War Stories: Drew Deserts Direct Cinema for Latest Doc
By Kevin Lewis
Lt. Robert Drew and war correspondent Ernie Pyle. Poster for Robert Drew's From Two Men and a War. Photo: Drew Associates
Almost 50 years after Robert Drew produced Primary, whichpioneered a new form of filmmaking called cinma vrit, or Direct Cinema,the documentary filmmaker will be honored with a five-filmretrospective by the Tampere Film Festival in Helsinki, Finland fromMarch 8 to 12.
His most recent film, From Two Men and a War--whichhe and Anne Drew, his wife and filmmaking partner of 35 years,produced--will lead off the program. The documentary is a very personalself-portrait, based on his World War II experiences as an Army AirCorps fighter pilot, his flight from capture behind enemy lines inItaly and his friendship with legendary war correspondent Ernie Pyle.It was screened in 2005 at the International Documentary FestivalAmsterdam (IDFA); the Tribeca Film Festival; the It's All TrueInternational Documentary Film Festival in So Paulo and Rio De Janiero,Brazil, where a selection of his films was presented; the Hot SpringsDocumentary Film Festival; and at the Charles Guggenheim Center forDocumentary Film at the National Archives in Washington, DC. The filmwas also scheduled to screen in the Documentary Fortnight at the Museumof Modern Art in February.
Drew, who was a Life magazinecorrespondent after World War II, formulated his filmmaking conceptfrom Pyle's ability to convey a feeling of "what it was like to bethere," as well as from Life photographer Alfred Eisenstadtand his model, Weimar-era German photographer Erich Salomon. Drew wasstruck by the immediacy and dynamism of the photographs, which burstwith vitality out of their two-dimensional form. He convinced Lifepublisher Andrew Heiskell to let him make short film versions of newsstories that the magazine was publishing in print form. This work, Drewacknowledges, was influenced by a Canadian experiment in candidphotography known as "The Candid Eye." Drew also believes that theFrench cinma vrit movement was more influenced by his work than theother way around.
Drew formed a creative alliance in 1958 with Richard Leacock, who had worked with Robert Flaherty on such documentaries as Louisiana Story(1948). The group expanded to include DA Pennebaker and Albert Mayslesand called itself Drew Associates. The breakthrough film for thecompany was Primary (1960), that still-thrilling look at thecrucial Wisconsin primary between Senators Hubert Humphrey and John F.Kennedy. Drew instructed his cameramen to shoot candidly at charactersas developments took place in their stories. The most famous shotstracked Kennedy from above and behind as he walked through a crowd, andcaught a nervous Jacqueline Kennedy with her hands clasped behind herback, both filmed by Maysles.
From Two Men and a War confirms the America that defined Drew. The family photo, with both Drew pere and fils in uniform and his mother looking at Robert, could be a set-up for a Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post cover. From Two Men and a Waris not only about his friendship with Pyle--who was killed in 1945 atthe end of the war--but also his close relationship with his family.His mother became an intimate correspondent with Pyle when Drew wasshot down, and Drew's father was an officerwho, like Pyle, was killedat the end of the war. Drew's younger brother later became a BrigadierGeneral in the Air Force.
Drew has been criticized in some quarters of the film world becausethis film appears to break the rules that he and Drew Associates haddrawn up as guidelines to vrit filmmakinglittle narration or music, norecreations or acting. The filmmaker contends that if he made therules, he can break them.
But what does he think of other people breaking the rules? "Cinma vritis a wild picture right now," Drew notes. "Some brilliant advances, afew brilliant programs and a mass of look-alikes that fail to use thepower of the medium. You have to be there when a story is happening,capturing the story photographically in human terms. This is moredifficult than many would-be vrit-asts imagine. Failures force them toadd wordsnarration, explanation, elucidation, analysisall things thatare death to drama. Commissioning editors become trained to believethese verbalized forms are desirable, and ask for more. So withadvances in vrit filmmaking, you also see a flood of programs that Icall 'Cinma Expliqu.'"
Drew says, "I regard narration as a crutch" in storytelling, and he tried to avoid its use in From Two Men and a War,but after several attempts, was forced to utilize it. The film, afterall, is set in the past, involves an escape from the Axis forces behindenemy lines in Italy, and could not be recorded on film at the time.Cliff Robertson is the voice of Ernie Pyle, which does exist, ofcourse, in recorded broadcasts, but Drew has Robertson read Pyle'sletters to Drew's mother. Even more of a departure is the inclusion onthe soundtrack of an aria from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi.Drew acknowledges this as a double reference to his mother, a soprano,and the discovery of opera by the young Drew in Italy at the end of thewara discovery that unleashed primal feelings in him because of opera'sability to express anguish.
From Two Men and a War may be the most revealing portrayal ofthe filmmaker. The central episode of a young Drew on the run from theenemy, hiding out in the hills of Italy, with an empathetic Italian andhis family and a quirky fugitive British soldier who was in reality thelater British novelist Derek Monseyassisting him, is told entirely inrecreations. Years after the war, Drew reconnoitered with Monsey overdrinks in New York, a not altogether pleasant experience because Monseyfelt guilty for falsifying, in his writing, one of the events they hadshared. But war makes strange bedfellows, and Drew relied on Monsey forhis survivaleven eating a boiled goat's head provided by Monsey.
Last November, Drew was honored with a screening of From Two Men and a Warat the Charles Guggenheim Center for Documentary Films at the NationalArchives. The Drews were touched by the enthusiastic response from theaudience, many of whom were World War II veterans. It was fitting thatit was the Guggenheim Center because Guggenheim himself made hisvaledictory film about his experience in World War II. Coincidentally,both that documentary, Berga: Soldiers of Another War, and From Two Men and a Warhad to rely extensively on recreations because both films had a centralfocus on the experiences of soldiers detached from their troops andcaught behind enemy lines.