Wonder Woman, Black Panther, Superman, Spider-Man, Captain America. Fantasy figures who face fictional challenges different from the ones we do as archivists, historians, librarians, records managers. But whose mythical world sometimes connects to ours in unexpected ways, reminding us of what it takes to make things happen in real life.
Last summer I helped staff a documentary film screening on a Saturday afternoon at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in Washington, DC. As I waited to cross Pennsylvania Avenue at the end of my shift, I saw a school bus and old cars parked in front of the research and business entrance of the building. I had seen on Friday evening how city officials shut down the block for weekend location filming of Wonder Woman 1984.
Security was tighter for the “set” on Saturday than on Friday, when I was able to walk up to the old telephone booth the production company had just placed across the street from NARA. The vintage cars, trucks, school bus, and the telephone booth served as props to make the street look as it might have in 1984. The National Archives looks much the same on its north side as in the 1980s. Most movie goers won’t know that it then still had fountains in front of its research entrance.
Social Media and news reports indicated that the production company also filmed scenes with stars Gal Gadot and Chris Pine in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington and at the long closed Landmark Mall in suburban Alexandria, Virginia. Production companies now film in the Washington area more frequently than when Otto Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962) featured some scenes filmed on Capitol Hill and the National Mall. The 1960s brought great changes to the film industry, its studio system, and perceptions of the market for new types of films as cultural shifts and technological advances enabled a new wave of film making.
The late 1960s and 1970s saw the rise of “gritty realism” in U.S. films as changes in equipment and film stock enabled more location shooting than in the past. In his book, Hollywood in San Francisco: Location Shooting and the Aesthetics of Urban Decline, Joshua Gleich described gritty realism as a style that “approached cinematic brutalism, where not only cinematic embellishment but even photographic polishing was meticulously avoided.”
Changes in film stock enabled shooting color film under low light conditions in the 1960s and 1970s in ways not possible previously. Gleich noted of the period which saw the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and divisions over the Vietnam War that, “America’s ongoing crises at home and abroad suggested that the visual truth of any city must be an ugly truth.”
In Bullitt (1968), actor Steve McQueen did some of his own stunt driving in a chase scene filmed in San Francisco. The decade that followed featured crime dramas and action films with anti-hero leads as well as a vogue for all-star spectacles about man-made or natural disasters.
Equipment and film stock capabilities limited location shooting by earlier film makers in the 1940s and 1950s. In one film shot largely on sound stages, director William Wyler and producer Sam Goldwyn cast Harold Russell, a disabled World War II veteran, in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). The opening of the film showed aerial views of Cincinnati, standing in for the Boone City of Wyler’s film, as three veterans returned home after serving in World War II. (I found 1940s views of Cincinnati in NARA’s catalog.) The disabled veteran, a sailor injured when his ship went down, had been a high school athlete.
The film showed the challenges veterans faced as they sought to regain footing economically and socially. Russell, an amputee, was not a professional actor. A 1945 government documentary film, The Diary of a Sergeant, showed how Russell adapted to use of the prosthetic hooks that replaced both his hands. Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn saw Russell in the documentary, which led to his selection to play a disabled U.S. Navy veteran in The Best Years of Our Lives. Harold Russell was one of two actors (Fredric March, who played a returning Army Sergeant, the other) who won Academy Awards for The Best Years of Our Lives.
The “gritty realism” of later films such as Bullitt and The French Connection relied on on locations, props, and camera work to depict urban decay. Both films focus on the actions of anti-hero white male leads and the “bad guys” they pursue. Although largely filmed on sound stages, The Best Years of Our Lives, which retains a high viewer rating on sites such as Rotten Tomatoes, reflects a different type of realism. It looks inwards, focusing on the psychological struggles of male and female characters whose interior lives show in unexpected ways
In one scene a recently demobilized and decorated U.S. Army Air Force Captain gives a few of his belonging to his father and stepmother. (He says they can throw them away, that they don’t mean anything.) The Captain prepares to leave his home town to find a civilian job and to escape personal turmoil.
An earlier scene in the film suggests the veteran may feel some embarrassment about his “wrong side of the tracks” family background. One of the most memorable scenes occurs after he says goodbye. His father, an aging alcoholic, sits holding a document in his ramshackle house, a pint of liquor in front of him on the table. He calls out for his wife to come in from the kitchen to join him.
His wife listens silently as her husband reads aloud the citation for the medal the son received for brave actions during World War II. As he reads the father’s voice tells you he is deeply moved. The glistening eyes of his wife, stepmother to the son, show her reaction. But after he reads the citation reflecting his son’s courage, the father says nothing. He just remains seated at the table, drawing on his cigarette. His wife quietly goes back to her chores in the kitchen. The spare focus solely on the words of the citation and the understated performances of actors Roman Bohnen and Gladys George create a moment which online comments show many viewers still find memorable and moving.
Writer Robert Sherwood won an Oscar for his work on The Best Years of Our Lives, a film now regarded as a classic. The struggles of returning veterans and their families to readjust and the challenges of basic human relationships are part of living. Empathy helps us understand what is unsaid, as in scenes of the disabled sailor with his girl friend and the Air Force veterans’ parents. Records show a Hollywood screenwriter, Jack Moffitt, complained in 1947 about Sherwood’s work on the film, among several he listed as ideological efforts to make realistic pictures. Moffitt added “depressing” in parentheses in his complaints about postwar “realism” attributed to alleged Communist influences in Hollywood.
For me, as for many historians and archivists, archives serve to fill in some very human elements about what happened and why. And take us behind the scenes to reveal depth, texture and complexity about events we initially may have read about in newspapers or glimpsed on screens. As Navosha Copeland once tweeted, “When I process a collection, I see the many dimensions of a person’s life. It makes me remember that we are all multidimensional persons.”
Five years before Bullitt, which put up him on a path to a top male star in the United States, Steve McQueen starred in The Great Escape, a partially fictional account of an actual event during World War II when Allied prisoners of war held in a Nazi prison camp dug a tunnel for a massive escape attempt. I first saw the film when I was 12 and read the more historically accurate book (same title, published in 1950) by Paul Brickhill at the same time. I read a lot about the war in Europe as a youth as my parents had suffered totalitarian oppression there by Nazi and by Soviet forces during World War II.
The action film was a box office success and I enjoyed it as a pre-teen, as many moviegoers did. But as I grew up, I came to understand why New York Times film critics Bosley Crowther wrote of it in 1963 in his review that while based on the framework of a true story, most of the characters in the film are composites. And that “The Great Escape grinds out its tormenting story without a peek beneath the surface of any man, without a real sense of human involvement. It’s a strictly mechanical adventure with make-believe men.”
In the film, McQueen’s character, a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Force, made a dash for freedom on a motorcycle after escaping from the camp. (The actual escape from the German camp, Stalag Luft III, featured British and European prisoners of war. All American prisoners previously had been transferred to another part of the camp. Fifty escapees were shot after recapture. Only three made it to freedom.) McQueen, known for his love of racing motorcycles and sports cars in real life, did some of his own stunt work for the justifiably famous motorcycle scene, as he later would in car chase scenes in Bullit.
Records at the National Archives show that during the Johnson administration, McQueen wrote to the director of the Federal Highway Administration (FHA), offering to help with motorcycle safety initiatives. McQueen’s motorcycle safety project advanced in 1967 to the early stages of script development with the FHA but the file doesn’t reflect completion. A citizen-advocate side of McQueen, now featured at NARA but not in old movie magazines in the 1960s. His military service records (he enlisted at 17) show another. (He had a chaotic, unstable, home life as a child and teen.) As do state records showing him flashing the peace sign in his 1972 mug shot when arrested (and quickly released on bail) for drunk driving in Alaska.
In a few days, NARA will be holding its annual September Educators Open House. That the National Archives has a robust, needs and user oriented K-12 primary sources program reminds me that there are many ways to use records to learn. Much has changed since I first visited the National Archives to do research as a grad student, little realizing I would become a Federal historian and an archivist who assisted others there. I used its online catalog throughout August to look for information to use in this essay. And crowd checked on Twitter about some of the Wonder Woman 1984 prop cars I photographed last year.
Historical records show that a high school student named Dave might have become a K-12 or a college educator. His yearbook entry showed his career aspiration as “Teacher.” But when he started his undergraduate studies, as he once told me, he found the education classes boring. He later said in public, “I was an education major…I hated every minute of it.” The university didn’t feel like a good fit for Dave, who described coming from a relatively small high school. He was candid in his reaction to the mismatch of university and major and aspirations: “In fact, I spent most of my time in the Museum of Fine Arts or the Isabella Gardner Museum, rather than in class.”
On the job Dave now goes by David, a change that shows in different signature blocks he used in letters to different presidents in his youth. He’s David S. Ferriero, the Archivist of the United States, pictured in his high school yearbook and in a photo I took at the National Archives at a reception in 2011. You can read David’s “real talk” account of struggling as an education major, then joining the Navy as a Corpsman during the Vietnam War. (After military service he returned to college, completed undergraduate and graduate degrees, not in Education but in English and information and library science, and taught some classes.)
He explains his obligations as the Archivist to the public in NARA’s “Remembering Vietnam” exhibit: “These are the real folks, telling the stories from their own perspective. It’s not the government. It’s not us interpreting what they said. And the…records tell the good stuff and the bad stuff.” (Look at the link for what Henry Kissinger said at a NARA Vietnam war event in Austin, Texas.)
On August 4, 2019, Ferriero spoke at the Society of American Archivists conference with Meredith Evans, society president and director of NARA’s Carter Presidential Library. He emphasized the value of records management, in his present and past jobs. And the need to listen to users of records and provide opportunities for public participation. And why curiosity and listening are key elements in finding solutions and tapping in to the talents of staff.
He explained why he never has brought a “posse” with him in coming to new library or archives jobs (MIT, Duke, New York Public Library, NARA). He described his “panic” (the same many of us feel in job changes) on realizing the need to learn an unknown institution’s culture and navigate new ways of doing things in leaving MIT for Duke. As I listened I thought of the relief people feel (shown as I made a photo flub at NARA) when they can admit to a mistake, learn, back up, and try again.
When Wonder Woman 1984 opens in June 2020, I’ll watch for the scene on Pennsylvania Avenue between 7th and 9th. For that school bus. A reminder of how lucky those of us are, who can move a “closed” sign in an archives to “open.” Take down the ropes to a theater on the day of a book lecture. And provide depth and breadth to historical events, in records “good and bad.”