6 August 2002 | jandesimpson
Schlesinger's perceptive nostalgia piece
"Yanks" tells of a peaceful invasion in wartime. In preparation for the Second Front, the closing phase of World War II, more than a million American military personnel were stationed in Britain. The film studies the effect of this invasion on one community in Northern England. Let me say at the outset that I have long regarded this largely forgotten film as one of the most important cinematic works of the '70's. The not inconsiderable director, John Schlesinger (he already had to his credit "A Kind of Loving", one of the least dated films of the British '60's "New Wave"), looks back from the vantage point of 35 years of history to a specific place in time to study attitudes of xenophobia that are still prevalent in Britain today. In doing so he always strives after balance so that neither culture is wholly right or wrong. There is a remarkable scene where the shopkeeper's daughter (Lisa Eichhorn) who has been dated by a GI (Richard Gere) cannot understand why he stands by and does nothing when a fellow GI turns on a black soldier for dancing with a white girl. Her response, which he equally cannot comprehend, is to dance with a black guy once order has been restored. It has to be admitted that the quest for balance is very nearly the film's undoing. On paper it may have seemed fine to have two affairs running simultaneously to represent class differences, that of the shopgirl and the army chef and that of the lady-of-the-manor figure (Vanessa Redgrave) and an American officer (William Devane). Both women have to square their consciences with their existing attachments, a fiance on active service at the front and a naval officer husband away at sea. The problem is that the Redgrave/Devane sequences rather border on cliche - son forced to attend a public school he detests but must endure because of family tradition, mother dividing her energies through playing the 'cello in an amateur orchestra and serving newly arrived GI's with refreshments. The Eichhorn/Gere scenes on the other hand work wonderfully. Both play their parts with tremendous sensitivity. There is a marvellous scene where the mother (another fine part by Rachel Roberts) finally agrees to Gere being invited to Sunday tea. Her transformation from suspicious bigotry to what is almost warm understanding of Gere's unforced politeness has a moving quality that reminds me of some of the great moments in "The Best Years of our Lives". There is a beautifully orchestrated grand finale where the Yanks depart that is the very stuff of great epic cinema. Here Richard Rodney Bennett's marvellous score melts into Anne Shelton singing "I'll Be Seeing You Again" as backing to the credits. John Schlesinger's singular achievement in "Yanks" is to recreate the type of experience we so often got from America in the '40's and add to it that element of reflective wisdom that is the most perceptive byproduct of nostalgia.