John Ford, Samuel Fuller, and George Stevens produced some of the most popular and critically acclaimed classic movies of all time. Their work ranges from drama to romance to westerns, and they also directed films inspired by their experiences on the battlefield. From February 16 to August 3, the Dallas Holocaust Museum’s special gallery exhibit, Filming the Camps: From Hollywood to Nuremberg – John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens, showcased these directors and their documentation of World War II.
When he began his directing career in the 1930s, George Stevens created light-hearted films such as Swing Time (1936) and Gunga Din (1939). In the 1940s, he enlisted in the army to oversee the Combat Motion Picture Unit (IMDB). During his four years overseas, he witnessed tragic events that affected his filmmaking. Stevens responded by creating movies that captured the human experience and influenced viewers. He wanted his films to have profound meaning and moved away from lighthearted entertainment. His more serious post-WWII films include Oscar nominees A Place in the Sun (1951) and Shane (1953).
Samuel Fuller, known for his low budget and progressive films, is the only featured filmmaker who did not make his directing debut before the war. Before WWII, he aspired to be a journalist. At age 12, Fuller started in the newspaper business as a paperboy, and by age 17 he was a crime writer for the San Diego Sun. His strong writing skills landed him in Hollywood as a screenwriter, but when WWII broke out, he enlisted in the army. The war became the inspiration for some of his most popular films. After the war, Fuller continued writing screenplays and directed his first film, I Shot Jesse James (1949). The screenplays for many of his post-war movies addressed progressive topics for the time, such as interracial relationships in The Crimson Kimono (1959) and feminism in The Naked Kiss (1964). Fuller’s most popular film, The Big Red One (1980), was based on his personal experiences in WWII.
John Ford directed many popular classic movies such as Stagecoach (1939), The Grapes of Wrath (1940), and How Green Was My Valley (1941). To this day, he holds the title for the most Oscars won in the category of Best Director (4). Though he was most popular for western films, his Oscar acclaim comes from his more serious dramas. When WWII started, Ford went straight to the front lines to film the action, and for two consecutive years released Academy Award-winning short documentaries, The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943). These films were the first color footage from the war released to the American public.
During The Battle of Midway, the narrator reminds the viewer, “…yes, this really happens.” It was vital to Ford that he successfully portrayed the arduous acts of war. “We assume that many Americans simply do not believe the stories of mass killings of Jews and Anti-Nazi Christians… Those stories are so unfamiliar to the common experience of most Americans that they seem unbelievable” – “Caption Sheets” Units No. 5,6 and 7, titles “Dachau Atrocities.” The directors showcased in Filming the Camps helped American civilians understand the full complexities of war and the Holocaust. As well as assisting the American public, the film and photography captured were also an important factor during the post-war trials. “Human memory is faulty, and because objects constituting physical evidence decompose, change or are lost, it is important that a contemporary record be made of the event in such a form that will constitute an acceptable proof of the occurrence, and afford a method of locating, and afford a method of locating principals and witnesses so far as many be possible at some future time,” – John Ford, wrote in his “Report of Officer Returning from the Field.” The Filming the Camps exhibit exposes the harsh realities of war and the Holocaust uncovered by these directors.
Beginning September 7, 2017, the Museum will present the new special gallery exhibit, Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in WWII.
In 1896, Plessy vs. Ferguson ruled in favor of legal racial segregation, maintaining that public institutions were to be kept “separate but equal.” Almost 45 years later this ordinance was still an important part of society. In the South, the segregation policy was known as the Jim Crow laws.
In 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802, allowing African Americans to join war effort. Despite this order, black soldiers served in separate units from their white counterparts, were often forced to work non-combat jobs (cooks, logistics, stewards, etc.), and did not receive proper training. Nonetheless, with unemployment at the high rate of 19% for black men (Virginia Historical Society), the military was often the best chance for opportunity. The new exhibit, Fighting for the Right to Fight, uncovers the struggles African Americans faced when trying to fight in WWII.
Hollywood brought to light the destruction of WWII and the Holocaust in movies such as The Diary of Anne Frank (1959) and The Big Red One (1980), but at home African Americans faced injustice. As American soldiers fought against Nazi ideology, institutionalized racism flourished in America.
African Americans joined the war efforts in the hopes that they would inspire change in America. The Double Victory Campaign, which spread like wildfire in black communities, called for a victory overseas during WWII and a victory for American minorities at home. It started when a black man from Wichita, Kansas wrote to The Pittsburgh Courier, questioning the state of America and the war:
“‘Should I sacrifice my life to live half American?’ ‘Will things be better for the next generation in the peace to follow?’ ‘Would it be demanding too much to demand full citizenship rights in exchange for the sacrificing of my life.’ ‘Is the kind of America I know worth defending?’ ‘Will America be a true and pure democracy after this war?’ ‘Will colored Americans suffer still the indignities that have been heaped upon them in the past?’…. I suggest that while we keep defense and victory in the forefront that we don’t lose sight of our fight for true democracy at home.” –James G. Thompson, 1942, The Pittsburgh Courier.
After the war, African Americans expected improvements in society, but conditions remained stagnant. Over the next ten years, racial tensions grew, and a series of events took place that inspired the Civil Rights Movement.
Brown vs. Board of Education in 1954, banning segregation in public schools, was the landmark ruling that led to the official start of the Civil Rights Movement. Sit-ins, marches, freedom rides, and rallies pushed the limits of race relations in the nation and drove the government to institute legislation against segregation.
Upstanders emerged to oppose hate, injustice, prejudice, and ignorance. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Thurgood Marshall inspired others to stand up and fight for what they believed. Despite opposition, the determination of many forced a change in America.
The LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter, and the Women’s Rights movements today show us that even though we have made great strides, hate is still evident in America. Like the Civil Rights Movement, people are still standing up for change.
The directors featured in Filming the Camps brought the war experience to the public so that people could absorb the nature of the tragedy. John Ford’s technicolor documentaries were a form of new technology that changed the way people perceive war. Similarly, as society faces problems today, technology has become a way to keep people accountable and uncover the problems that plague society. As John Ford said, “it is important that a contemporary record be made of the event…” Now, the public does not have to enlist directors to capture the human experience. With current technology, we can become our own history makers.
The Civil Rights Movement drove the change of the treatment of minorities in America, but current events help emphasize what is still unfinished. Both the Museum’s recent exhibit Filming the Camps: From Hollywood to Nuremberg- John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens and the upcoming Fighting for the Right to Fight: African American Experiences in WWII display different perspectives during WWII. The knowledge gained in these exhibits educates visitors to stand up against injustice and hatred in the world.
-Capri Jordan, ExxonMobil Intern, Marketing Department