Senior HTF Member
- Jun 10, 2003
- Real Name
- Josh Steinberg
I agree, what a wonderfully eloquent review Josh! I'll be picking this up in the near future, as it's always been a sentimental film for me, and an emotional experience to watch. Not just because the emotive forces at play are just so genuine to me, but because I "knew" someone like Carter, at least I associated him with David Niven's character the first time I saw this film. This man was also a WW2 Canadian veteran of RAF Bomber Command, since deceased. Just last week (August 18) I was thinking a lot about him when I suddenly realized that He had been shot down 75 years to the day ( and taken prisoner) on a bombing sortie to Germany. Believe me, I'm no mystic, but this kind of thing rattled my cage...but then again, we seemed to have a strangely mystic "friendship", full of extraordinary coincidences.
Please bare with me, this is a bit long...
I grew up in a big old house in my hometown. Generations of families had lived there in the past. One day in 1966 when I was 10 and playing in our front yard, an older guy came to the gate and told me that he and his family had lived in our home many years before. He seemed friendly and I thought about giving him a tour of the house, which I supposed I probably should not have done as I was home alone at the time...but it was so obvious to me that he was sincere in having lived there during the 1920s through to after the war. When I heard that, I felt like I already knew this stranger, suddenly seeing him as the young boy he had been then. You see, our garage walls were literally papered with old newspaper cuttings from the '20s and '30s...along with hand drawn doodles of various comic book and sports stars of those days, obviously done by the young boys who had lived there at that time. After touring the house and before going to the garage, I asked him a question that startled him, "Was Jimmy Foxx of the Detroit Tigers your favorite baseball player?" He had a confused look on his face and then said yes, but his older brother was even more of a fan and had written fan letters to the famous baseball star and received his autographed letter in return...he asked me, incredulously, how I could possibly know that? I soon showed him the garage where their "clubhouse" newspaper clippings and drawings still festooned the walls, much to his surprise. He told me a wealth of details of their life together there, more than 20 years before, and we were able to pry one of his elder brother's drawings off the wall for him to take with him. At the time all I knew about these old baseball, hockey and movie stars that were their childhood heroes was within those clippings that I had read and been fascinated by. A pleasant mystery as to who Jimmy Foxx, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Dizzy Dean, the long since defunct Montreal Maroons and New York Americans hockey teams were and who their obviously adoring fans had been in this clubhouse of wonders those many years before.
Among the things he told me was the story of his older brother. Part of his nostalgia in seeing the old house was because his elder brother had just passed away. I learned that his brother had been shot down over Germany and taken prisoner, spending nearly two years as a POW. He returned to our hometown, and this house, after the war but never really recovered his physical or emotional health till dying in his 40s. The stranger thanked me for the tour and drawing and bid me goodbye, never to be seen again. I was fascinated in finally being able to associate real people with our garage clubhouse of mysteries and couldn't wait to tell my folks when they came home. My father was also a WW2 veteran and had married my mom in 1942. I was the last born and very much an afterthought, born many years after my own elder brothers. My parents were the age of my friends grandparents. One of my uncles had also coincidentally been a POW in Germany during the war. Thus, anything associated with the "Greatest Generation" really pulls at my heart.
Fast forward about another 20 years. I finally saw A Matter of Life or Death on a PBS airing in the 80s. Loved the film, even with it's faded technicolor sequences, and was really touched by the beauty and sentimentality of it. The imagery of David Niven in the flaming cockpit of his plane really startled me. That same week while browsing a used book store, I purchased some old, brittle and yellowed copies of my hometown newspaper that they had for sale. I was very pleased with my find, as these kinds of things were rarely seen anywhere. When I got around to looking at them in detail, I was startled and shocked to see the 1943 story about a local airman who had just been confirmed as alive by the International Red Cross and now a prisoner of war in Germany. There was my old address of our house, his full name and age, and a photo of him! I was astounded at the coincidence of my finding this random decades old newspaper that meant so much to me in a city of 800,000 people! I proceeded to try to find out more about him, in these pre-internet days, going to the library and Royal Canadian Legion to find out more details of this man I had never met but felt as though I knew.
Why do I associate the film with him? He was the lone survivor of a crew of 6 men on his Halifax bomber. I found out that as the pilot, he maintained control of their burning plane for as long as he could for the others to bail out by parachute. Only then did he himself abandon the aircraft. The terrible irony being that all 5 of his crew men simply disappeared into seemingly thin air, never to be found or seen again. Probably drowned in the darkness of the Baltic sea. Despite his heroic actions, none of them survived, and he died a little bit every day afterward because of it. Never marrying or having children of his own till his own premature death 20 years later. I found out this had happened on the famous night bombing raid on the German V2 rocket test site on August 18, 1943. Thankfully, a very successful raid that set back the German rocket program and probably saved countless innocent civilian lives in the rest of the war. But it had cost RAF bomber command one of the bloodiest nights of the whole war, with hundreds of airmen missing.
For his crew, having disappeared into thin air, it was though they had ascended that magical stairway to heaven, but without him. Like David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death, he had stayed with the burning plane as long as he could. The images from the film where Carter struggles to keep control of the burning plane affected me strangely, and within days I had found that old yellow newspaper story about a man who had actually done that kind of thing in real life. A man whom I never met, but had slept in the same house he had as a young boy...and I knew that Jimmy Foxx of the Detroit Tigers was his favorite ball player, and that the Montreal Maroons were his favorite hockey team. And that I had met his younger brother briefly one day and given him the gift of his brother's decades old drawing of a cowboy on a horse, his tribute to Tom Mix...such is one of the unexplained mysteries of my life. As I said, I am very much NOT a mystic, so I'm at a loss to explain this...but I think it's appropriate that such a magically mystic fantasy as A Matter of Life and Death has this special power of association in my life...to a hero I never met, but knew nonetheless...
Thanks guys, glad to have poured that out.. It's by far the longest post I've ever put on HTF. Among the many strange coincidences in my story is the Criterion release of this film coinciding with the 75th anniversary of my "friend"s worst and most heroic day of his life. The trigger to my telling this strange but true story was Josh's beautiful review for this wonderful film.
How to explain it? I can't, and thinking about it sends shivers up my spine and my eyes glisten with tears for a man I never met, but have always felt I have known dearly. And I was meant to "know" him. The old house we both grew up in 30 or so years apart is long gone. My childhood bedroom was almost certainly his own too.The garage "clubhouse" with it's walls papered with child hood whimsy is gone also. Everyone who actually knew him in life would be gone now. My discovery of his private suffering born out of the heroic sacrifice of his life seemed to be preordained by some mystic force. And part of the catalyst being this wonderful film that so powerfully reminded me of his story. Especially the disappearance of all of his crew, as though they themselves had ascended the fabled stairway to heaven shown in A Matter of Life and Death. All that is left are my memories and my brittle yellow newspaper story I was meant to find in another head spinning coincidence.
If I actually get to meet him someday in the afterlife, I want to talk to him about Jimmy Foxx, the Detroit Tigers, the Montreal Maroons, and what Tom Mix meant to him...
Rest in peace, George Gnam, 415 Squadron RCAF, Halifax X2898 shot down on the Peenemunde raid August 18, 1943. POW Stalag Luft 4B Germany.