Viennale 2012. The Unseen Guerilla

On Fritz Lang's most unknown and unappreciated American film: 1950's "An American Guerilla in the Philippines."
Daniel Kasman

For reasons not clear to me, Fritz Lang's An American Guerilla in the Philippines is almost totally unknown, at least in America, and most existent awareness is tainted by it having the worst reputation of the director's already generally undervalued (but superior) American period. I got a rare chance to see the film on 35mm at the Viennale and was unexpectedly moved by its vivid adventure. I feel like I've read for years that Lang loved adventure stories, and while he made many that were artificially constructed, I think one can sense in their ambition and grandeur a desire, in his focus on science and exoticism, to make a “real” one. (Perhaps much like how Alain Resnais has always giddily wanted to make a comic book movie.) What was so moving for me was the realization that this 1950 film seems to be the first and only time Fritz Lang truly got to make a true adventure film.

Shot in color and almost entirely on location in the Philippines, inspired by recent history of American enlisted men, of both the Navy and Army, being stranded and fighting behind Japanese enemy lines on the Philippine islands after the collapse and retreat of American forces there, the film captures a magic intersection between the real world and the metaphysical lines, wills, and technologies that Lang's past films have posited, usually with a high degree of directorial abstraction and isolation, as tying together and attempting to control the course of the world. While films like the first two Dr. Mabuse entries (1922, 1933), Fury (1936), and a significant number of Lang's American work are absolutely spawned from and comment upon the politics, culture, and society in which they were made, An American Guerilla, with its dressings of pictorial realism and an unstory-like, episodic sequence of events narrated by star Tyrone Power, has the unlikely appearance of a Fritz Lang actuality. It nearly is a fictionalized documentary. Or perhaps vice versa.

It is not only startling for being a grasp of something outside the confines of the studio. Particularly remarkable is the answer to the question that is asked in almost all of Lang—either explicitly, as in Spione (1928) and Secret Beyond the Door... (1948), or implicitly—of who or what is telling the story we are watching, who or what is controlling or determining the action. For this 1950 film that answer is America. Gone is the ideological need of Lang's wartime films—note that all his war films are either about being stuck behind enemy lines or being stranded at home in a world that feels like it is that of the enemy—to confirm Nazi immorality and inspire American internationalist intervention. American Guerilla's motivation is like a post-war documentary on overseas cleanup and Marshall Plan rehabilitation: Look at what America and democracy can do for you! Stranded seaman Tyrone Power and his ragtag group are far from the rugged survivalist-fighters of Walsh's Objective, Burma! (1945), and are closer to Western Union's (1940) men driven, vaguely, by manifest destiny, presidential encouragement, and teleological technological development. In American Guerilla, the outfit is akin to institutional soldier-engineer-social-workers, building radios, printing money, laying telegraph line. We literally watch them build (or modernize in the guise of re-building) more than we watch them fight. Orders are issued obliquely from afar; the only presence of real authority we see are haunting/ironic messages on cigarette packs bearing General MacArthur's famous “I will return” dictum and his replicated signature. Nearly the last shot of the film is a totemic medium shot of the great man (actually an actor) finally arriving at the Philippines, decked out in his usual sunglasses and uniform, and his appearance like this erupts in the frame like the stark figure of Mabuse or the revelation of Spione's Haghi: “Allmächtiger Gott -- welche Macht hat hier die Hand im spiele -- ?!” “Ich.” Except this man is no super villain or manipulator; he is nothing but an icon for that giant overseas power that has quietly been directing everything we've been watching.

To follow a line of thought from Tom Gunning's essential book on Lang, the masterful individual Mabuse figure from Germany's (and Lang's) Weimar-era, having gone through several transformations through time and Lang's move to America, has now dispersed like a fog to encompass something as grandiose yet pervasively abstract and unreachable as political ideology and its intervention upon the world. The final sequence in the film could be taking place in America: miniature American flags have appeared out of nowhere, and a Coca-Cola is shared as the military parade of returning Americans goes by.

Thus the film is one of Lang's most remarkable portraits of the motivating forces behind the movements and conflicts of man, no longer conjured in the safety of a studio and led by a single figure, but found in the footpaths, jungles, hills and cabins of the Philippines and ordered from afar in a freshly globalized world. It is Lang's only true “war film,” and as both a production and striking record of real world exploit, a genuine adventure—a powerful idea considering the context of the film's ideology, and all the more so as An American Guerilla is the closest the director ever got to documentary. For once even the story seems out of his hands, and has been predetermined by a force beyond even the director's control. One might return to his adventure worlds of near total artifice—Harakiri (1919), Woman on the Moon (1929), Man Hunt (1941), the Tiger epic (1959), etc.—and be shocked to find more serene and linear their sense that for all the sinister manipulations inextricably chained together, there is still one man in control of it all, the man behind the camera. Linked to the outside world, Lang generously, vividly and unforgettably gives his film up to a new global dominating force within his power to constraint to his frames, but beyond his power to control.

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