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Wwii: The Armies Of 'The Homefront'

May 08, 1985|SHEILA BENSON | Times Film Critic

For anyone born since World War II, that war--and what it meant to Americans at home whose lives were changed as irrevocably as any fighting man's-- must still seem elusive. Was it black-and-white newsreels, heavy with propaganda, or "Rosie the Riveter"; "The Best Years of Our Lives," or "Swing Shift"; "The Way We Were," or Shirer's "The Nightmare Years"? Or all, or none of these views?

"The Homefront" (at 10 tonight on Channel 28, 8 p.m. on Channel 50) does an exceptional job of re-creating the panic, the pressures, the shame and the pride of America between 1941 and 1945.

Thoughtful interviews give us a cross section of Americans to whom these were the best or the worst years of their lives, but in every case, the most memorable: women from backgrounds as opposite as the DAR and rural Kentucky who found themselves side by side in a defense plant; a black motorman in Philadelphia whose job came about only after a bitter strike to break the prevailing Jim Crow policy; a young GI whose growing up came courtesy of the U.S. Army; a Los Angeles Japanese-American family who spent those years in an internment camp; a Gold Star mother; women--girls then--who felt themselves pressured into hasty wartime marriages, and those whose families survived the separation.

We are reminded how nearly we came to losing that war, and how near it came (one ship was sunk by German submarines within 1 1/2 miles of the mouth of the Mississippi), and the almost superhuman effort involved in turning a country just emerging from the Great Depression into one in wartime production around the clock.

Writer/producer/director Steven Schechter uses photo albums, songs, documentary footage, snippets of Hollywood films and the pungent, personal stories of these very different interviewees to let us feel what America was like during that crisis period: brave, racist, imperiled, sexist, giddy, resolved and, finally, united.

The war's aftermath is clear too: the movement (for better or worse) of Americans from small towns to cities; the stirrings of the Civil Rights Movement, born when a country was forced for almost the first time to admit blacks to its work force at a reasonable level; the look in the eye of the clubwoman who realized that for the first time women had a place in the world and that she was a part of it; the grand, feisty, Kentucky-born woman who gathered the strength to change her life utterly from her experience in a defense plant.

A marvelous, warm, illuminating job, these interviews (by Ben Shedd) add immediacy and depth to this week of looking back over our shoulder 40 years to an extraordinary burst of national unity.

Sadly not available in time for previews but also showing tonight to commemorate the 40th anniversary of V-E Day will be the color footage shot by director George Stevens and his unit in Europe, from the Normandy invasion to the liberation of the camps at Auschwitz. From the excerpts in the Stevens documentary, "George Stevens, a Filmmaker's Journey," this should be exceptional viewing--9 p.m. on Channels 28 and 15, 8 p.m. on Channel 24, 9:30 p.m. on Channel 50.

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