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Empire (2010) - Hitchcock at war




Hitchcock at war

During World War II the US‑based director was branded a traitor by fellow Brits, but this was wildly inaccurate

Alfred Hitchcock declared war on Adolf Hitler five years before anyone else. Indeed, every film he made between 1934 and 1946 impinged upon the international situation. Under cover of celluloid, Hitchcock was warning audiences about the Nazis. Ironic, given Joseph Goebbels was a big fan.

However, back in Britain he was dubbed a turncoat — hotfooting it to Hollywood at our darkest hour. Some have even suggested that he was denied his knighthood for so long because of his 'poor war'. Naturally Hitchcock was stung by the hypocrisy of the attacks. Well past the age to join up, his presence in London would have been pointless, as production had ground to a halt. He concluded that he stood a better chance of finishing a flag‑waving feature in California.

Still, Michael Balcon, his former producer and friend, launched a vicious attack on those who had chosen "to remain in Hollywood instead of returning home to aid their country's war effort". He singled out Hitchcock: "I had a plump young technician in my studios... Today he is one of our most famous directors and is in Hollywood while we are short‑handed." But Churchill had sanctioned a continued British presence in Hollywood, believing well-made films would leave a deeper impression than well‑meaning ones, and Hitchcock was clear that "the British government has only to call me".

In fact, he had been busy co‑ordinating fundraising drives, working with other ex‑pats to sway the isolationist US government, and personally cut through the red tape to rescue 60 refugee children. In December 1943, he flew back to Britain to direct for the Ministry of Information. With little Home Front experience, he teamed with old friend Angus MacPhail on a tribute to the French Resistance.

Their flash-backing tale of a British airman duped into trusting a Nazi agent, Bon Voyage anticipated Rashomon (1950), and was actually a treatise on the nature of truth rather than a piece of hard‑hitting propaganda, but was only screened fitfully in France after D‑Day. It fared better than Aventure Malgache (1944). a study of internecine treachery on the island of Madagascar. This jaunty take on the Vichy collaborators appalled General De Gaulle's staff, and was shelved until 1993.

Hitch returned to Hollywood chastened by the unassuming courage of his compatriots. Consequently, he agreed to shoot the War Bond promo The Fighting Generation (1945). Just 52 seconds, it had a nurse tending a soldier wounded on Saipan, urging viewers to "buy a share of their faith in victory".

Secretary Of State Edward Stettinius Jr. personally selected him to make a short. Watchtower Over Tomorrow (1945), on the need for a post-War organisation for global peace. Intrigued by rumours of secret tests in the New Mexico desert, Hitchcock asked physicist Robert Millikan about the possibility of splitting the hydrogen atom. Aghast that Hollywood had rumbled the Manhattan Project, the professor called the FBI and had Hitch placed under round‑the‑clock surveillance, giving him a taste of his own medicine.

Even the carnage of the atomic bombs paled beside the Holocaust. Hitchcock was asked to co‑ordinate a seven‑reel German Atrocity Film using British. American and Russian footage from camps including Auschwitz. Aware of the manipulative power of montage, he urged the editors to use as many long takes as possible to avoid accusations of fakery. But the project was abandoned in September 1945 after the Americans decided to concentrate on Billy Wilder's Die Todesmühlen (1946). The print was stored at the Imperial War Museum until 1 984, when Memory Of The Camps finally premiered at the Berlin Film Festival.