Recently I watched all of a film whose opening scenes I first saw in late summer 1965. Von Ryan’s Express was a Frank Sinatra knock-off of the much more successful and better Great Escape, based on a David Westheimer adventure novel I had read as a teenager. When the film was released I was still immature enough to want to check it out.
Things got in the way. That summer was momentous for the American South, and I’d spent part of it travelling in the region, heading from San Francisco back to my family’s then home near Boston Mass, via civil rights projects before heading to a big rally in Washington. My companions were two Canadian brothers and a young American woman.
We meandered through Texas before heading to Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia to fetch up in a small town in South Carolina, at a voting registration project – voting legislation had been passed that would change the face of Southern electoral politics. That was fun, if also a bit scary: there were plenty of people not on the roll and getting them onto it at the courthouse to register was the kind of practical politics I admired, that looked to ricochet down the years.
The four of us stayed with a middle-class black family, a bricklayer, his wife and two young sons. The bricklayer had grit; he wasn’t put off by attempts to cow him, and had negotiated an end to segregation of the local cinema. As guests we were offered the opportunity to go to the first integrated screening with the two boys; it was as you will have figured out, the Sinatra epic.
It didn’t go as planned. The theatre management had agreed to the move, and the police notified – they promptly disappeared. But no one had told the crowd, many of them young white men whose attitude was not exactly progressive, and as we took our seats in a row to one side of the theatre the buzz around the hall was ominous.
I had led our group into the row, but this was a bad move on my part as the seat next to the aisle was taken by the younger Canadian. The film was not five minutes in before a burly white youth marched up to him and threatened violence if we didn’t leave. The Canadian got up and we had no choice but to follow – the two boys, not yet teenagers, were exposed. As we filed out of the theatre a group of young white men raged around the hapless manager in the lobby, shouting and gesticulating.
I was ashamed – of them, of our own lack of preparedness, and more.
The boys’ father was undeterred, calmly making plans to force the issue with a police presence next time. We moved on, to make the big rally in Washington, but he was and is a hero in my eyes.
Whether they got to see the rest of the film or not, I didn’t. The film had just introduced Sinatra when we’d been threatened, and it was many years before I caught the last 20 minutes or so on TV in New Zealand where I now live. But I had never seen the whole shebang,till I found a DVD in an op-shop.
Now I’ve seen it – nay more, I own a copy and can watch it as many times as I like.
Was it worth the wait? Half a century of delayed adolescent adventure?
It was, however, worth seeing as a prompt. There is a lot that can be said about the nature of film using Von Ryan’s Express as an exemplar – about the star system, about Hollywood decision-making, about film technique, even about film stock colour palette. Things could be said about Frank Sinatra too – he made at least a few films at the time that could be called left-wing, that were edgy in terms of the formula for a star – in this one, though he is heroic in the “star system” mode, he makes mistakes. His tragic death is kind of pathetic, a crumpled wee corpse on a rail line in Italy – not a sacrifice but just one of those things that happens in war, grand in one way, trivial in another.
As I have been writing this a link to an interview with Bob Dylan* popped into my email in box on the occasion of his new album, “covers” of material Dylan admires and, as it turns out, songs Sinatra also recorded. Dylan has inspiring and intelligent things to say about “Frank” as he calls him – as a singer, he sang to us rather than at us, Dylan says, and there is certainly something to that. Sinatra was and evidently remains a complex figure in American culture, with a role going even beyond film and music, and it is interesting to see Dylan reaching across a gap between himself and another “Ol’ Blue Eyes”** to find common ground.
Far more could be said about what fifty years have meant to America, to the South, to South Carolina. I don’t imagine there is much heat in going to an integrated screening of a film there nowadays – if there is a theatre in small towns given the impact TV and DVDs have had on the industry. The formalities of voting will be well-entrenched too – from a big deal in 1965 to routine today.
But what the years will have done, in the changes they have wrought to the fabric of American life, must have been much more profound than I can infer from my far-off vantage point. Then, the American South was incredibly poor given that the United States was the wealthiest country in the world. The poor weren’t just black – driving through rural South Carolina past one-room unpainted shacks perched on stilts, dogs, chickens, perhaps pigs sweltering in the humid shade beneath, it was impossible to tell whether a black or white face would push open the tattered screen door to move the flies around. Part of the complexity of racism in the South was the grinding poverty affecting both races that rather than uniting them, kept them apart.
Before I left the US for New Zealand in 1972 I spent more time in the South – mostly in Florida but also in South Carolina. Even a few years showed a sea-change in the way things were done. What was clear, as a black labourer in Florida once told me, was that for many blacks, living there was preferable to the ghettos of the North. He spoke of a man he knew who’d gone North to improve his lot: “He came back South, shut his mouth.” Seeing The Wire, a TV series depicting ghetto life in Baltimore today, suggests he had a point.
Thanks for reading.
** Yes, both of them