I Know Where I'm Going

Category: Moving History

Wind Across the Everglades

 

The definition of the “ahead of its time” artwork, Nicholas Ray’s Wind Across the Everglades (1958) is a rare bird, much like the ones Christopher Plummer is fighting to protect in the film. It was plagued by Ray’s alcoholism and drug abuse, production problems (according to historian Bernard Eisenschitz, some of its scenes were shot UP, “under protest”, from the film’s crew that hated Ray) and the clashing of personalities between Ray and the film’s writer and producer, Budd Schulberg (the oscar winning writer of On The Waterfront), who also fired Ray before the end of production and finished shooting the film (including the death scene of Burl Ives). It is a dark story of environmental destruction and greed set in the Everglades in Florida during the early years of the twentieth century, a period of railroad expansion and the concretization of plans to drain the extensive wetlands for agriculture.

 

 

Although it pits the idealist Christopher Plummer, who struggles to impose the law as game warden, against the greedy, ruthless bird poachers who are decimating the population of birds (egrets, herons) living in the Everglades, the film is neither idealistic nor straightforward in its ethical position. Much to the contrary, it embraces a complex moral view of the universe, where the desire to preserve a patch of land reminiscent of the Creation as it must have originally appeared (one of Plummer’s early musings) is mixed with the equally strong desire to live outside the law, free as a wild animal, grabbing whatever life can offer you for as long as you got left to live on this miserable godless earth. That is why the film is stronger in the scenes where Plummer confronts Cottonmouth, the brutal leader of the poachers who lives where the law can’t reach him, deep in the Everglades, keeping the company of a snake in his pouch. Played by Burl Ives, the quintessential Southern patriarch in films such as East of Eden (1955) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Cottonmouth dominates the scene in his corpulent, red-headed savagery, contrasting effectively the youthful masculine beauty of Murdock (Plummer’s character), who by the end of the film has turned equally ragged, dirty and desperate. The scene of their drinking match is superb, as is the driving of the canoe through the marshes, after Cottonmouth, having recognized his opponent as worthy, unexpectedly agrees to be taken by Murdock to the authorities, with the condition that he can find his way back by himself.

According to Eisenschitz, Ray did away with the longer speeches in Schulberg’s script, and his tendency to pontificate, and the film, one is left to assume, is better off without them. The brief interludes taking place in town do not do much towards advancing the plot, and there were scenes that were cut in the editing process (which Ray did not supervise), as when the film jumps from the celebration of the fourth of July on the beach to the inauguration of the new avenue. The film is populated by an assortment of secondary characters, either first time actors, or people from diverse backgrounds such as famed circus clown Emmett Kelly, the burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee (who four years later would be portrayed by Natalie Wood in Mervyn LeRoy’s 1962 film Gypsy), or avant-garde Czech theater actor George Voskovec (who had worked with Ray on radio and years later played the psychic in Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler). It also features the strangely alluring Chana Eden as Naomi, Plummer’s love interest. Although she is manifestly not a good actress, she fits the part in a wild and unexpected way, appearing natural, almost primal, whereas all the other women in their excessive dresses and feathered hats (the reason the birds are killed in the first place) look artificial, stuffed, superficial and vain (Gypsy Rose Lee, her sexuality, and world-weary look somehow escape). Her scenes were also apparently truncated because of her lack of talent but she works well on screen with Plummer.

The film is more than timely, touching upon themes of environmental protection, the vanishing species of animals endangered by mindless money-making urges, the lasting results of colonial settlement (the Seminole wars are alluded to, with the brutal treatment of the Seminole Indian who plays Murdock’s guide and meets a horrific end at Cottonmouth’s hands as a result). Yet, Ray’s ambivalent treatment of the outlaws themselves, imbued with a longing for freedom outside societal norms and conventions, raises the film above what could have easily been transformed into a manifesto of intentions. In the end, Ray’s pessimistic treatment of his subject matter, with the last shot of the film showing Christopher Plummer grimly wading through the marshes, never seen reaching civilization again, bring to mind the words of another man who wrote unforgettably about the horrors of colonial exploitation: “The offing was barred by a black bank of clouds, and the tranquil waterway leading to the uttermost ends of the earth flowed somber under an overcast sky – seemed to lead into the heart of an immense darkness.”

 

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What makes us Americans; or, the Standing Man

 

‘Bridge of Spies’ by DreamWorks Studios.

Steven Spielberg’s draw as a director is undeniable, although I was still surprised to watch Bridge of Spies in a full theater almost ten days after its initial release in Lisbon. I was reluctant to go see the film (the first Spielberg I watched in a theater since the last Indiana Jones), as I am not among the director’s greatest admirers. I admit that my hesitation was in great part due to the film’s trailer, promoting it as the story of the one man preventing a full blown Cold War escalation, the recurrent (American) mythology of the individual responsible for the course of history. But Spielberg’s film is misrepresented, and largely betrayed, by its promotion, as it has nothing to do with what the trailer suggests. I also admit that I haven’t been following his career assiduously since Schindler’s List (I movie that I thoroughly despise for its mawkishness), thus I have yet to watch AmistadSaving Private RyanMinority ReportArtificial IntelligenceCatch Me if You CanWar Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. And yet, I would go as far as to suggest that Bridge of Spies is Spielberg’s best film (after the ‘entertainment’ trilogy that redefined story telling and movie making in Hollywood, that is, JawsE.T., and Indiana Jones).

Its quality is securely based on the talents of everyone involved, from Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography and the astounding recreation of 1957 New York and East Berlin to the cast performances (with Mark Rylance quietly dominating each frame he’s in) and a director in full control of his expressive means (with Thomas Newman’s score a minor flaw, as it was unnecessarily sentimental). Its superiority though lies in the development the film’s themes receive from the script (by Matt Charman and the Coen brothers), and their masterful visual deployment by Spielberg. Spielberg, just to cite one example, cuts from a judge saying “all rise” to a group of schoolchildren rising in classroom to pledge their faith to the American flag, thus showing what is truly at stake in the courtroom, and also binding together education and justice.

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To be able to make, at this day and age, a film about the quintessential values of the United States of America and the American way of life (as supported by the Constitution) without the slightest trace of irony, is already an achievement. Without being preachy or shallow (or coy about its intentions), the film is sincere patriotic propaganda, and this is not an oxymoron. Propaganda in its most neutral definition, as the attempt to literally propagate a set of ideas, and patriotic as opposed to nationalistic. Despite being easily overlooked nowadays, there is a long tradition of associating patriotism with progressive and republican ideals (again, republican in the eighteenth-century, British incarnation of the term and not in its current meaning in American politics). Thus, during the French Revolutionary Wars in Europe, patriots were those who “collaborated” with the French (a fairly anachronistic term when used to discuss the reactions of peoples to the revolutionary armies and ideals). On the other hand, patriotism was also being appropriated by conservative ideologies and frequently placed in the service of monarchy and the empire, as historian Linda Colley has argued. Others, like Maurizio Viroli, have made a case for the need to disassociate patriotism from nationalism and reclaim its value as a discourse focusing on political unity, civic duty and not cultural or ethnic homogeneity.

In a key scene from the film, Tom Hanks confronts a CIA agent who seeks information about his confidential interactions with Rudolf Abel, the accused spy Hanks’s character, James Donovan, is defending. Having undertaken this thankless task, Donovan embarks on an almost quixotic quest to uphold those same values that the spy (and the Soviet Union by extension) is seen as threatening, but that are actively being undermined by the representatives of the State (the CIA agent, the judge and so on) who are claiming to defend them. “What makes us Americans?”, the Irish Donovan asks the agent, who is “of German extraction”. What is the difference between us and them?, the film asks. The reply is: the rule book, the Constitution, which is almost treated as sacred text (a position not without its problems), and not any common ground that can be traced to culture, ethnicity or race. That is supposedly the greatness of the United States in its original inception – a concept also celebrated by the smashing hit Hamilton now on Broadway, a musical that expresses “the thoughts and drives of the diverse immigrants in the American colonies who came together to forge their own contentious, contradictory nation” (from Ben Brantley’s review of the show). Bridge of Spies says something of the utmost importance for our current moment: that it is our ideas (and values) that make us who we are and not our origin.

The film is brave in its politics, especially when Donovan goes on defending Abel (even  praising him for his steadfastness), something that earns him the “standing man” nickname from Abel (a story told by Rylance’s character in a feat of nuanced narration). Donovan continues alone in this quest that puts him, as well as his family, in harm’s way, while he tries to prove that “every man counts”. Not escaping the heroic altogether, Donovan is not the traditional hero. He is Everyman in his most complete incarnation, Hanks playing Jimmy Stewart to Spielberg’s Capra (in a sense, this is Spielberg’s Mr. Smith goes to Washington). Donovan is the regular man who has to resist what he knows is wrong, because in the end that is what shields us against barbarity. The film’s universalism is prejudiced by the juxtaposition of how the two captives were treated by the respective powers that held them, while otherwise remaining remarkably neutral towards the Soviet Union. The nuclear paranoia of the Cold War is dismissed by Donovan (two civilized adversaries would never engage in mutual destruction of this scale), although its impact is demonstrated in a scene where a period clip preparing civilians for the possibility of an atomic bomb attack is shown to overwhelmed children. Irrational fear takes root from an early age, the film seems to suggest, affecting our possibility to arrive at calm and measured decisions.

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The film’s parallels with today’s history are ample and obvious. The concessions to the security of the state and the cost that civic liberties have had to pay since 2001 are painfully clear. In a period where more concessions are asked of citizens (the prohibitions of protesting the climate summit in Paris after the recent terrorist attacks is the most recent example, and certainly won’t be the last), the movie invites audiences to ponder whether winning at every cost is ultimately worth it. Spielberg’s idealism and almost utopian vision of American politics does not rob the film of its value. The United States may never have been the beacon of civilization its defenders have imagined it to be, but during the ongoing global refugee crisis and a new confrontation cycle with the “East”, it is imperative to ask not just “what makes us Americans”, but what determines our stance towards the rest of the world, what is our place in it and, ultimately, our responsibility.

In the unforgettable finale, Tom Hanks watches wistfully from a train window as children play in a backyard, jumping over a fence. The scene purposefully mirrors a previous one where, also as a passerby, Hanks had watched people being shot while trying to climb over the Berlin wall. It is a melancholic scene – it may have been intended as a reminder of the liberty people enjoyed on the other side of the Atlantic, but it comes across as something irretrievably lost.

 

 

Dragging the State: The Banality of Horror

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There is a scene in The Man in the High Castle, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel of alternate reality, occurring a third of the way in the pilot. The series portrays a world where the Allies have lost WWII, and where the United States are divided between Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan (the Pacific States), a gripping premise coming to life through excellent production values, striking visuals and impeccable detail (as one expects from seeing Ridley Scott credited as executive producer). In the scene in question, Luke Kleintank, who plays Joe Blake, gets a flat tyre on a mysterious errand on behalf of the resistance. A local cop stops to give him a hand and kindly offers him a snack, seeing that the young truck driver is unprepared for a long distance trip – he is not threatening like the German ‘Brownshirts’ that have made an earlier appearance, so the viewer lets his guard down.

While they are standing, making small talk and munching on egg salad sandwiches, something that looks like snow starts falling from the sky. Joe asks what it is, to get the reply:

Cop: It’s the hospital.

Joe: The hospital?

Cop: Tuesdays…the hospital gets rid of the cripples, the terminally ill…dragging the state.

It is at this point that the viewer realizes that the flakes slowly falling are ashes, from the burning bodies of the unwanted, the dispensable, the burdensome that are “dragging the state”. It is a subtle, understated scene, but it is sufficient to imbue the series with dread. Noah Berlatsky has argued that The Man in the High Castle tends to present a sinister and dystopian view of alternate reality while Dick’s novel drew its strength from presenting the Nazi-dominated world as terrifying precisely because of the way people had adapted to it. This scene counters his argument. It shows precisely that horror is not located in the alien, the fantastic, the nightmare reality that could have nearly happened but (the viewer is assured) didn’t; it does not stem from the victory of a fascist and racist regime, nor lies exclusively in its explicit acts of violence (beatings, torture, ‘humane’ executions). Horror is the unexpectedly casual manner that all this and more has gradually seeped into everyday life; it is the banality of it that is truly shocking. How people go about their business without registering what goes on, without being perturbed by it, how they shrug their shoulders and continue. This poignant scene, chilling to the bone, can also be seen as an allusion to the contemporary horrors that accompany us today. Whether it be the drowning of refugees while they flee war, the islamophobic rhetoric rising in the West, the security state in the ascendant and the prospect of more war, or simply the comparison of people with rats much as it had happened with Jews during WWII, we (mostly) shrug our shoulders and move on. The distance between reality and this alternate version is shorter than it seems, and it is depressing that we need a television series to remind us.

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American Hustle, by David O. Russell (2013): Make-believe

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American Hustle made me think about history. How close to the present can we venture, but still call it history? How faithful does it have to be to what went on? Is American Hustle a film about history? It certainly starts with an interesting disclaimer: “Some of this actually happened”. The story of the ‘Abscam’ corruption scandal on which it is based is one of those stranger than fiction stories, and a lot of the characters and events in the film are based on reality (for a more detailed analysis of that, see here).

As a film, it lacks the manic urgency of David O. Russell’s previous Silver Linings Playbook, and the fact that he was personally invested in the latter’s main themes (depression, bipolar disorder) perhaps has something to do with it. American Hustle is smartly written and directed, wonderfully acted and very funny at times. But it falls far short of its hype, and the numerous adulating reviews are rather perplexing. It even managed to outshine on occasion the emotional impact and historical importance (again, history) of a film such as 12 Years a Slave, or the dazzling technical achievement (but nothing more) of Gravity.

One wonders inevitably about the pervasive influence of the myth of the American dream. Small time crook who makes it big, swindling the innocent (or dumb, take your pick) and ultimately getting away because of his/her charm and superior intellect or powers of deception (it appears to be roughly the same). It is a perverted image of individual achievement, made possible in a capitalist society – and as such, not that different from either The Great Gatsby or even The Wolf of Wall Street. Seeing the latter in close proximity with American Hustle, and having in mind the moral outrageous that the Scorsese film provoked in many circles, I was baffled: why weren’t we equally outraged with the characters in American Hustle? Because they seemed…nicer? Because the film was funny, but not in any offensive or extravagant way, as Wolf was? Because we were supposed to accept the platitude of its tagline (“everyone hustles to survive”) as a valid life philosophy?

Despite the qualms concerning the film’s moral compass, there is one – I believe unintended – unique quality to American Hustle. And that is precisely it’s relationship to history. Although the disclaimer seems like justification for the liberal portraying of events and characters on the screen and shifts the question of authenticity away from content, the film nevertheless remains bound to historical accuracy in a different way: it’s visual and material representation of history. And by history, I mean a precise era in the past, with all its trappings. I don’t think I have ever seen another film that takes historical reconstruction to this point of fetishism – this goes well beyond the need to transport the viewer in the period represented (as is true with any of the countless period films that continue to be produced year after year). American Hustle elevates the representation itself to the very essence of the film – the reconstruction is the subject matter. While viewing the film, one cannot shake the feeling that the clothes, the hair, the makeup (nail polish is probably the most essential clue to understanding Jennifer Lawrence’s character), the furniture, the light transfusing every scene, the sites, the houses, the clubs etc., are what it’s all about. Mark Kermode noted the film’s “air of deliberate superficiality”, but I would go so far as to say that American Hustle got caught in its own period reconstruction, much like Narcissus got caught in the reflection of his image in the pond. The film does not exactly drown, but also does not show us much more than this surface. That it manages to do so with the conviction that there isn’t really much else to history, is an impressive, if ambiguous, feat.

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The Fallen Sparrow, by Richard Wallace (1943)

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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.

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* This post draws partly on research conducted for a paper presented at the War and Propaganda in the Twentieth Century international conference (Lisbon 2013).

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Cloak and Dagger, by Fritz Lang (1946)

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Under the “Moving History” category, inaugurated today, I intend to write (twice a month) on the ways that history is represented, constructed and used in and through film.

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For the first post, I chose Cloak and Dagger, a 1946 film by Fritz Lang. It has the peculiarity (at least for a category that purports to examine the use of history in film) of being an indirect commentary on very recent events. Despite being one of Lang’s lesser known works, it bears unmistakable signs of his authorship: the unforgettably choreographed, mute and lethal hand-to-hand battle between Gary Cooper and the Italian ruffian that attacks him; the child’s ball falling down the stairs (reminding Lang’s own M); the tough female protagonist (Lilli Palmer), an Italian resistance fighter, who – despite the predictable romance with her leading man – stays well away from Hollywood standards of femininity; and last, but not least, a thinly veiled critique of the use of atomic power.

Written by Albert Maltz and Ring Lardner Jr. (two of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” who refused to testify in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee merely a year later), the movie is a tribute to the Office of Strategic Services [OSS], but it’s tone is far from uncritical. The OSS was the central intelligence office of the USA during World War II, and the movie is partly inspired by Corey Ford and Alastair MacBain’s Cloak and Dagger. The Secret Story of the OSS. The movie opens in the USA a year after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Significantly, its original ending where Gary Cooper (unlikely portraying a nuclear physicist-turned secret agent) exclaims “God have mercy on us if we think we can wage other wars without destroying ourselves”, was cut from the film and subsequently lost.

The ending was mirrored in the beginning of the film nevertheless. When Gary Cooper is approached by the OSS for the first time, he shares with the agent who happens to be an old friend, the same preoccupations: he rails against the lack of governmental support and funding for scientific research before the war, especially where the cure of diseases such as cancer and typhus were concerned, compared to the same government’s willingness to back nuclear energy and the building of the atomic bomb. Cooper’s character, Alvah Jesper (supposedly based on Robert Oppenheimer) confesses that he is terrified by the possibility of atomic power, stating that society is not yet ready for it, and lamenting the fact that he is indeed a scientist.

The story follows Jesper as he travels to Switzerland and Italy, first verifying claims that the Nazis are close to the construction of an atomic bomb, and then trying to rescue an Italian scientist who is collaborating with them, under threat for his daughter’s life. In Italy, he meets Palmer’s character, Gina, a ferocious and indomitable woman who has joined the resistance. Jesper is forced to stay with her and lay low, while Gina’s fellow fighters go on a mission to free the scientist’s daughter. Although the film’s myth was built primarily around its lost ending, its interest lies more in the attempt to depict truthfully what life would have been like in wartime Europe. A key scene involves an otherwise minor incident: when Jesper is left with Gina, at the first (and only) night they spent together at her crummy apartment, he hears a hungry cat meowing outside the door. The scene is revealing for the differences in the perception of war between the American who has only experienced it from afar, and the Italian for whom it was an everyday reality. Jesper wonders if there is any milk to feed the animal, provoking Gina’s sneer who exclaims that she cannot remember the last time she had milk herself. Later scenes are also memorable in that sense, as Gina and Alvah are forced into hiding in ruined buildings and under bridges, eating only apples.

Gina, as a character, is another indicator of the film’s efforts to construct a realistic universe – and of the distance that separates it from the standard spy thriller/romance. When she and Alvah fall in love (awkwardly thrown together as they are), she hints at the moral sacrifices and despicable actions she has had to perform in order to survive throughout the war, effectively dismantling the heroic and romantic myth of the resistance fighter. The end of the film as it stands, is rather bitter. Mistakenly characterized as a happy-end, it has Gary Cooper getting on a plane with Polda (the Italian scientist) and Lilli Palmer staying behind to continue fighting for the resistance. Her sacrifice is entirely stripped of the narrative momentum that the one made by Ilsa Lund three years ago had (which is why Cloak and Dagger’s conclusion feels hollow). Contemporary viewers of Casablanca did not have the privilege of knowing how the war would end, unlike the ones seeing the 1946 film.

In the end, Cloak and Dagger is not so much a film about history, as the events it refers to are still raw in collective memory. It would be illuminating if more information were available regarding the public’s reception of the film, especially given that it seemed to adopt a critical stance towards the use of atomic energy, USA’s exclusive domain at the time. At least one contemporary review dismissed it as standard fare in the adventure and romance genres, full of spy-thriller clichés (the New York Times, published October 5, 1946). In any case, Lang’s pessimistic view of society’s immaturity and lack of preparedness to deal responsibly with nuclear energy, as well as the incapacity of Americans to comprehend the full extent of the trauma suffered by Europe during the war, somehow still lingers.

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