Old war movies are frequently smeared as jingoistic and morally simplistic. There is also the reckoning with François Truffaut, who argued no movie can ever truly be antiwar.
But the history enthusiast in me always finds something to enjoy in these movies, where heroic Americans, Britons and Allies (almost always from the Anglosphere) in awe-inspiring tanks and sleek propeller planes fight the good fight against cruel Nazis and Imperial Japanese.
Nor are these films as uncritical as they are sometimes made out to be. The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Bridge at Remagen (1969) and even bits of The Guns of Navarone (1961) show the sheer cruel madness of war.
It is in this context that we must consider Red Tails, the 2012 movie about the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American fighter pilots who battled both American racism and German military might in Italy.
It does much the same things as The Great Escape (1963) or The Guns of Navarone, where Americans are heroes and Germans are villains, with the twist of race relations woven into the plot as any movie about the Tuskegee Airmen must. In this, it is far more nuanced morality-wise than the stereotypical old war movie, moving it more into the territory of The Bridge of Remagen and showing that American racism deeply affected the war effort, both in Europe and at home.
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I must admit that when I heard Martin Scorsese had made a kid-friendly film, I was taken aback, given his pedigree of Taxi Driver (1976), Goodfellas (1990) and most recently The Irishman (2019). It seemed like something out of character for the man, and so it was in the spirit of curiosity, more than anything else, that I watched Hugo on Netflix.
I was enthralled the entire time. My doubts were entirely misplaced.
First and foremost, this feels like a Scorsese movie even without the grit and mobsters. It has his trademark tracking shots, one through Gare Montparnasse in Paris, and it’s gorgeous. It has his way of using music that I can’t quite put my finger on, but is undoubtedly filled with a certain je ne sais quoi that shows how much the man loves the medium. More generally, it has the craftsmanship that Scorsese excels at.
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One of the most compelling things about any Axis victory alternate history, when done well, is the all-consuming sense of dread that pervades the entire enterprise. How could it not be? The very conceit is the triumph of one of the most bloodthirsty, sadistic regimes this world has ever known. There is something that sends a chill down my spine when reading the details of Generalplan Ost, the plan that made the bloodshed of the war look like small pickings in comparison.
That’s the hurdle all Axis victory works need to reckon with: the sheer, unrelenting, nauseating horror that is inherent to the very premise.
Many alternate histories have done this well. I consider Philip K. Dick’s The Man in the High Castle (1962) and Robert Harris’ Fatherland (1992) some of the best dystopian fiction ever written, even beyond their allohistorical content. C.J. Sansom’s Dominion (2012) is a more subdued portrayal, but no less haunting for it. Harry Turtledove’s In the Presence of Mine Enemies (2003) has a silent terror lurking in the background as a German color revolution seems to take root.
So it has been proven, quite conclusively, that this genre can be done well. Which brings us to Paul Leone’s In and Out of the Reich.
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