NEARLY 70 years ago, in the early days of TV, children in households across the country suddenly found their love affair with the new medium being interrupted each week by a program their parents wanted to watch. “You kids really ought to see this, too,” they were often told as the family set was preempted. The big event was a documentary film series called ” Victory at Sea ,” a sort of grand morality tale and symphonic saga about the worldwide war that had disrupted and, in many cases, shattered the lives of a generation.
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“Victory at Sea” won big prizes in its time. It was unabashedly patriotic — reverential toward America and its allies, filled with the soaring music of Richard Rodgers, and given to portraying the war as a struggle between good and evil. Perhaps it wouldn’t play to such critical acclaim in our own Age of Irony, but in those times it answered the desire for meaning to be found in a horribly destructive conflict that cost so many lives — the number literally countless but in the scores of millions.
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Today it serves our need for memory, as do other powerful documentary films of our most recent awful global war and, one hopes, our final one — though of course thousands have given their lives in harrowing warfare since then, and thousands continue to put their lives at risk for the country today. What gets to the viewer, more than any Memorial Day speech or parade could, more even than names engraved in stone, are the living faces of young soldiers in small landing craft trying to appear brave and resolute as they approach some strange and frightening shore, then advancing over a ruined landscape, tense with fear at every building or cave they approach, moving ahead under fire, scrambling for cover.
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One of the more poignant episodes in “Victory at Sea” shows many such faces in extremis. It is called ” Return of the Allies ” and gives a dramatic film account of the liberation of Manila from Japanese occupation: troops wading ashore, relieved to find little or no opposition. The explosion of violence as they reach the Philippine capital, which has been turned into a hellish fortress to be taken building by building. A grievously wounded soldier, his comrades working feverishly to save him while one holds a helmet above his face to protect it from the rain. The people of the Philippines fleeing the violence that took so many of their fellow citizens’ lives — and exulting in the liberation. A helmeted GI gently tending to an injured boy. A lone U.S. soldier trudging past Filipinos, who rush out to touch him, grab his hand, pat him on the back. A ragtag band parading with every kind of horn they can lay their hands on in raucous celebration.
Most of the faces are gone now; some did not live out the year 1945. In a way, these films are our most emotional memorials to them. They’re readily available on the Internet. Perhaps this would be a good day to say, “You kids really ought to see this.”
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