Director: John Schlesinger
Cast: Richard Gere, Vanessa Redgrave, William Devane, Lisa Eichhorn
Runtime: 139 minutes
Format: Dual Format
Release Date: 03/12/2018
Jamie Havlin assesses John Schlesinger’s story of a trio of relationships between local women and G.I.s stationed in England during World War II.
At a time when Vietnam dramas like Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter were huge box-office successes, Yanks might have seemed a rather cosy affair on its original release. No tripping on acid while sailing into the Heart of Darkness or prisoners forced to play Russian roulette in a partly submerged cage in rat-infested waters. The only combat here is when we see old Movietone news clips screened at the local picture house.
Instead, the romantic entanglements of three American men and three English women take centre-stage.
Yanks begins in 1943 as truckloads of American troops arrive in a small mill town in the north of England. Despite being Britain’s allies, resentments simmer with the ‘Yanks’ stereotyped as arrogant and brash. ‘As if there’s not enough of them already,’ as one character puts it.
The England of Yanks is dull and sometimes puritanical, a land of Capstan cigarettes, ration coupons and warm beer. If you’re lucky.
Girl crazy G.I. Danny Ruffelo (Chick Venneral) hooks up with Mollie (Wendy Morgan), an easy-going clippie, while his buddy Matthew Dyson, an Arizonan working as an army chef, agrees to join them on double date with Mollie’s reluctant friend. Jean is a pretty shop assistant whose boyfriend Ken (Derek Thompson) is serving overseas in the British Army. The pair are hoping to announce their engagement when he next is given some leave.
Dyson’s polite, good looking and ambitious – he plans to open a chain of motels back home once the War is over. He’s also persistent in his pursuit of Jean. She eventually finds it difficult to resist his charms and is forced to make some potentially painful decisions.
The Danny/Mollie romance is the least complicated in Yanks, two young single people mutually attracted to each other and wanting some happiness when that emotion is necessarily in short supply. Like Matt and Jean’s more introspective liaison, upper-class Helen (Vanessa Redgrave) has embarked on what might be more than just a platonic friendship with John (William Devane), a good-natured American captain. Like Jean, Helen has a husband away on duty (with the British Navy) and is reluctant to become seriously involved with anybody else.
Unlike the other couplings, Helen and John are both married, older and more realistic about what they expect from the time that they spend with each other. When John whisks her off to Ireland to secure some booze for his men, though, the pair relish their day together and are drawn closer together, their relationship threatening to develop into something deeper.
The best thing about Yanks is certainly the ensemble cast. Lisa Eichhorn – an American herself who definitely convinces with her Northern English accent – excels, as does William Devane, an under-rated actor perhaps best known today for his role in one of Quentin Tarantino’s very favourite films Rolling Thunder, where he played a disfigured Vietnam vet.
The period detail convinces and, despite a few convenient plot points, the story keeps viewers engrossed throughout. Yes, it is occasionally nostalgic, but the well-crafted screenplay by Colin Welland and Hollywood blacklisted writer Walter Bernstein also injects some grit. This comes to the fore when racial tensions within the G.I. ranks surface as one black soldier jitterbugs flamboyantly with an English girl at a local dancehall.
It’s directed by John Schlesinger, who forged his reputation with kitchen sink dramas like A Kind of Loving and Billy Liar, before heading to Hollywood and making one of the last great movies of the 1960s, Midnight Cowboy. Yanks isn’t as good as any of those three films but is still worth seeking out.
Extras include archival interviews with Schlesinger and a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, alongside rare imagery.
More about the film here.
All words by Jamie Havlin. More writing by Jamie can be found at his Louder Than War author’s archive.