Wartime in the Backyard: Professor Hugh Cohen Remembers

Grade school, Mushroom clouds, and Robert Taylor


By Rebecca Hayes


Hubert I. Cohen is a Professor of Film and Video Studies in the Residential College. This semester he is teaching a class on The Western. Professor Cohen has agreed to meet with me today, St. Patrick’s Day, in his East Quad office. The time is late afternoon, the carpet is shag, and the mood is mellow. He sits across from me and begins with some exposition…the year is 1941.

The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor and we were at war with them. That’s when it began.

And you were 11?

And I was 11. Yes

Were you interested in film at that time?

Well. Where are you from?

I’m from Traverse City.

Traverse City, ok. I’m from Farmington, Michigan. And we lived on the outskirts of Farmington. And so we had to drive about 5 miles to go to the City Theatre. Of course, I felt deprived if I couldn’t see two movies a week. I’d scream. Beat my feet on the ground if they wouldn’t let me see the Westerns on Saturdays or the features on Sundays. Movies were – I just thought they were part of the constitution.

When did you encounter Japanese film?

Japanese film? Not until…I’m certain not until Rashomon. Of course that’s way after the war began. I don’t know the year that Rashomon started playing here but that is clearly the first encounter with Japanese film. It was a revelation. I find it a bit more boring now, but at the time, it was beautiful to look at and the whole idea of the battle that was known as the Rashomon, that was the tribute. And so that was clearly the first Japanese film I ever saw.

Have you seen Fighting Soldiers by Kamei Fumio?

No, I haven’t

Do you remember any specific films during the war and post-war years?

War films? Oh yeah. There were just lots. Purple Heart. The one that I had nightmares over – I haven’t seen it in a long time but it’s probably still very, very potent – and in a way it takes the course of a Western. And what they did was substitute for the Indians, the savage Indians, the Japanese. And the film was called …Bataan…

"Back to Bataan"?

I don’t know. There’re two.

John Wayne is in Back to Bataan.

Ok. Then it’s not Back to Bataan. It’s Bataan. The end of this film is great. Robert Taylor. They’re on Bataan. And they’re trapped. And the Japanese are coming in, surrounding their little emplacement in the fog and every once in a while somebody goes out and they get killed and then they’re hung up savagely by the Japanese on the trees. Then they have this encounter and apparently all these Japanese are being killed and there’s fog and there’s jungle. Suddenly one Japanese man gets up and he slashes with his bayonet, his black banner. Well, by the end of the film, everybody has died. The last shot of the film is Robert Taylor shooting. The Japanese are coming. He’s the last person – and he’s just shooting his machine gun into the fog. And of course there’s the advancement and of course he dies. Well I had nightmares for years over that film. It was so powerful. So good. There were just lots of films…13 Seconds Over Tokyo.

How do you think WWII changed film? Or did it at all?

Oh it did. It changed it in several different ways. One way for example that I talk about and have written about is regarding the Western. There was this idea of the macho cowboy hero. And after the war the Western heroes seemed much more able, they seemed permitted, to express feelings that prior to that they were not. In traditional Westerns they were not to show anything at all. They were just to look tough, take it, macho and all that. After the war they could cry, they were suffering, they softened. It opened the possibilities for real reactions. It just darkened everything. You couldn’t be as frivolous as Hollywood was in the 30s and early 40s.

How do you think Japanese and American films affected their respective homefronts?

I’ve never traveled to Japan. Just before I was going to have to go into the army in the early 50s – 1954 – I took a course on Japanese literature here at the university and I really liked it. I loved it and studied it. Noh drama, the Kabuki drama. I did well in the course and I talked to my teacher, Professor Yamaguchi, and I knew that I had to go into the army, and so I began learning Japanese under his surveillance. He wrote to the Army Language School and I wrote to the Army Language School and neither one of us ever got an answer. So the little Japanese I learned is long gone - I can say, you know, "hello," "goodbye," and yes and no, and a few other things – "thank you," "arigato." But then I had to enlist to get the GI bill, and I didn’t get a response from the Army Language School, so I went into the Army as an infantryman.

And what year was this?

This was 1954. And who knows – my whole career might have been changed. I might be Markus Nornes right now, had I gone to the language school and my specialty become Japanese, and I would have studied Japanese movies and that point of view from that side. Anyway, I can’t, you know, I can’t. So, that’s the answer. I can’t speak, I don’t know, I’ve never been to Japan. Wanted to go. It’s too expensive. We’ll get there eventually, I think. But, no, my contact with Japan – except for the literature courses and novels, got into Japanese novels and things of that kind. But then the next thing was the oncoming, the Kurosawa, etcetera, movies that came. What's the date of Rashoman?

I’m not sure. (later discovered the real date – 1950) How do you feel about propaganda? Do you feel it’s ever justified? Or an art form?

Sure it is. All kinds of propaganda.

Specifically the war propaganda, the film media…

Well, it’s a necessary evil. And it’s inevitable in war. You’re going to find it. I’ve seen and I’ve read a lot about it because I’ve been reviewing Marc for a tenure position. So I’ve been reading all of his materials. And he is certainly the expert on Japanese documentaries and the propaganda to go along with it. And I think he’s probably a major authority now on the documentary worldwide and the propaganda to go along with that. And I’ve seen some of the American propaganda films made by Capra and John Ford. They’re very artful and serve their purposes and they move people, stir people to get fired up against the enemy. And in doing that they of course distort, turn the enemy into villains - one-dimensional villains. It’s almost always happened since the media has been going on, and that’s the way it’s going to happen. And it may well be necessary to mobilize a people, a vast number of people, to introduce them, to get them motivated and to act. Can’t get too complex. At least in those days you didn’t get too complex, in order to get them to buy bonds. In grade school – when I heard you were coming I started to think about these things – I think we used to bring a quarter a week and buy a stamp. And then after so many weeks you had enough to buy a war bond. I think war bonds cost about $18 – something like that. You had a booklet and you put the stamp in after you got your twenty-five cents. And then at the end you cashed it in for a war bond. We collected fat, we collected tin cans for the war effort, metal – all of these kinds of things – rubber. There were places were you would take these things. Again for the war effort. And of course as kids you play war out in your backyard, it was an extension of that. Well what was your question – the propaganda business –

Right. Getting back to being in the army in 1954, did you watch a lot of movies?

In the army?

Instructional movies…?

Oh, I can’t remember. Similar to instruction. By that time – this was right at the very end of the Korean war and there was the possibility that we were going back, it was in very fragile pieces, in some ways still is, less fragile, still the same situation. That I recall - yeah, there were no movies about communists or anything else that I can remember during that time.

Do you remember seeing any cartoons about the war when you were little?

When I was little? All of the animation studios made cartoons which parodied Hitler or the Japanese or whoever it was – oh yeah, those were part of that Saturday or Sunday movie going experience. And they often had a war theme involved.

Yeah. We’ve been watching a few.

How do they stand up to you? How do you like them? What’s your reaction to them?

There’s one that we kept watching – "Private Snafu." He’s completely absurd. The antithesis of any kind of soldier you’d ever want in your troop.

What does Snafu stand for?

It does stand for something, but I forget.

To clean it up – it’s "Situation Normal All … Fucked Up" …


That’s the way it would be in the army, and they translated it to "all fouled up," the politically correct way to talk about it.

I think cartoons were a good way of approaching a subject that no one really wanted to talk about. Like you could have a tank driving across the desert and getting completely blown up and then the next second he’d be fine. You can’t vivify this in any other way, really. I think it kind of gave the soldiers a vent. They could relate to this guy – however he was the lowest common denominator by far. And he’d always have a beautiful vamp back at home. She’d be faithful and waiting and Rosie the Riveter, whatever.

Let me say this about the film-watching experience in the army. In the army – especially during basic training – you were so tired all of the time, so exhausted, that to try to teach you anything on any kind of sophisticated level – what do you when you get into a hot room to watch a film? You fall asleep. Because you’ve been up since 3:00 in the morning marching through the cold, etcetera, etcetera. So what you need is the simplest and most entertaining way of getting at the soldier if you’re going to keep him awake. And don’t look for sophistication. Just the environment – I don’t know that anybody’s written about that – but just the environment, you know, who was watching it. There was a great range of people across the spectrum, the social spectrum. More so in WWII than what I was going through. But you had a wide spectrum of people from all classes in society, but you also had all of them just exhausted, just dying to get back to their beds no matter what time of day it was.

It’s interesting to see the kind of propaganda that the soldiers see and the kind that the public sees.

I don’t know that anyone ever wrote home about the films they saw.

Probably not, because of the censors. Do you have any memories about landmark events like Roosevelts’s death or the Japanese surrender?

Roosevelts’s death was like the Kennedy death. It was as if, although I didn’t believe in God, it was as if your father died. It’s simply…he was George Washington, he was Lincoln, he was everything. I couldn’t imagine beyond President Roosevelt. His death was just – people just stood and cried. I’m sure I did because – how old was I – I was in my mid-teens by that time. Absolutely just this great state of depression. The other events I remember, of course, the invasion of Normandy, but in terms of yours, the other event I remember was the dropping of the atomic bomb. Seeing that headline, seeing that picture of the mushroom cloud in the paper, and the excitement – a new weapon! We had no idea what it meant, what an atomic bomb was. But here was this huge, beautiful cloud of smoke. And as a kid, oh, that was just very, very exciting. It was years, years – until you saw a film like Hiroshima Mon Amour – many years after this, almost fifteen, twenty years before one really had a sense of what the implications of that bomb really were. It was an antiseptic kind of experience, a great adventure, a thrill.

What did you think the second time it was dropped?

Go! Do it again – yeah, yeah! You got it, you got a weapon – use it.

No one really knew how much damage it would do.

No. That’s right.

Oppenheimer himself thought we’d have to use 50 of them.

Yeah. It was just – a new bicycle. A new toy. And, of course, I remember the signing of the peace treaty. There were a lot of films about Guadalcanal, followed all the newsreels very closely. The war was very alive. Very real for us.

Did you have television in your home?

There was no television at that time. Television doesn’t come in until the fifties.

I thought sometimes if you were from a very affluent family you might have had one…

Not while the war was going on. There was no television. At all. They had experimented with them, but there was no television station in the country.

So you went to movie theatres all the time.

What you watched was newsreels, and they changed every week, sometimes twice a week.

In school would you go see them?

Not in school. I don’t think that they ever showed any. They were run commercially sometimes by students, but only in theatres. I can’t at this moment remember anything about the war impinging on us in school. We didn’t study anything that had to do with Japanese or had to do with the war. The only thing that I can remember is that you brought cans of food, or you brought tin cans squashed down – recycling, buying the bonds. That’s all I remember about what was going on in school during the war.

So it was kind of lighthearted in school? You never discussed the war?

No. You just knew. The Japanese and the Germans were the evil ones and we were the good guys. So there was nothing to discuss.