04 August 2013

Frank Sinatra, St. Cecilia, and Alexander the Great Go to Vietnam

A Heart Too Crowded for the Warrior:
Frank Sinatra, John Dryden,
and the Borders of Enmity in
None But the Brave (勇者のみ)

Gilbert L. Gigliotti
Central Connecticut State University

None but the Brave deserves the Fair
: John Dryden, “Alexander’s Feast”

I’ll never let him forget that that bomb was his mistress.
                                          : Chief Pharmacy Mate Maloney (F. Sinatra)

            Frank Sinatra’s sole directorial outing, 1965’s None but the Brave (勇者のみ or Yusha Nomi), tells the story of two small forces (one American and one Japanese) marooned on a small south Pacific island during World War II.  From open hostility and wariness to coexistence and mutual dependence, the two troops learn to navigate the fluid boundaries of “enemy territory.”
            By focusing on two scenes involving the Japanese commander Lt. Kuroki, this paper examines how the film – like John Dryden’s “Alexander’s Feast,” from which its title derives – anatomizes the conflicted place of the warrior within a “civilized” society.  In the first scene, Kuroki, alluding to the folk song performed by the relaxing Japanese soldiers before the arrival of the Americans, attempts to cheer a seriously wounded and suicidal young soldier, with “Fighting is not everything…We want to hear your songs.”  In the second, in response to the shock expressed by Captain Bourke at Kuroki’s being a writer and not “a real Samurai,” the Japanese lieutenant says,
“There’s not room in this heart for the warrior; it is too crowded.” 
These two scenes, together with the parallel flashback love stories of the poetic Kuroki and the savvy, but tortured Bourke, underscore the complexity (absurdity?) that Dryden depicts in his soldier, Alexander the Great.
                “Alexander’s Feast, or The Power of Music; An Ode in Honor of St. Cecilia’s Day,” was written by John Dryden in 1697 for the annual celebration of the patron saint of music.  It was scored for the feast that year by Jeremiah Clarke but then again, and much more famously, by Handel in 1736.  In the ode, Alexander, with his consort Thaïs at his side and serenaded by his court musician Timotheus, is celebrating the capture of Persepolis, the capital of Persia, and the defeat of Emperor Darius III, in 331 BCE. 
While his Athenian mistress Thaïs is “the fair” one whom, according to the famous refrain of the first stanza, “None but the Brave deserves,” and the one who will lead the vengeful Alexander on his course of destruction later, it is the musician Timotheus who, through his repertoire at the feast, is playing Alexander perfectly.  Epitomizing the worldly power of music, the singer manipulates the conqueror across the emotional spectrum: from Bacchic abandon and hubris, through pity for the fallen and the vulnerability of the lovelorn, and, finally, to a revenge so bloodthirsty that Alexander suddenly decides to level Persepolis and slaughter its inhabitants:

And the king seized a flambeau with zeal to destroy,

Thaïs led the way

To light him to his prey

And, like another Helen, fired another Troy. 

Only at this point, in the ode’s final stanza, does the poet introduce St. Cecilia and her divine music, who, in contrast to Timotheus’s ability to “swell the soul to rage or kindle soft desire…(160)”:

Enlarged the former narrow bounds,

And added length to solemn sounds

     He (Timotheus) raised a mortal to the skies;

            She drew an angel down. 
            (164-165; 169-170)

Rather than the violent mood swings and deadly actions resulting from Timotheus’s playing, St. Cecilia’s music, epitomized by the poem’s only stanza with a “constant iambic meter” (Smith 478), can show what a heavenly peace can do for the world.   For, as demonstrated so graphically by the destruction of Persepolis, music (as described by the late-17th-century poet William Dingley) can be:

                        almost as Dangerous as ‘tis Useful,/
                                                  it has the force of Gunpowder,
                        and should be as carefully look’d after,/
                          that no unhallow’d Fire
give it the power of Destroying.
(as quoted in Smith 484)

The key lies in controlling art’s immense power, a control none of the poem’s mortal characters has either the physical strength or moral courage to exercise…and Alexander, our incomparable warrior, perhaps least of all.   
For, as Ruth Smith has suggested in her “Argument and Contexts in Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast,” Dryden repeatedly limits the power and control that Alexander thinks he has…and limited to such a degree that:

In the last stanza that concerns him, Alexander becomes the

puppet of all around him: roused by music,…incited by fantasy,

goaded by his subjects, and led to “battle” by his mistress.  (476)

 Indeed, although the conqueror seems to have the world at his feet, the only thing the poem suggests that the brave Alexander deserves is “the fair” (albeit bloodthirsty) Thaïs, who amounts to little more than his share of the booty (Smith 469).
            However, for all that is unlikeable – even darkly comic – about Alexander, the skill of the poem stems from Dryden’s never allowing the reader to forget either the warrior’s human weaknesses or his heroic achievements (Smith 489).  For as remarkable a figure as “Alexander the Great” represents, he is, in the end, just a man who loves and lusts, and cries and laughs, and thinks and acts.  He is, in the end, as transcendent and vulnerable as we. 

             1965’s None But the Brave, the first film ever jointly produced by American and Japanese companies, eschews the traditional cinematic demonization of the enemy of mainstream American films and instead aims at an even-handed treatment of all the combatants.  As the film’s tagline sums it up, “Heroes Are Never Different, Only Different Looking.”  To underscore this impartiality, the film opens focusing on the Japanese soldiers inhabiting the island well before the American plane (carrying the film’s only American box office draw) crash lands, and, throughout the film, the Japanese, when speaking among themselves, deliver their dialogue in their own language with English subtitles. 
Once the Americans hit the island, the similarities of the enemies are emphasized: Each army boasts its wise and battle-tested leaders, jingoistic (in)subordinates, philosophers, and innocents.  And, by film’s conclusion (when “The End” is substituted with “Nobody ever wins”), the audience understands that, without the political imperatives which demand not only abstract international hostilities but deadly acts inflicted against people just like themselves, war could not survive.
This keen sense of mutual self-destruction is best illustrated early on by the senseless burning of the boat the Japanese have been meticulously, even lovingly, building.[1]   Destroyed by the Japanese themselves to foil the American attempt to steal it, the ruin of the only immediately foreseeable escape route – and, in the mind of its builder, Lead Pvt. Ando (played by Masahiko Tanimura), the very murder of his “wife”[2] – thus becomes an almost certain death sentence for all.  While both sides stare in silence at the burning boat, Ando charges the Americans.  It is the green 2nd Lieutenant Blair (played by Tommy Sands) who must shoot him repeatedly to stop him, and – given the young officer’s stunned reaction – one assumes the boat builder is his very first such casualty. 
Despite the straightforward parallelism at work in the film, moments of complexity arise as the combatants-turned-cohabitants become more dependent upon one another: the American lookout’s trading cigarettes at the border for a portion of the master Japanese fisherman’s catch; the joint emergency sandbagging of the island’s only freshwater spring against the rising water of a monsoon; and the summoning of the irreverent (and often drunk) Maloney (played by Frank Sinatra), the Chief Pharmacist Mate, alone into the enemy camp to amputate the leg of a young Japanese soldier, while surrounded by his wary, and armed, comrades.  The complications intensify since such cooperation can only go so far, for both Lt. Kuroki (played by Tatsuya Mihashi) and Capt. Bourke (played by Clint Walker) agree that, if either side is ever rescued (i.e., if they stop being just men and return to the ranks of Japanese and Americans soldiers), they immediately become “the Enemy” again. 
There is throughout the film this inevitable sense that, despite whatever these men may learn about each other, despite whatever camaraderie they may be able to share while cut off from the world, the borders that divide them and the nation states that define them cannot but return.   And this sad inevitability is embodied in Lt. Kuroki, the film’s narrator and ethical center of the screenplay by Katsuya Susaki and John Twist based upon a story by producer Kikumaru Okuda.  As Kuroki writes in his journal in the film’s opening scene:

     I am really two men, two enemies at war with each other:
     the soldier with the blood of ancient warriors in his veins
     and the man of peace who admires men’s works and not
     their destruction.  

He is a leader who volunteered for military service but who also recognizes that, since his platoon may have been forgotten as the war has shifted away from their location, there is little to be gained by the harsh disciplinarian training and tactics of Tamura, his by-the-book sergeant (played by Takeshi Kato).  It is also why, to Sgt. Tamura’s dismay and confusion, Kuroki happily dismisses the boatbuilding detail at mid-day and allows them to sing and dance – there is simply no real urgency to their situation (at least until the Americans crash onto the island).  Kuroki is, in short, a willing warrior, who because his war has left him behind, is more than prepared to set aside his weapons.  

It is this sense of possibility – and necessity – of peace, even within a war, that allows Kuroki:
            1)       to risk his own life to rescue the drowning 2nd Lieutenant Blair during the monsoon,
            2)      to request that the Chief Pharmacy Mate examine and ultimately amputate the gangrenous leg of Lance Corporal Hirano (played by Homare Suguro) wounded in an skirmish with the Americans, and
            3)      earlier, but most tellingly, to talk the wounded Hirano (who had been the primary performer of the folk song and dance) out of committing suicide, reassuring him:

“Don’t be silly.  Fighting is not all of life…we want to hear your songs.”
They want to hear them because the Hanagasa Ondo and Odori, the “flower straw hat song and dance,” offer a window to home[3] and to peacetime, and suggest a hope of survival that Kuroki cannot afford his men, or himself, to lose.  Nor is this desire limited to the Japanese, as a drunken Maloney, at one point, is overheard humming the folk song “Home Sweet Home.”  Also significant is the fact that Hirano’s musical performance on the beach, with its falsetto singing, feminine movements, and handkerchief bonnet – since it is usually performed by women – cannot but recall, at least for a mid-1960s American audience, the singing sailors in cocoanut bras and grass skirts in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific.  Far from the “dirty Japs” that the gung-ho Blair is at first so eager to kill,[4] these are the same fresh-faced boys from back home whom Americans love to celebrate.  The songs may be different, but the impulse to sing and to evoke home is exactly the same.      
          This breaking down of stereotypes is also highlighted by a conversation that the exhausted Kuroki and Bourke share in the wake of their successful defense of the freshwater spring from the monsoon.  In the face of being forever stranded on the island – and after a bit of strategic verbal sparring over the possible repair of an American radio – Kuroki confesses to Bourke:

     “I regret that we will leave so few relics for posterity on this isle of the unblessed. Lowbrow skull fragments of machine-age man, remnants of firearms, and, perhaps, a well-preserved manuscript as ancient as cuneiform.”

     “I was a staff writer for various periodicals, can’t break the habit.”
     “Well, I’ll be darned.  I had you pegged as a bona fide samurai.”

     "No.  There is not room in this heart for the warrior.  It is too crowded.”

Apparently the “two men” that Kuroki had been at film’s beginning, the “ancient warrior” and the “man of peace” have been reconciled by this experience, and the soldier seems to have lost the psychomachia.
            After a long pause, Bourke asks only, “What’s her name?”
            It is at this point, that Kuroki tells in flashback about Keiko (played by ?), whom he married the day he left for the war:

There was less than an hour before I had to depart, but I was convinced that our decision to marry was correct. To marry but never to possess her body for momentary joy.  Only to hold her in the arms of the heart and the embrace of the spirit beyond this life.  They promise us better days there…

and then, to Bourke,

…It is easier to make a truce with you, my friend, than with life.
A subdued Bourke replies only, “No, you did right.”
               At this point the drunken Maloney, who clearly has been eavesdropping, stumbles over and taunts Bourke with the cryptic lines:
Kompai.  Thou shalt not kill.  Dennis Bourke has lost a second lover…

When an angry Bourke storms off, Maloney explains the “second lover” crack to Kuroki:

Love ain’t always for a person, sometimes it’s for an idea that keeps

pounding at you…like win the war, smash everything that comes in your

way…[but] you hit him where he lives; you gave your girl a fair shake.
The Chief Pharmacy Mate then tells of the woman in the pilot’s life, Lorie (played by Laraine Stephens).  A devoted lover, or in the words of a clearly heartbroken Maloney, “Some kind of a girl, pal, some kind of a doll,” she moved from the United States to the Philippines to help the Captain recover from serious injuries sustained in a plane crash just before the war.  But unlike, Kuroki, Bourke refused to marry her before he joined the war, afraid that “it wouldn’t be fair to her, married to nothing but the memory of a selfish slob.”  The pilot only told Lorie, however, on the eve of his shipping out, and, as she ran away in shock and in tears, she was killed by a Japanese bomb as their siege of Manila began in 1942. 
          Bourke’s guilt and anger continue to drive him to be the kind of man, for whom, according to Maloney:
“War’s their meat and home’s wherever they can get it.”
That kind of man, that is, until he is confronted by Kuroki, whose character, life, and love story, call into question the only values Bourke has embraced since Lorie’s death.  The bomb, and all the obstacles to peace that it represents, truly has been this warrior’s mistress. 
            When, toward the film’s end, an American ship is contacted, and the truce is shattered – as the two commanders had agreed, the only survivors of the firefight are five Americans.  And only then is the human cost fully reckoned.  Sgt. Tamura’s wish for the opportunity to die for his country is granted.  Hirano’s songs are silenced.  And the three love stories (Kuroki and Keiko, Bourke and Lorie, and Ando and his boat) all end unhappily.  For even though Kuroki’s poetic voice survives in the diary to be sent to his widow by the American pilot, he and his men will never return home from “his island,” as Bourke terms it, while ordering the tattered Japanese flag to remain flying.
            As Alexander the Great offered Dryden a complex, and conflicted, warrior that embodies both our dreams of human glory and nightmares of our limitations, Kuroki, Bourke, and the rest of the characters of None but the Brave drive home the tragic futility that is war.  At the movie’s core beat the hearts of the warrior – some full, some painstakingly empty, and, in the hope of every homecoming, are the songs soldiers sing – no matter the nationality.  But, while Alexander and Thaïs display a hideous lack of moral character by destroying Persepolis on a whim, the Japanese and Americans face a far more imposing challenge.  For, despite having felt the power of simple human kindness, when the war returns to the island and the word “enemy” necessarily re-enters the soldiers’ lexicon, nationalism and geo-politics offer them no options but a fight to the death.  In short, as the final frame of the film makes plain: at war, “Nobody ever wins,” not even the winners.

Works Cited

Dryden, John.  “Alexander’s Feast or The Power of Music; An Ode in Honor of St. Cecilia’s Day.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature.  Vol. II.  Fifth Edition.  Edited by M.H. Abrams.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1986.  1834-1836.

Iaconelli, Richard.  “Frank Sinatra and the Great American Style.”  Frank Sinatra and Popular Culture: essays on an American Icon.  Edited by Leonard Mustazza.  Westport, CT: Praeger Press, 1998.  183-197.

McNally, Karen.  When Frankie Went to Hollywood: Frank Sinatra and American Male Identity. Illinois University Press, 2008.

Nollen, Scott Allen.  The Cinema of Sinatra: The Actor, on Screen and in Song.  Baltimore: Luminary Press, 2003.

O’Brien, Daniel.  The Frank Sinatra Film Guide. London: Batsford Film Books, 1998.

Ringgold, Gene, and Clifford McCarty.  The Films of Frank Sinatra.  Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1971.

Santopietro. Tom.  Sinatra in Hollywood.  New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2008.

Susaki, Katsuya, and John Twist.  None but the Brave.  Produced and directed by Frank Sinatra. Warner Brothers, Tokyo Eiga Co., Ltd, Toho Company, Artanis Productions, 1965.

Smith, Ruth.  “The Argument and Contexts of Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast.”  Studies in English Literature 18 (1978): 465-490.

[1] While it is made clear early on, before the Americans arrive, that Kuroki doesn’t believe a boat will be of any real use, and that he thinks of it more as a means of keeping the men occupied and their spirits high, none of his soldiers knows that, and certainly the Americans don’t.
[2] Kuroki, at the burial of Ando, refers to the boat-builder as Adam, from whose rib his wife was created.
[3] The song and dance originated in the Yamagata prefecture. 
[4] Cf. Sinatra’s use of the term “Jap” in his the story of the American bombing of the Japanese destroyer Hirano (?) in the pro-tolerance short The House I Live In (1945), for which Sinatra would win a special Academy Award.

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