Viewer Guide: The Big Lift and Jimmy’s Hall with Richard Peña

March 16, 2018 | Richard Peña

Your weekly peek into what’s coming up next on REEL 13, written by host Richard Peña.


The Big Lift (1950)

This week’s REEL 13 classic is The Big Lift (1950), a drama starring Montgomery Clift and Paul Douglas, directed by George Seaton.

Shot almost entirely on Berlin locations, The Big Lift is a fictionalized story set against the very real backdrop of the Berlin Airlift, now regarded as the first major manifestation of the US-Soviet Cold War in the aftermath of World War II. Although Berlin was positioned 100 miles inside of Soviet-controlled East Germany, the city itself was carved up into different zones, with the US, Britain, and France controlling the western side and the Soviets controlling the east. A crisis arose regarding Berlin’s adoption of West Germany’s new monetary currency that would have threatened the Soviet dominance of the region.

On the day that the new Deutschmark was introduced, the Russians promptly cut off the electricity as well as all access to West Berlin by land and river to essentially starve the city into submission. Consequently, the Airlift—or “Operation Vittles” as it was also known—was authorized by President Truman to address the humanitarian crisis created by the Soviet blockade, which continued for a year and a half until May of 1949.

In The Big Lift, Montgomery Clift plays US Air Force Sergeant Danny MacCullough, a flight engineer assigned to the Airlift effort along with Master Sergeant Hank Kowalski, played by Paul Douglas. A former German Prisoner of War, Kowalski still has a big chip on his shoulder about the Germans, going out of his way to be insulting whenever he interacts with the local population. Danny on the other hand is itching to get off the base at Templehof Airport and explore more of the city, but the crew’s strict return flight schedule to Munich doesn’t provide the men with any leave time.

An unexpected opportunity to break out of the routine arrives for Danny and his crew when their plane becomes the 100,000th flight of the Airlift to bring coal, food, and other supplies into the city. A ceremony honoring Danny for his service is organized by the women of Berlin, represented by Frederica Burkhardt, played by Cornell Borchers. It isn’t long before Danny also finds himself falling in love with the young German widow. So when he is approached by an AP reporter to participate in a story about following a shipment of flour until it “winds up as a loaf of bread in some kid’s arms,” Danny sees his ticket back to Berlin with some free time for exploring, as well as a way to meet up again with Frederica. Yet not everything in war-ravaged Germany is as it seems, and Danny’s Berlin adventure doesn’t exactly go as he expects, revealing some of the harsher realities of post-war life.

With his striking good looks and understated yet soulful method acting technique, Montgomery Clift was one of the hottest young actors to emerge in post-war Hollywood. Making his movie debut in 1948, Clift was at the forefront of a new generation of actors, including James Dean and Marlon Brando, who would redefine movie acting in American films. Restless and often dissatisfied with his screen performances, Clift constantly resisted typecasting, and passed on an offer to star in Sunset Boulevard while he was in production with The Big Lift.

As clearly evidenced by the mountains of rubble in the background, location shooting in the complicated world of post-war Berlin was no easy matter, and the film began production just a few months after the end of the city’s Soviet blockade. The German actress and cabaret star Hildegard Knef was originally cast as Frederica, but when her relationship with the Nazi head of a German film studio came to light, her personal history was considered to be too much of a public relations liability, and she was hastily replaced by Cornell Borchers.

Clift also frequently clashed with director George Seaton, who became increasingly frustrated by the constant presence of Clift’s method acting coach Mira Rostova, and tried to ban her from the set. But Seaton was ultimately defeated by Clift’s insistence he would walk off the picture. After The Big Lift, Clift went on to triumph in A Place in the Sun, as well as star in the high profile From Here to Eternity. But his near fatal car accident in 1956 during production of Raintree County seriously damaged his matinee idol looks and his mental stability. Despite the efforts of his loyal friend Elizabeth Taylor, Clift’s career never regained the momentum of its original promise.


Jimmy’s Hall (2014)

This week’s indie is Jimmy’s Hall, a 2014 biographical drama directed by Ken Loach.

Jimmy’s Hall is based on the true story of Irish socialist leader Jimmy Gralton, and dramatizes how Gralton became the first and only native born Irishman to be deported from the country. The film opens in 1932 with Jimmy’s return to his home in County Leitrim, a rural region of hardscrabble farm country bordering Northern Ireland. Jimmy had left Ireland ten years earlier to live in New York City after the end of the Irish Civil War, but in the aftermath of his brother’s death has decided to come back to help his aging mother run the family farm.

Jimmy is also hoping that the fierce conflicts of the Civil War have cooled enough to allow him to lead a quiet life working the land. But there’s just too much unfinished business—both of the romantic and political variety—for that to ever be possible for Jimmy. Still smitten with his ex-girlfriend Oonagh, Jimmy discovers her now married with children to another man. Jimmy’s old enemies—the landed gentry and the Catholic Church—haven’t changed their minds about him, seeing his negative influence in everything from his views on land reform to education, to that scandalous new dance music from New York called jazz.

Celebrated for his reputation as a free spirit by a new generation of young people yearning to escape the status quo, Jimmy can’t resist their pleas to re-open the country dance hall—a kind of de facto education and cultural center that he ran before leaving for New York. Although it might seem innocent, the re-opening of “Jimmy’s Hall” reignites a decade’s old culture clash that inevitably forces Jimmy to make his unique ultimate sacrifice.

To describe a film as “Ken Loach-like” carries almost as precise a meaning as to describe something as “Hitchcockian.” With film and television credits dating back to the mid-60s, director Ken Loach has become identified with a kind of socially conscious, politically engaged cinema willing to confront complex issues without easy answers. Jimmy’s Hall can be seen as an unofficial coda to Loach’s earlier film The Wind That Shakes the Barley about the Irish Civil War, winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2006 Cannes Film Festival. In 2016, Loach took home his second Palme d’Or for his most recent feature film, I, Daniel Blake, which also was honored with a 2017 BAFTA Award as “Outstanding British Film.”



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