Tell me where the flowers are

Tell me where the flowers are

The Naked Prey

The cinema of Cornel Wilde, part 2

Part 1: Journey into the Heart of Darkness

Where have all the flowers gone Long time passing? Where have all the flowers gone Long time ago?

1955, when Pete Seeger "Where have all the flowers gone?" Cornel Wilde founded his production company – a coincidence in time, not a causal connection – in order to finally be able to make the films he really wanted to make. Seeger’s song, also sung in German by Marlene Dietrich in 1962, became an anthem of the peace movement. Wilde, the flower lover, provided the cinematic equivalent of uncompromising studies of war and violence. The flower children’s train to a brave new hippie world, however, should not be expected from him any more than the standardized glossy products of a tranquilizer-pill-dispensing dream factory. Perhaps this is the reason why today he is regarded as a maker of crude brutal epics with clumsily staged excesses of violence – if one still remembers the director Cornel Wilde at all.

Shortly before the end of The Naked Prey Wilde gives himself (and us) a moment of utopia. The man he plays continues his journey alongside the little girl he saved from the slave traders. There are genuine moments of empathy and togetherness between the two as they share their food and sing songs from their respective cultures to each other. It never becomes kitschy, because Wilde does not aim at pre-calculated emotions. Instead of having the amateur actors memorize dialogue, he described to them what a scene should be about and gave them some clues. The rest was improvised. The immediacy and authenticity thus achieved was the best insurance against industrially produced emotional kitsch. For the message of the film, the utopian moments are important, because so far we have seen a cruel world, where the stronger eats the weaker and people prey on other people. Wilde does not want this to be understood as advocating a Social Darwinist worldview. That’s why he includes a few scenes near the end in which the harmonious coexistence of cultures is described as a positive value. But because the Weibe will now return to a racist slaveholding society, his black companion separates from him when the border of their tribal territory is reached. Everything else would be a lie. The shot in which Wilde looks after the girl as she walks back to the destroyed village is perhaps the most emotional of the film.

After the wilderness in feature length (exactly 90 minutes) there is also the pastoral. It lasts for one shot. Two naked black children stand in a green landscape, in the background animals graze peacefully. Wilde walks past the children, pats them on the head, disappears from the picture. This is the rough riddle with which he sends us out of the cinema. What, the audience should ask, is the meaning of this?? Has Wilde strayed from a film full of blood and violence into another in which the world is as it should be, in which man, be he naked and defenseless, is not prey as in the title? The Naked Prey? Let’s see Africa as the cradle of humanity, with one generation that is female and another that is black, without any hierarchy resulting from it? Probably the most important thing is what it cannot mean. The female man is not above the black children on the evolutionary ladder. The preceding 90 minutes do not allow this interpretation.

Tell me where the flowers are

The Naked Prey

Then the hunt is on. The fort is already in sight when it seems that the four remaining warriors will be able to catch up and kill their game after all. The hunter, who has shouted out his grief over the loss of his comrades the loudest, raises his spear in a deadly blow when he is shot by the soldiers of the fort. Wilde is about to return to the fortress he left at the beginning. Before that, his gaze meets that of Ken Gampu, the leader of the warriors. The two look at each other and then raise their arms to pay their respects to each other before Gampu disappears into the bushes. This is one of the most absurd film moments I know, and at the same time one of the most comforting, because at the very end something like a mutual agreement between two cultures is reached. However, many people had to die for it beforehand. That’s why this film – one of the most original and interesting of the 1960s – is so sad.

Cave painting

Absolutely original is also Wilde’s next work, the war film Beach Red. The many critics who in 1998 praised Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan for showing the war with unprecedented realism and without hurrah patriotism, had either Beach Red not seen or long forgotten (together with the old rule that one must not confuse production values and the smoothing over of terrible events by technical virtuosity with artistic quality). Spielberg, I am sure, knew Beach Red very well when he filmed the Allied landings at Normandy, and Terrence Malick had Beach Red also seen, when he started his epic about the war in the Pacific. Who Malick’s The Thin Red Line If you like Aquatopia in principle, but are disturbed by its pratentious inner monologues, you should try it with Beach Red try. And if you’re a fan of Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), because there the war is also shown from the point of view of the enemy of the Americans: Cornel Wilde was there before. The story of "new", The history of the war film represented by directors such as Oliver Stone, Spielberg, Malick and Eastwood actually begins with him (and Sam Fuller). That only went down a bit, because Beach Red The film was released in 1967 and Wilde is still waiting to be recognized as a serious filmmaker.

It is remarkable, writes David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, how few childlike directors have produced a cinema that produces so much for a childlike audience. The "naive portrayal of the world" can only be found in Cornel Wilde’s work and in no other. Thomson compares his films to cave paintings. In The Naked Prey and Beach Red there are moments, "where one has the illusion of seeing the first movies ever made". If that is supposed to be a compliment, it is a poisoned one. Wilde, if he was taken into account at all as a director, was given the label of the barbarian "Primitive" glued on (as a synonym for blood-spattered clumsiness). It has been overlooked that Wilde made a series of intelligent films that took a long time of planning and rough logistical effort to make, not the spontaneous outburst of a barbarian following his instincts.

Wilde the primitive was a master of the technical apparatus of his art and had a good eye for the right composition of the picture, even in difficult widescreen settings, to suit his purpose. Putting the camera where it belongs (especially when shooting on original locations) is one of the most difficult tasks a director has to master. Wilde was able to. The artistic freedom that Wilde the producer Wilde allowed the director, he bought with a restriction of financial resources. This may have been all the easier for him, since he wanted a certain rawness anyway, because he was looking for an aesthetic form that adequately conveyed his themes, instead of neutralizing everything that was resistant through images polished to a high sheen. Hohlenmalerei are also only "primitive", when measured against techniques and asthetic norms for reproducing the world that the artists never aspired to. So if you want to do justice to Wilde, you should judge him by what he wanted to achieve, not by what Hollywood demanded. The finished product can be rejected, for example, because, legitimately, one prefers to see the rule-abiding films to which the entertainment industry has accustomed us. This does not detract from the artistic quality of the work.

Even the painted images in the opening credits of Beach Red seem somehow "primitive". In fact, they are oriented toward a kind of "Realism" (also just a viewing habit), which is often much more direct and expressive than the film and photo footage of World War II we all know. It’s good to know that Wilde himself was a painter, designed his films along painterly lines, and only began shooting after intensive research and the elaboration of an overall visual concept, instead of just instinctively getting started as soon as the financing was clear. At Beach Red lieb he drew inspiration from works by the more than one hundred artists who served in the U.S. Army during World War II and were commissioned by the military or magazines to document what they experienced as they said goodbye to family, on the front lines, and at the stage.

Tell me where the flowers are

Beach Red

These artists-professionals and talented amateurs, some already soldiers and some recruited among civilians-created more than 12.000 pictures, which disappeared in military archives after 1945, which is no wonder, because soon the Korean War was advertised and there was no need for colorful paintings with shot up bodies or veterans mutated into zombies. My information on this is taken from the documentary They Drew Fire by Brian Lankner, aired by the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) in 1999, and the resulting book of the same title (PBS is the donation- and government-funded network that Mitt Romney would have liked to kill off if he had become president – there were, after all, reasons to vote for the drone and Guantanamo Obama, even if they faded badly over the course of his first term).

Tell me where the flowers are

Beach Red

During the Second World War, the images in magazines (from Life up to Yank, the Army magazine made by soldiers for soldiers), in newsreels and in exhibitions traveling around the country. Patriotic shopkeepers placed reproductions in their windows. The images reached millions of Americans. Not all were already to look at. I was led to believe that the then steadily decreasing willingness to show the people even unpleasant and shocking aspects of such disputes had to do with the fact that the then last "good" The war, which could be justified without any major argumentative contortions, was primarily about fighting the dictatorial and aggressive regimes in Nazi Germany and Japan, not about bombing the North Vietnamese back to the Stone Age, settling old scores with Saddam Hussein, or securing access to the oil and gas reserves of a foreign country. The cost of fighting Hitler’s Wehrmacht and the Tenno’s soldiers, not least in human lives, was easier to convey to Americans, which may also have increased the tolerance of the military and the government for the presentation of unpleasant details.

Tell me where the flowers are

They Drew Fire

From this alone it becomes clear what subversive potential Wilde wanted to harness for his film, because Beach Red wurde im selben Jahr gestartet, in dem John Wayne – je nachdem – seinen Ruf als amerikanischer Patriot oder faschistoider Chauvi-Imperialist dadurch festigte, dass er seinen Landsleuten den Vietnamkrieg im Format eines hausbackenen Altherren-Westerns prasentierte (The Green Berets), which John Ford had never made, and Cornel Wilde even less so. Also Beach Red although set a quarter of a century earlier, is primarily a commentary on the war in Vietnam, realized through aesthetic means of depicting violence that still met with general acceptance (at least painted or drawn) in World War II, but no longer in the 1960s because people had long since begun to reflect on the power of images.

High Price

It is a myth propagated by TV journalists that the relentless coverage of television ushered in the end of U.S. involvement in Indochina. Commercial television became more critical the more public opinion changed, not the other way around. In film, especially in mainstream cinema, it took even longer (Platoon et al. came much later). Wilde was pretty much on his own in 1967, soon followed by Emile de Antonio, another independent thinker, whose compilation film In the Year of the Pig (1968) was nominated for an Oscar – and didn’t get it because the Academy awarded a documentary about the pianist Arthur Rubinstein. After the Oscars for Peter Watson’s The War Game (1966) and for Pierre Schoendoerffer’s The Anderson Platoon (La Section Anderson, 1967), people had had enough of the war for the time being, and they didn’t want to see it in a feature film anyway, when more and more Americans had to fight and die in Vietnam.

During the Second World War, uncensored art became an argument for democracy and the fight against dictators in Germany and Japan. If the war was not won, the government announced, artists would never again be able to paint such pictures. This may have been the sincere conviction of the politicians and generals who created this art program. Nevertheless, I was led to believe that the artists in uniform also benefited from the fact that drawing and painting were considered comparatively ancient cultural techniques. Then as now, impact theorists could rarely resist the temptation to declare the newest – and thus most alien – medium the most dangerous (those who filmed or photographed the war were more severely affected by censorship). The painters and draftsmen were almost completely free in their choice of motifs and their depiction, but in some areas they were pushed to the limit. Naked man’s body sounds alarm bells at homophobic military leader. Some things seem to have been taken directly to the depot. Overall, however, it was shown what the artists created. Glorifying the war and its participants as in the US propaganda films of the time, there are on the pictures just as the traumatized soldiers with the blank look (the documentary film about it, John Huston’s Let There Be Light, the army for a long time) and the blood-stained bodies destroyed by modern weaponry. This is captured with a kind of realism, next to that of Spielbergs Saving Private Ryan seems very Hollywoodmabby.

Tell me where the flowers are

They Drew Fire

There is no place in the pictures I have seen for the Nazi monsters and Asian sadists who populated the cinema screens at that time, because the artists who were directly involved in the fighting reflected their experiences and did not encounter the enemy as a propagandistically inflated bogeyman, but in the form of corpses, demoralized prisoners or enemies directly threatening their own lives, and in any case as flesh-and-blood human beings. Flesh and blood are often on display. Not everyone liked it. Magazines that published such pictures had to reckon with nasty letters to the editor and the accusation that they were indulging in brutality for base motives; others offered praise because the war was being portrayed the way it was. Life printed a U.S. soldier painted by Tom Lea who had his arm and a facial neck torn off by an enemy shell (title: "The Price"). A similar thing happens to one of Wilde’s Marines, who in Beach Red storm the eponymous beach section of a Japanese-held Pacific island. His arm is completely torn off, which at first he is not aware of because he is in shock.

Tell me where the flowers are

Beach Red

From today’s perspective, Cornel Wilde could be considered an early representative of the splatter film, or possibly, if one is not well-disposed towards him, an epigone of Hershell Gordon Lewis (Blood Feast caused a scandal in 1963). In fact, he is in the tradition of the artists to whom the Army allowed a degree of freedom during World War II that it did not want to know about afterwards. According to an unconfirmed rumor, the American armed forces rejected Wilde’s request for material support, citing the war in Vietnam, which left no free capacity. He had to make do with poorly preserved documentary footage of the war in the Pacific, the restoration of which consumed a considerable portion of his budget. More helpful was the government of the Philippines, where the Beach Red was made. She provided soldiers as extras for the crowd scenes.

From earlier productions – also a rumor – US uniforms are said to be still available in sufficient numbers, but too few for the Japanese. We are supposed to owe one of the plot elements to this: the Japanese disguise themselves as Americans in their counteroffensive, so that Wilde did not have to have new uniforms tailored. However, this is similar to what was done in Peter Bowman’s novel published in 1945. James Jones’ The Thin Red Line from 1962, first filmed in 1964 by Andrew Marton (and then by Terrence Malick), tells the same story, but is longer, with more personnel and more brutalities (Bowman focuses on one hour from the point of view of a soldier going on patrol with three comrades). It could well be that Wilde was also inspired by Jones (and the latter perhaps by Bowman) and acquired the rights to Bowman’s short novel in order to secure himself legally – not an entirely unusual procedure in film production. Wilde was a professional who knew exactly what he was doing. Otherwise, primitiveness or not, he could never have made the films he made. The rest is folklore, which does not mean that someone like him, operating on the fringes of established production structures, did not face adversities that more industry-oriented directors did not face. Not everything in his films was equally successful. He certainly did some things differently when the budget allowed it.