ON DVD & BLU-RAY
Yanks (1979) dir: John Schlesinger Blu Ray & DVD (Eureka!)
Swept off their feet by American soldiers
This lavish romance-tinged drama is set in England during World War II. It revolves around the titular Yanks (American soldiers) sweeping into town in order to defend the nation against the Nazis, as well as sweeping a number of the local women (whose husbands are away in action) off their feet.
The story revolves around three relationships which develop amid this background. Matt Dyson (Richard Gere) takes up with Jean Moreton (Lisa Eichhorn), a young woman who works in a shop owned by her mother Clarrie (Rachel Roberts) and father Jim (Tony Melody). However, her feelings for him are complicated by the fact that her she already has a lover named Ken (Derek Thompson) who is out at the frontline. Meanwhile, Matt’s army buddy Danny (Chick Vennera) starts dating Mollie, Jean’s rather more forward best friend who works as a bus ticket seller. Matt’s superior officer John (William Devane) falls for Helen (Vanessa Redgrave), an orchestra cello player who comes from an upper-class background.
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A war movie without the war?
John Schlesinger’s Yanks is an unusual WWII movie in that it doesn’t feature any sight of wartime combat or destruction, bar some brief newsreel footage which some of the characters watch at the local cinema. However, that doesn’t mean that it’s any less interesting for it.
It’s an absorbing and well-made drama, albeit not quite a perfect one - the central romantic couplings being arguably the weakest aspect. Or, to put it more accurately, it’s the fact that Richard Gere and Lisa Eichhorn’s relationship gets the most screen time despite the fact that theirs is the least convincing of the three depicted here. Schlesinger’s original version was 165 minutes in length, leading one to suspect that the other two were cut down in order to focus on Gere, who was then a rising star due to his leading role in Days of Heaven (1978). It’s not that Gere and Eichhorn’s performances are bad individually. The former is sturdy and impassioned playing the kind of cocky, hotheaded character which would become his stock and trade over the years. The latter (who received not one but two Golden Globe nominations: for Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama and New Star of the Year in a Motion Picture - Female) gives a far more subtle, mousy portrayal of a young woman torn between the two loves of her life. Despite the fact that Eichhorn is an actress of American origin, her Northern England accent is practically flawless. However, these two actors lack any real chemistry when they are onscreen together. There’s simply too little reason for us to believe that they would click as a couple in reality.
Vanessa Redgrave and William Devane fare rather better as two middle-aged characters who also gradually fall for each other. The former’s red-headed grace and the latter’s rough, Bogartian charm combine to lend their scenes a classy, Old Hollywood feel. There is a genuine blend of delicacy and emotive charge here which makes one wish that they were brought to the forefront. The third coupling, that of Chick Vennera and Wendy Morgan, is given so little screen time that it almost seems superfluous. It’s a shame since their semi-comedic performances add a dash of fun and colour to the film.
The period background is everything here
However, the real story being told is not in the romantic aspects themselves, but in the painstakingly detailed background. It’s not just the lavish yet kitchen-sink-realistic production values either (although they are impressively evocative of the period). Director Schlesinger uses his calmly observational style to take in the emotional complexities of love in a time of transience as men moved from place to place due to the demands of war. He also examines the inherent cultural differences between America and Britain during this moment in time. In the film’s single most powerful sequence, we see Deep South racial prejudice imported into a small town British dance hall as a group of white American soldiers (led by Everett McGill in his movie debut) kick off at a black soldier who chose to dance with a white girl. In an act of defiance, Jean and a number of the other female attendees decide to dance with the other African-Americans in the room. Meanwhile, Matt, who is resigned to segregation as a fact of life in parts of his country, rationalises it by saying that he should have known not to pick a white female as a dance partner in the first place. Since Matt, while occasionally hotheaded, is clearly shown not to be an inherently bad person, this moment provides a fascinating glimpse into how racial prejudice can be normalised into an otherwise respectable society.
While the above scene provides a brief moment of violence in a visually heated setting (appropriately bathed in red light), much of the film is surprisingly restrained in its approach. One of the most memorable of such moments involves a quiet, guilt-stricken exchange in a darkened kitchen as one character is revealed to have perished in combat. The largely muted look fits both the drama and the reality of British life during the Second World War when all lighting was turned off at night in an attempt to avoid The Blitz.
Yanks was a flop on its release and has remained a relatively overlooked film since. However, it has aged like a fine wine over the years and, despite its slight weaknesses concerning the onscreen relationship between its two top-billed stars, is certainly worth devoting over two hours to.
Runtime: 138 mins
Dir: John Schlesinger
Script: Colin Welland, Walter Bernstein
Starring: Richard Gere, Lisa Eichhorn, Vanessa Redgrave, William Devane, Chick Vennera, Wendy Morgan, Rachel Roberts, Tony Melody, Derek Thompson, Everett McGill
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
The picture is fairly soft but still pleasing in terms of colour grading and contrast. The dialogue sounds a bit too muted in the audio mix, especially where the female characters are concerned. However, this isn’t such a big problem because the film’s storytelling approach is more visual than anything else.
Interview with director John Schlesinger
We get two back-to-back audio recordings of onstage interviews and Q & A sessions with the director, which play over the film. There is no information related to where and when they were conducted but it seems that, since neither makes any mention of Yanks or his subsequent films, they were no more recent than the mid to late 1970s.
As per usual, the audience questions are frequently inaudible, there are references made to film clips which we can’t see and the interviewee rambles on at length while only providing occasional nuggets of genuine insight. However, the second is at least slightly more interesting because Schlesinger talks a bit more about his early career before he gained real recognition.
A trailer and enclosed booklet round out the extras.
Yanks is quite a different take on WWII to that offered by most films focussing on this period in history and is well worth watching largely for that reason. Sadly, this disc is a bit underwhelming on the extras front.