Sunday, 4 September 2016

Yanks (1979)

It's been a while since I last saw Yanks. In my head, there's a memory of watching it on the BBC one Sunday afternoon but I can't be sure how correct that memory actually is now because, having rewatched it, some of the language is definitely post watershed. 

Nevertheless there is a BBC Sunday afternoon vibe to Yanks, John Schlesinger's film from a Colin Welland and Walter Bernstein script which explores the culture clash and sometimes uneasy relationship between billeted GI's and the locals in the rural north of England during WWII, which made it quite a fitting watch for today.

Yanks is a film not about war itself, or rather not about fighting and battles, but about relationships and the effects that war has on the home front; homesickness, loneliness, tragedy, boredom and inconvenience. It's a three stringed storyline concerning a trio of couples -  the gentle affair between the married upper class Vanessa Redgrave and American officer William Devane; Lisa Eichhorn's virginal daughter of the local postmaster whose engaged to her childhood sweetheart (a pre-Casualty Derek Thompson) away at the front, and Richard Gere's American mess sergeant whose mutual attraction blossoms into a dangerous passion; and lastly Wendy Morgan's funny and flighty clippie and Chick Vennera's loveable putz of an Army cook. 

It's fair to say that Morgan and Vennera get the shortest shrift, relegated to little more than comic relief when the script actually remembers them. They're lively enough but their roles are specifically that of 'the best friends' of the characters in our central romance; Gere and Eichhorn. Richard Gere finds the politeness, sensitivity and decency inherent in his character, but either underplays or is simply too naive to perform anything else that he ultimately robs the film of its required emotional impact. Far better is Lisa Eichhorn, an American actress and former Oxford scholar who convinced Schlesinger that she was in fact English to gain the role. She's very persuasive here and wonderfully sweet as a young girl torn between her commitment to her absent fiance and the 'exotic' soldier who has captured her heart, even if you do just want to shake her character from time to time.

I do find myself wishing that more of the film was given over to Redgrave and Devane's affair, but that longing might be more down to the fact that they are both actors with a natural charisma that can rise above the material they're working with. Devane is effortlessly cool, yet his admirable intentions in his gentlemanly courtship of Redgrave are never in doubt, whilst Redgrave positively shines in her role.

It's perhaps what appears in the background that is Yanks biggest draw; the Lancashire and Yorkshire scenery and period production design is a superb joy, as is the supporting actors who invest Welland's dry northern wit with the requisite twinkle. Eichhorn's family are a particular standout, with Tony Melody and Rachel Roberts as her postmaster and postmistress parents, with the latter having an effective line in a weary mental stability, and child actor Martin Smith as her little kid brother. 

Dear old Derek Thompson, very young-looking here, plays her ill-fated betrothed Ken with the beginnings of that 'not-looking-you-straight-in-the-eye' acting technique he is the key proponent of. It has its critics, but you know what? It actually makes his character a damn sight more enigmatic and interesting in the brief screentime he gets than Gere manages as the lead throughout. The rest of the cast of locals is filled out with familiar faces such as Emmerdale's Paula Tilbrook and Last of the Summer Wine's Joe Gladwin.

Yanks is a genteel and authentic experience throughout its 130 minute running time, only once tripping up to tackle the issue of prejudice between white and black GI's. It's an important issue and one worthy of addressing, but I do think Schlesinger muffs it a little with a cringingly obvious set up that sees the camera pick out racist at the New Years Dance long before anything actually occurs. It's the kind of glaringly obvious signposting that means what follows is less than subtle and so therefore somewhat at odds with the rest of the film.


  1. Young Derek puffing out of Keighley Station there. Many of the exterior shots were filmed around Dobcross in Saddleworth.

    1. Indeed it is. I believe Lisa Eichhorn and Wendy Morgan returned to Stalybridge for a special screening a year or two ago. The memorial there opens the film

  2. I always like seeing YANKS again. You capture it all nicely. Vanessa is effortless as the lady of the manor, while Eichorn is marvellous here. Don't forget Joan Hickson at the hotel too, where our young lovers drink late and ask for a room. The working class lovers are comic relief indeed, but the home front and wartime era is perfectly captured by Schlesinger who orchestates that emotional climax as the GIs pull out and the girls rush to the station - will they see them in time? Then Rachel Roberts unbending too .... apparantly Schlesinger screened some 40s war movies for the cast before shooting, to get the (as Roberts said) "upper class cunt"(as opposed to lip) mood right.

    1. You could always rely on Rachel Roberts for telling it like it is!