Director George Seaton’s The Big Lift, released in 1950, is one of the new-to-me movies I’ve watched during this month of focusing on Montgomery Clift’s career. It’s an interesting film from a historic perspective, as an artifact of a particular time after World War II when the Cold War was really ramping up, but as an entertaining movie I found it somewhat lacking.
To keep this from turning into another book-length review like that last two I posted, I’ll keep it simple and break it down into the Good, the Bad, and the Random.
Montgomery Clift, of course! He plays Sgt. Danny MacCullough, an Air Force engineer who is assigned to fly food and supplies into Berlin during the Berlin Airlift. As always, Monty turns in a very good performance, believably portraying a nice if too-trusting guy who is burned when the German woman he falls for turns out to be a double-crosser.
Like Clift’s character in The Search, MacCullough is a relatively uncomplicated, angst-free fellow (at least until things go wrong with his girl and he’s forced to become a little more circumspect about people), especially compared to some of the characters he would portray for the remainder of his career. Monty is believably romantic and smitten during his love scenes, and heartbreaking when he realizes he’s been used and betrayed.
Paul Douglas. Although he and Montgomery Clift didn’t get along at all (a theme you’ll see recurring throughout Clift’s career is that many of the men actors and directors didn’t like him, while many of the women he worked with adored and mothered him), Douglas and Clift have a good rapport as Air Force buddies with different ways of looking at Germans in the years after the war. Douglas’s character, Sgt. Hank Kowalski, loathes Germans and is angry when he’s assigned to ground duty in support of the Airlift. His Polish background plus the fact that he was held in a German prison camp during the war make his feelings understandable, but his character not always very likeable.
Kowalski takes up with an adorable German woman named Gerda (Bruni Löbel), whom he treats very disrespectfully, to the point where you wonder why she puts up with his verbal abuse. He also encounters the prison guard who physically and mentally tortured him during the war and brutally beats the man almost to death. Kowalski makes a big turnaround by the end of the movie, however, realizing that hurting the man who hurt him didn’t ease his mind at all, and that while some Germans were terrible people some were good, the same as everywhere in the world.
Cornell Borchers as Clift’s love interest, the duplicitous Frederica Burkhardt. Borchers isn’t overwhelmingly pretty (almost any woman would have a hard time looking pretty next to Montgomery Clift), but it’s easy to believe that Sgt. MacCullough would be smitten with her intelligence, her apparent anti-Nazi sympathies, and her sad tale of war widowhood. Unfortunately for him, the story of her life is a big lie – she has a former-S.S. boyfriend living in St. Louis, Missouri and is playing MacCullough for a sap. She wants to marry him as a way to get to the States and reunite with her lover.
O.E. Hasse as a good-natured if cynical German named Stieber who befriends MacCullough. Stieber is Frederica’s neighbor and a spy for the Russians. He doesn’t have any particular sympathy for communists, however, he’s in it because he needs the money and because everyone in Berlin is spying on someone. He’s an amusing, likeable character and eventually saves MacCullough from making a big mistake and marrying Frederica.
History. Getting a good look at bombed out, post-war Berlin as it was during the years when it was divided among the Allies is genuinely fascinating and disturbing. The privations experienced by Berliners during those years and the tension people of all western countries felt as the Soviet Union became more aggressive are well portrayed.
At one point in the movie MacCullough’s uniform becomes stained by paint and he ends up traveling though the Soviet section of Berlin in civilian clothes – dangerous because not only would he be in huge trouble with the U.S. military if he was found out of uniform, but because his safety is much more at risk without the protection of his military status. It’s a stressful sequence as you wonder whether or not MacCullough will be caught by the Russians, and also if he might not be ratted out by Frederica, who by now we have some reason to suspect.
Choo Choo! While in the Soviet part of Berlin MacCullough, Kowalski, and their girlfriends visit a nightclub that’s raided by Soviet soldiers. In order not to be caught without his papers, MacCullough hops on stage with the German singers and joins their part-English, part-German rendition of “Chatanooga Choo Choo.” It’s pretty much worth watching the movie just to see Monty Clift dancing and singing, if only for a moment. Not the kind of thing that came up too often in his other films.
Oh good grief, when will the story actually start? That’s what kept running through my mind for about the first half hour of the movie, as I watched airmen talking about going to Berlin, getting on planes to go to Berlin, and discussing what they were going to do in Berlin, including a too-long explanation of how radar works. Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas don’t have a lot to do or say for quite a while. It’s not until the groundwork is set and about 30 minutes have passed that we finally get to know our two stars’ characters and the plot really gets in motion.
All military roles with the exception of those played by Clift and Douglas were portrayed by actual military personnel stationed in Berlin. And oh boy, can you tell it! Remember how I said that when Monty portrayed a soldier in The Search, audience members thought director Fred Zinnemann had cast an actual soldier in the part? Yeah, they wouldn’t have thought that if they’d compared him to real military men like the ones attempting to act in The Big Lift. God bless those wonderful men, WWII veterans who saved the world from tyranny, but they really weren’t so great as actors – especially when sharing the screen with people like Paul Douglas and Montgomery Clift.
Propaganda. The movie is preachily pro-America and pro-democracy. Don’t get me wrong, I’m in favor of both those things, but after a while I felt like I’d been hit over the head with a hammer. The scenes with Kowalski and his girlfriend Gerda were the worst offenders, with him abrasively espousing US views and her trying her best to sort through her thoughts about politics while defending herself against his rude remarks as best she can.
The saving grace of their storyline is that eventually Gerda reads the US Constitution for herself and realizes that the American political system means she has the right to think and speak for herself, and that she doesn’t have to put up with Kowalski’s bullying anymore. Of course by that time he’s had his own “not all Germans are the devil” epiphany and is impressed by her spunk and newfound love of liberty.
It all just could’ve been a lot subtler and less obvious, is what I’m saying.
What might have been. Montgomery Clift’s schedule was freed up to film this rather so-so movie when he turned down Sunset Boulevard. Billy Wilder had written the part of Joe Gillis specifically with Clift in mind and he had previously agreed to do it. Apparently he was dissuaded from taking the part by his acting teacher, Mira Rostova, and by his close friend/lover/who knows, the much older cabaret singer Libby Holman. The two thought the story of a young man being kept by an older woman was a little too close to Monty’s reality. William Holden played Gillis, of course, and was absolutely wonderful in the part. Still, I can’t help wondering what kind of brilliant performance Clift would have turned in. Alas.
Naughty Monty! George Seaton went to all sorts of trouble to find a nice apartment for Clift and Rostova (with whom Monty was joined at the hip on every movie set) to live in while filming – not the easiest thing in the war-ravaged Berlin of 1949. Upon arriving and seeing the place Monty complained that the apartment didn’t have a garden, persistently enough that eventually General Lucius Clay, Commander of the American Occupation in Berlin, moved himself and his family out of their own home and gave it to Clift for the duration of filming. Not the nicest way to act, Monty dear! He was the hottest young actor around after the release of The Search, Red River, and The Heiress and evidently it had gone to his head.
Baby, it’s cold out there. After a lot of political wrangling with Soviet authorities, George Seaton was able to film parts of The Big Lift inside the Brandenberg Gate leading into East Berlin. However, on the day of shooting, the Russians set up loudspeakers and harassed the cast and crew with communist propaganda. The scene was shot without sound and dialogue had to be dubbed in at a later time.
So there you have it, a quick look at The Big Lift. As a slice of Cold War history, it’s well worth watching…once. If I ever watch it again, however, I’ll be fast forwarding to the Montgomery Clift bits and leaving out the rest.