JOHN SCHLESINGER calls "Yanks", his latest movie, a "celebration of my feelings and expression of my divided loyalty.
"I work so much in America, have so may friends here and so admire your energy. Yet, my roots are firmly in England."
The portly, balding, exceptionaly amiable director is a contradiction in more than one respect. British by birth, he's made all his films, since the Oscar-winning "Midnight Cowboy," for American distributors. And although he began his career in the vangaurd of a gritty-realistic, working-class Free Cinema Movement, he's gone on the direct "The Day of the Locust," one of the most stylized films of all time, and "Sunday, Bloody Sunday," a reverie on love among the gifted buorgeoise.
His literary sources have ranged from Thomas Hardy's classic "Far From the Madding Crowd" to William Goldman's best-selling "Marathon Man," and his locations from London's jet set in "Darling" to the sordid underbelly of New York in "Midnight Cowboy."
The 52-year-old Schlesinger lives alone, and once said in a magazine interview that, "Solitude, I think, is one of the major problems that people face today -- including myself." But the theme linking all of Schlesinger's work is a preoccupation with relationships.
"Yes," agrees Schlesinger, over coffee in New York's Carlisle Hotel. "All my films deal with relationships of one sort or another. Machines bore me," Schlinger says of the newly fashionable science-fiction genre.
"Each film I made is a kind of voyage of self-discovery, through relationships. I'm also drawn to the implications of survival."
Survival and relationship figure prominently in "Yanks," a battleless World War II drama, which opens Friday in Washington. It stars Vanessa Redgrave, Richard Gere, William Devane annd Lisa Eichorn (a young, British-educated American actress) in a story about American GIs who descend on cobblestoned, misty industrial town in the north of England during the early years of World War II.
As Matt, a GI cook, Gere falls conventionally in love with a British shopowner's daughter (Eichorn) whose fiance is away fighting in the Far East. Their passion is offset by a more tentative, more sophisticated affair between Helen (Redgrave), an uppercrust British wife and mother, and John (Devane), an American officer less rafflish than he appears.
"I had more trouble getting backing for 'Yanks' than for 'Midnight Cowboy' or 'The Day of the Locusts,' both of which were very difficult to finance," Schlesinger says with a trace of annoyance, but not bitterness. Producers were wary of several aspects of the film -- including its limited scope, nostalgic tone and frankly sentimental treatment -- and particularly of one scene in which a racial confrontation breaks out between Americans at a British New Year's Eve celebration.
Ironically, it is a scene many critics have singled out for praise:
White soldiers bully and then assault a black GI who dances with a white woman. "The most infuriating thing, when we were trying to get money for the script, was that the producer insisted that this scene was too schematic, that it could never have happened. But it did happen in my own local dance hall. There was a fight, the whites tried to humiliate the blacks, and girls said, 'We're not going to dance with our partners until every black man is on the floor.'
"You must remember that in those days, we didn't have racial problems ourselves, and the blacks were very popular in England. In most cases, they were the first American soldiers we saw because they came to do the pioneer work and the setting up camp. we really didn't understand American segregation."
Many of the details in "Yanks," Schlesinger acknowledges, are attributable to co-screenswriters Walter Bernstein and, especially, Colin Welland.
"Colin is an old friend," says Schlesinger, and when he visited Dustin Hoffman on the set of 'Marathon Man', he told me he'd come up with a story that was perfect for me. He described how a small child, he watched the American GIs march out of town in their rubber-soled boots. Then he rushed up to where the American camp had been and saw a group of soldiers playing craps.
"One man had won a lot of pennies and was going off to D-Day and did't know what to do with them. So he gave them to Colin and said, 'Spend them for me.' Now, that image, which we try to recapture in one of the final scenes, had a great impact on me. The idea of making a film about Americans in England intrigued me, and I began thinking back to my own war-time experiences."
Schlesinger's own past is reflected in a number of the characters and events in the film. His family was much like Vanessa Redgrave's, "though not as grand as that. We lived in London, my father was a doctor, and my mother -- like the Redgrave character -- played in an amateur orchestra. I was very much that young son who runs away from public school in 'Yanks,' though I never physically ran away."
Schlesinger attended Uppingham School in Rutland and "hated it. I felt I wasn't doing as well as my father and my younger brother, both of whom were a good at sports where I was dreadful. I always felt a failure in those days because the things I was good at -- painting, for instance -- were forgotten. The arts department at my school was closed because the arts master went off to war."
In 1943, the year "Yanks" begins, Schlesinger was in his teens and was "plunged straight from school into the army," which he liked even less. "Again, it was a struggle for survival recalls the filmmaker, "and my goal was always to get a weekend pass to go home. One could procure a pass by plodding long distance with a full pack on one's back. Not running, you understand plodding. I was a good plodder. Still am," he adds, a twinkle in his eye.
Schlesinger's carerr is not one that most would consider "plodding." His attraction to film began during the war: "I remember being in very tough training in the north of England. I went to the movies as often as I could for escape. But the first movie that really fascinated me as art was Jean Renoir's 'The Southerner.' The week it came to our local movie theater, I was physically exhausted, but I went back to see it three times."
After the war, Schlesinger studied English literature at Oxford, where he made a few short amateur films and concentrated on his acting. When he graduated in 1950, he began playing character roles on stage, television and in a few war films where, to his chargrin, his name got him typecast as the German villian.
The BBC hired him to direct a series of realistic documentaries on aspects of British life, and in 1960 he made a first full-length documentary called "Terminus" about a single day at a railway station. Both "Terminus" and Schlesinger's first feature, "A kind of Loving," were favorably compared to the realistic work of his contemporaries, Karel Reisz ("Saturday Night and Sunday Morning") and Tony Richardson ("The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner").
"A Kind of Loving," starring then unknown Alan Bates, also demonstrated his facility with actors. It won the Golden Bear award at the 1962 Berlin Film Festival, and Schlesinger went on to direct "Billy Liar," the story of a troubled adolescent with fantasies of glory, and "Darling," which won Julie Christie an Oscar for her portrayal of a ruthless career woman.
Like so many of his British and European peers, Schlesinger came to America in the '60s primarily for financial reasons and has spent a good deal of time and energy convincing distriburors that his often controversial projects are commercially viable. According to Schlesinger, the plight of the "personal" filmmaker in Hollywood is no better today than it was in the past:
"A broader range of subjects are tackled, and there's less censorship, but the quality of the cinema is no better. Of course, there are geniuses like Francis Ford Coppola and Stanley Kubrick, and anything they make will be interesting. A small film like 'Breaking Away' can get produced, but this sort of film was always possible. Dennis Hopper 'Easy Rider' in 1969. I was allowed to make "Sunday, Bloody Sunday,' which I consider a piece of chamber music, as a kind of reward for having done well with 'Midnight Cowboy.'
"I don't think conditions are any easier for the director today than they were in the so-called old Hollywood. I wish I'd worked in a period when more movies were being made, when you worked for one person, a kind of mogul, whom you either did or didn't persuade to make a certain film.
"Today you have to deal with committees of musical-chair executives who are looking over their shoulders to some satellite company of questionable origin. We're working for many frightened people, and I think those people have become greedy about what constitutes a success. They aren't satisfied with films that cover their costs: They want the blockbuster."
Yet Schlesinger has no intention of changing either his source material or his approach to filmmaking to please Hollywood committees. One of his favorite quotes from Nathanael West is: "It's hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible the results are." And Schlesinger points out that romantic yearnings and the ability to compromise with an unromantic reality turn up -- in unequal portions -- in all his films.
"My character are very different," Schlesinger agrees, "but almost all of them are survivors."
Helen (Redgrave) and John (Devane), who suffer a few tears but no lost illustrations over their brief encounter in "Yanks," are clearly survivors, as is the Glenda Jackson character who loses her lover, weeps, and then goes off to cheer herself up at a friendly brunch in the bittersweet conclusion of "Sunday, Bloody Sunday."
"And even in 'The Day of the Locust,' where the characters largely come to negative ends, I try to stress the survival aspect," Schlesinger says. "a boy comes to Hollywood and describes the crazy world he sees. In a sense, the film is about an experience that rises -- like a Phoenix from the ashes -- and survives through his apoclyptic vision."
If Schlesinger has changed in recent years -- notably in his more sanguine approach to "Yanks" and the upcoming "honky Tonk Freeway" (a comedy about people going to Florida) -- it's a matter of degree:
"I think I'm on a more overtly optimistic kick," muses Schlesinger. "I guess you could say I'm now pesimistically optimistic about relationships. I enjoy life a great deal and get enormous satisfaction out of my work, and yet I see today's world as threatening, in a way.
"The energy of the '60s, the revolutionary ideas, seem to have come to naught. There's a lot of shrugging of shoulders and 'Oh well pessimism. I believe one's got to turn the tide."