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By the end of the 1940s, Montgomery Clift, then just reaching 30 and with only three feature films under his belt, was the hottest young actor in Hollywood. The impact he made in Red River (1948) and The Heiress (1949) had producers clamoring for him to star in their next productions, and he was first in line for the lead in Billy Wilder's gothic melodrama about the movie world, Sunset Boulevard (1950). While he mulled over that offer, he took the lead in the postwar drama The Big Lift (1950) which focused on a significant event in history, the Berlin Airlift, considered to be the first "battle" of the Cold War and one of the largest mobilizations for humanitarian relief up to that time.
At the end of World War II, a defeated Germany found itself divided among the four major occupying nations: the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Berlin, the capital, was also divided into four districts but was about 100 miles inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany, connected to the West by only one highway and rail line. Tensions grew between the USSR and the other three nations, particularly the U.S., which had emerged from the war as the major world power and a threat to Soviet dominance in Europe. Conflict came to a head over a plan by Western powers to introduce a new Deutschmark into the currency system, over Soviet objections. On June 23, 1948, the day the new mark hit the streets, the Soviets cut electric power to West Berlin and the following day stopped all land and water access to the capital, initiating a complete blockade meant to starve the city into submission. After much maneuvering in Washington by American Forces Commander Lucius Clay, President Harry Truman gave the go-ahead--against the judgment of his military advisers--to step up efforts to bring food and other supplies to Berlin by air. By August, the airlift was fully operational, with more than 4,500 tons of rations and coal for energy being brought into the city.
Bringing these events to the screen was not without its difficulties. Even though the airlift had been successful and West Berlin's security and survival assured, it hadn't been that long after the actual incident for tensions to cool off between East and West. Complicating it further was the fact that it had only been a few years since the war and resentment toward Germany was still very much alive. Director George Seaton certainly seemed an unlikely candidate for successfully bringing such a touchy and complex story to the screen. His most prominent film efforts to this point had been the Betty Grable musicals Diamond Horseshoe (1945) and The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1947) and the holiday fantasy Miracle on 34th Street (1947), which earned him a Best Screenplay Academy Award. But Seaton was determined and came up with a way to play out many of the issues on a character level by having Clift's Sgt. Danny MacCullough fall for a local girl and get a taste of what life was like for ordinary Germans at the time. He also created a character (played by Paul Douglas), a former POW who still harbored much anger and hatred toward the Germans.
Seaton came up with an engaging way to introduce the situation right at the film's opening, shifting from historical facts to the fictional narrative without missing a beat. The first thing we see is newsreel footage about the blockade; the camera cuts back to a wide shot revealing the newsreel playing on screen for a group of GIs stationed in Hawaii. The screening is interrupted by the news that they are about to ship out quite suddenly; before we know it, we're at Berlin's Templehof airport and in the thick of the conflict just minutes into the picture.
As expected, the production was rife with challenges and problems. The picture was made on location in occupied Germany, as a title added to the opening of the film explained: "All scenes were photographed in the exact locale associated with the story, including episodes in the American, French, British and Russian sectors of Berlin." The production was based at Berlin's Ufa Studio, which supplied the sound crew, camera assistants, makeup artists, and assistant director. According to cinematographer Charles G. Clarke, "One of the inducements for making The Big Lift in Germany was that it afforded [the] opportunity for our studio to utilize some of its 'frozen' funds in that country--money that had been earned there by other 20th Century-Fox releases." But shooting in a country ravaged by war and then embroiled in a new international conflict was not always a pleasant experience.
Seaton detailed some of the problems in an article he wrote for the New York Times: "The Soviets promised cooperation on the condition we inform them well in advance as to what, where, when and how we planned to shoot. We supplied the information to their satisfaction and a few weeks later made our way through the Brandenburg Gate. Our location, just inside the Gate, was deserted. While shooting in the other sectors, we had been given soldiers or district police to handle traffic and the inevitable crowd that likes to watch a picture company at work. Here there was no one. We controlled the spectators who quickly gathered as best we could and began rehearsing. Then, just as we were about to turn the camera, a radio blared forth. Looking up, we saw, directly over our heads, a newly erected loud-speaker through which was coming the voice of a news commentator revealing 'the miserable poverty which existed the world over except in Russia, certain neighboring countries and the East Zone of Germany.' We waited and waited, but the voice droned on. There was nothing to do but to shoot the scene silently and add the dialogue sound track later."
In his article about the movie in American Cinematographer, Clarke talked about further struggles. "As the script required that many of the scenes be played in heavily overcast weather, to point up the difficulty with which the airlift was carried on, we shot many of the scenes in stormy weather.... Those who have seen the picture remark about the very effective aerial shots. These may be attributed to the fact that we used a C82 'Flying Boxcar' for our camera ship. The construction of this famous Fairchild plane is such that the rear of the fuselage may be removed, permitting a clear, unobstructed view and allowing panorama shots up to 170 degrees."
On top of the political and logistical issues, the production was also under the gun for swift completion of scenes involving both Montgomery Clift and German actress Cornell Borchers, playing his romantic interest, as each had other pressing film commitments. (During production Clift refused an offer to star in Sunset Blvd and was set to move on to A Place in the Sun, 1951).
Clift's schedule proved to be the least of the problems he posed for The Big Lift. Coming from the New York stage and preferring his life there to the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, the young actor had already made enemies in the film industry over what many considered his smug attitude and difficult on-set behavior. Co-star Paul Douglas arrived on location already prepared for problems; Clift's Red River co-star John Wayne had warned him "this kid's a little sh*t." During filming of their first scenes together, Douglas noticed how Clift would lean into a two shot so far that he almost squeezed him out of the frame. Finally, the older actor stomped hard on Clift's foot, causing him to cry out in pain. "You do that again and I'll break your f***ing foot," Douglas threatened. Clift never did it again, but the two didn't speak for the remainder of the production.
Clift also alienated director George Seaton over his insistence that his friend and drama coach, Mira Rostova, be on set at all times. After every take, Clift would look to her for either her approval or a negative reaction to determine whether he should do another take, whether Seaton deemed it necessary or not. After many such takes and re-takes in scene after scene, Seaton had his wife help him with a ruse to get Rostova off the set during a major scene shot at the airport. Once the two women had left the area, Seaton rolled the cameras, infuriating his young star. From that point on, Clift refused to let her out of his sight. They continued to confer after every take and whispered to each other during rushes. Then Clift would argue with Seaton over which take he thought should be used. Finally, the exasperated cinematographer told Seaton, "That woman is directing your picture." The remark pushed Seaton to order Rostova off the picture completely, but when Clift threatened to leave the production if she did, Seaton had to give in.
Although he never had a good word to say about Clift personally, Seaton begrudgingly admitted he gave a top-notch performance. Reviewers agreed and also singled out Douglas for his work. (The two were the only professional actors playing military men in the film; all the others were actual soldiers and airmen.) In his review dated April 27, 1950, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called Cornell Borchers "magnetic and possessed as the girl who takes advantage of romance to accomplish her own selfish ends." And Variety singled out Seaton for "masterful scripting."
The film's working titles were "The Quartered City" and "Two Corridors East." In December 1949, after location work had been completed, additional filming was done at Lockheed Aircraft in Burbank, CA. A radio dramatization of the story starring Paul Douglas in his original role was broadcast on the Screen Directors' Playhouse program on January 18, 1951 under Seaton's direction. Edmond O'Brien played the role created by Clift.
The Big Lift was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Film Promoting International Understanding. The prize went to Broken Arrow (1950), a Western in which James Stewart tries to make peace between settlers and Apaches led by Cochise.
Director, Screenplay: George Seaton
Producer: William Perlberg
Cinematography: Charles G. Clarke
Editing: William Reynolds, Robert Simpson
Art Direction: Russell Spencer, Lyle Wheeler
Original Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Montgomery Clift (Sgt. Danny MacCullough), Paul Douglas (Msgt. Henry Kowalski), Cornell Borchers (Frederica Burkhardt), Bruni Lobel (Gerda), O.E. Hasse (Stieber).
by Rob Nixon