Although inclined to be too genteel for its own good, "Yanks" is the classicest tear-jerker in recent memory.
This transparently sentimental, nostalgic account of three love affairs between American soldiers and englishwomen in the months preceding the d-day invasion comes as a great relief right after "Apocalypse Now" and "Luna" -- lamentable examples of the "advanced," modernist cinema.
Under those circumstances, "Yanks" seems not only a sincere, engrossing, skillful anachronism but also a liberating antidote to "Apocalypse Now" and a more effective "antiwar" picture.
There are no battle sequences in "Yanks." Scenes of military training, yes, and a surrounding sense of military buildup and urgency in the northern England community where the story is set, but no combat. The subject matter is sexual attraction and social tension between people of different nationalities in a wartime setting.
Although "Yanks" opens up certain areas that used to be taboo in war movies of the period, notably racial antagonism and sexual frustration, it harks back to the mood of "Mrs. Miniver," "Since You Went Away," The Clock," "The Best Years of Our Lives" and the home-front sequences in "In Which We Serve."
This mood is always subject to criticism on the grounds of being complacently middle-class or unjustifiably idealized and affirmative. "Yanks" leaves itself especially vulnerable: While the intimate persepective is welcome and often affecting, it's also focused too narrowly.
Director John Schlesinger and writers Colin Welland and Walter Bernstein concentrate on the most attractive, respectable lovers within the framework: Richard Gere, cast as a nice young mess sergeant from Arizona, persists in a difficult, mutually conscience-stricken courtship with a nice lower middle-class English girl (played by American Lisa Eichhorn, a radiant newcomer) who is constrained by her engagement to a childhood sweetheart serving in the British army and by the anti-American prejudices of her shopkeeper mother (Rachel Roberts in a superb performance, establishing her as a front-runner for the next set of supporting actress awards).
Vanessa Redgrave, somewhat mischievously cast as a languishing reminder of Mrs. Miniver, and William Devane, playing an amiable supply officer with a knack for low-key seduction, drift through a refined, bittersweet, upper-middle-class affair. Separated from their mates, both characters are too mature and understanding to make unreasonable demands on each other, and the adulterous atmosphere is a trifle too serene to be seriously stirring.
The filmmakers slough off the proletarian romance. Gere's buddy, a feisty little cook and regimental boxer played by Click Vennera, attracts the gleaming eyes of Eichhorn's girlfriend, a cheerful, provocative blond bus conducter played by Wendy Morgan, wittily suggestive of a British Betty Grable. Envisioned as happy-go-lucky, carnal soulmates, this couple is quickly confined to an all too subordinate role of fleeting comic relief.
Perhaps the filmmakers feared that the pathos of their central romance, which deals with young people who feel obliged to delay or transcend their desire for sexual satisfaction, would have been weakened by the reminder of contemporaries who jump into bed on short acquaintance and decline to feel guilt-ridden about the consequences, pregnancy included.
Nevertheless, the dramatic risk should have been taken. One also suspects that the Vennera-Morgan affair, while neglected on the screen, was more typical of the period in many respects that the Gere-Eichhorn affair. Although "Yanks" runs 141 minutes, a duration bound to make distributors and exhibitors nervous, the basic material would improve with expansion.
Nonetheless "Yanks" remains an unusually appealing and ingratiating movie. Frequently, the filmmakers themselves call attention to the limits of their restrained approach to the past by venturing beyond it. For example, Schlesinger has staged a remarkable sequence of a bosterous New Year's Eve celebration disrupted by racial violence when a white soldier takes umbrage at a black soldier dancing with one of the local girls.
This episode generates a considerable amount of tension, both pictorially and psychologically; and it would have helped to fill out the conception in a subplot dealing with the experiences of a black American soldier stateioned in England.
A number of key sequences are powerfully enacted and sustained. Both Roberts and Eichhorn are extraordinary in a painful confrontation where the girl learns of her fiance's death and is accussed by her mother of being "happy" about it. Although the mother has no right to make the accusation, Eichhorn manages to project the saggestion that in some respect the tragic news has come as a relief, lifting a burden off her and her American suitor.
As a result, the currents of emotion running between mother and daughter in their darkened kitchen seem remarkably intense and authentic. Each woman has reason to hate herself for the way she feels at that moment, yet neither can help betraying the surging feelings.
In a subsequent painful interlude, also adroitly depicted, Gere finds himself impotent when he and Eichhorn finally seize an opportunity to consummate their affair. This unhappy turn of events might not play at all if Roberts hadn't persuaded one that the sickly, unhappy woman she portrays is capable of imposing a formidable amount of guilt and apprehension.
The concluding sequence, in which Eichhorn and Morgan struggle to find their departing Americans among the throng of soldiers and townspeople converging on the railway station, is beautifully sustained and resolved. Schlesinger orchestrates this stirring climax with an assurance -- and emotional payoff -- that recalls William Wyler at his most disarmingly masterful. It's a classic stretch of sentimental footage, requiring exquisite control of a teeming location during both the shooting and editing, since the ultimate effect depends on complicated, shifting spatial relationships between two sets of characters who appear doomed to look for one another in vain.
While "Yanks" may bring awards to Rachel Roberts and potential stardom to Lisa Eichhorn, it seems an acid test for Richare Gere, who has inspired a star buildup for the last three years without quite justifying the excitement.
Although he has never been more appealing than he is in "Yanks," he has stepped into a role that couldn't help but seem ingratiating. Gere profits from its inherent likability without really enlarging on the potential, and there's something guarded and withdrawn about him, a reluctance or inability to open up in a transparently winning way on screen.
Something is missing, and you feel that its absence prevents both the characterization and movie from going decisively over the top.