers might have been left with the impression that the war in Spain was a military conflict between the Americans and the Nazis. Kit’s brigade is mentioned (an oblique allusion to the International Brigades) but the viewer is none the wiser about who fought whom and, more importantly, why. This was in keeping with widespread ignorance concerning fascist ideology in the States. To use again Dorothy B. Jones as a source: “Films dealing with the ideology, objectives, and methods of fascism…were more acutely needed during the days immediately following Pearl Harbor, when Americans…knew little about the nature of fascism…”.
The Spanish Civil War though was not an easy subject matter and probably not the ideal vehicle for illuminating Americans about fascism. Although World War II was the only period when capitalism and communism were not locked in a “posture of irreconcilable antagonism”, as Eric Hobsbawm has astutely observed (The Age of Extremes, 1994), fear of Hollywood spreading communist propaganda was very much alive during the war. A report on the communist infiltration of the motion picture industry, including such films as Fritz Lang’s Hangmen Also Die! and Jean Renoir’s This Land is Mine, was in fact addressed to J. Edgar Hoover in 1943 (year of both films’ release). The ‘red scare’ would only get worse after the war, culminating in the conspiratorial hysteria of the McCarthy period. It is painfully ironic then, that the man who played a Spanish Civil War veteran in The Fallen Sparrow would see in a few years his career destroyed because he refused to name names before the House Committee on Un-American Activities.
* This post draws partly on research conducted for a paper presented at the War and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century international conference (Lisbon 2013).