The Search

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Movies in the Mountains

September 21
2 pm

Orphans of War

Orphans of War

The Search, if remembered at all, is largely recalled as the 1948 film debut of Montgomery Clift (1920–1966) who took one of its three central roles. Clift was one of the first among very successful New York actors, directors and writers in the post-WWII migration to Hollywood. (Two years later Marlon Brando left Broadway for Hollywood. Following in his wake came Julie Harris, Paul Newman, Patricia Neal, Geraldine Page, and James Dean, most after detours through top-grade live-television dramas where they learned to act for the camera).

Hollywood had tried for several years to lure Clift from Broadway where, since the age of fifteen, he had given increasingly impressive performances of ever larger roles in thirteen plays from 1935 to 1946. Most notable was the Theatre Guild’s Pulitzer Prize-winning production of Robert E. Sherwood’s There Shall Be No Night, starring the theatre’s most honored and beloved acting team of Alfred Lunt (who also directed the play) and Lynn Fontanne.

Another prominent cast member in There Shall Be No Night was Sydney Greenstreet, also eventually recruited by Hollywood. Unlike potential heart-throb Monty Clift, Greenstreet’s appeal was for his three hundred-pound embodiment of greedy villainy that debuted as Kaspar Guttman in the 1948 remake of The Maltese Falcon. Not lost on talent scouts was that both men were superior actors who had resisted previous offers of film contracts, so neither jumped coasts at bargain rates. He was paid $60,000 for Red River and $100,000 for The Search, phenomenal paychecks for a rookie film actor.

Film writers Richard Schweizer and David Wechsler of The Search reminded audiences that wars linger long past the signing of peace accords and victory parades. Awash in the jetsam of war’s aftermath, refugees try to find shelter, sustenance, clothing and plumbing while they search for family members not knowing whether they are dead, or still alive—pilgrimages offering few signposts as-to where fate may have carried them.

Displaced persons search for their pre-war homes and find them cratered. Buildings rubbled. Farmlands bombed beyond plowing and fruitful sowing. There’s little if any food or medicines. No schools for children. No work to make money. No Schools. No infrastructure remains to provide clean water or drain sewage. There is little in the way of civilian transportation. Unexploded ordinance lay buried in villages and big cities, awaiting a touch from a vehicle, a shovel, a stray dog hoping for food, a child at play.

Individual options were to surrender to despair and helplessness or to chance luck, an unfamiliar extended hand of fortune. Some of those displaced persons combatted fear with the resolve to return to their hometowns to help rebuild and reform their country. Some of those who remained among the ruins, did so out of fear of the unknown or a lack of wherewithal to move on. Those that had the means and energy to search for new homes, often arrived in other lands only to be viewed not as victims of cruelty, but as enemies or cultural or racial aliens, come to displace and replace citizen workers.

Such were the circumstances of The Search (1948), the movie that finally persuaded Montgomery Clift to leave Broadway, where the had his choice of scripts and roles. (The western, Red River, of the same year, may have provided his first film work—one which accustomed him to movie processes and craft, but The Search was released months earlier than Red River.)

Accolades were bestowed upon The Search’s director Fred Zinnemann and co-writers Schweizer and Wechsler (who earned Oscars for their script). Jamila Novotna, a well-regarded opera singer played the lost boy’s mother, a concentration-camp survivor widowed by Nazis, trudging from one UN refugee camp to the next —each harboring hundreds of displaced persons—searching for her son. Aline MacMahon, always an effective and sympathetic actor in comedy as well as drama, played the kindly yet practical head of a children’s refugee camp where soldier Clift brings his new charge,  but intending to bring the boy to America, once Clift is discharged from the army.

Odd was the choice of the boy actor who was to play the son freed from Auschwitz during the desperate months after the defeat of Axis powers—now scratching through the detritus just to survive with fading memories of his mother.

Ten year-old Ivan Jandl was pale, blonde and a bit doll-like Czech lad. In appearance he looked more like a Goebbels’s poster boy for Arianism. More pertinent casting would have found a child actor whose looks were or seemed either Jewish or Roma who were, more usually, the victims targeted by Nazis.

Nevertheless, the film was praised for its verisimilitude, and young Master Jandl was awarded much praise and several honors including a special Oscar (which his homeland of Czechoslovakia then a Soviet Communist puppet nation did not permit him to leave the country to accept.)

A Swiss-American co-production, The Search, was shot amidst the actual urban devastation of defeated Germany. Despite an unnecessary opening narration and what some present-day audiences complain is background music strummed on heartstrings, The Search is a sincere and affecting film by a socially conscientious director, Fred Zinnemann, who was nominated for all major international directing awards but failed to win any. Montgomery Clift was universally praised and nominated for an Oscar, but lost to Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, the prestige film of 1948.

The Search tells a story about the cost and inevitable consequence of every war. It was filmed 70 years ago, but we have only to look to our border with Mexico to see families escaping from the poverty and criminal powers running much of Central America, only to be denied entry while their children are separated from them and confined in concentration camps to wonder if they will ever see their parents again and why are they imprisoned in the Land of the Free.

—Frank Cullen

for Movies in the Mountains

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