Tuesday, November 27, 2012

HARRY LIME : from war hero to infamous cinematic villain

Just one of HARRY LIME's "dots"
(See note below added, Dec 4 2012)

It is easy to imagine our Harry (Lime) in July 1943, just back from Hamburg as an Allied bomber pilot dropping fire bombs on Axis children, mere "dots", thousands of feet below him : a war hero, in other words.

Just as easy as imagining our Harry in 1949 Vienna, still a member of an Allied nation and still killing Axis children, only this time with watered-down penicillin.

But something has clearly changed : because now he is regarded as a a villain, in fact one of cinema's all time worst villains.

The difference, I argue, is all down to the fact that Dr Martin Henry Dawson's foolish 1940 war aim had , by 1949, become our war aim too.

In September 1940, Dawson felt that the best way for 'the coalition of the willing few' to win over the hearts and minds of the neutral vast majority of the world's nations into joining in to defeat the Nazis ,was by treating the 'least of these' , those 'useless feeders' the Nazis were so busily killing off in Aktion T4 , with all dignity and worthiness we would want for ourselves.

The flux of Dawson's "parable of action" was to be his own "imperfect but good enough" penicillin.

But instead penicillin had started off,  in the American version of WWII  at least, as something to be heavily censored and something (once leisurely polished by the medical world to a state of 110% perfection) to be reserved only for the blue-eyed and blond A1s of the armed forces.

Used as a "weapon of war" as the NAS (America's science elite) described it.

So penicillin was to be reserved for the young men overseas who had cheated on their girlfriends back home and got a dose of the non-fatal clap ( which had a variety of cures - some taking much longer than others).

Many men in the American combat arms, because of that nation's cruel policy of non-rotation of front line units, had deliberately contracted the clap while on leave, hoping to avoid the meat-grinder of un-ending combat service by a month or two of 'taking the cure'.

And who can blame them ?

Blame instead those rear echelon males who advocated penicillin for combat clap cases:
'Better they get scarce penicillin and hence a quick cure and quickly back into the deathtrap of the front lines than my number get called up  and I end up there,'

was the self-centred attitude of the non-combat majority of Allied males.

Meanwhile, back home, the girlfriends of the boys overseas, faithful onto death, were themselves dying of disease like SBE that were invariably fatal.

And there was only one possible cure : penicillin.

Dawson wanted the government, right from the beginning, to make  his 'good-enough' penicillin a national priority, so there was no false dichotomy between saving civilians versus saving soldiers.

He felt the penicillin scarcity was artificial ---- and deliberate , a pushback at ideas of Social Medicine (the idea that all, poor or rich, had an absolute right of access to life-saving treatment).

The whine of 21st century Republican complaints against Obama medicare,  in old 1940s bottles.

Because SBE like its cause, Rheumatic Fever, was both a progressive re-occurring disease and a disease of the poor, few in the medical elite saw much economic return in saving the SBE's lives.

The disease would only come back and curing it again would consume yet more resources, while even the 'healthy' SBEs, because of their weak heart valves, were often too weak to do hard physical work ---- and too ill-educated to be worth much when they did work.

Best deny them penicillin ( by claiming the disease could not be cured) and let them die.

But Dawson said any nation, in the midst of an all-out Total War,  seen as willing to save even 'useless feeder' SBEs (the 4Fs of the 4Fs) sent a powerful message to all the rest of the world.

It reassured them that all of humanity - even the weakest and the most 'useless'  - would be treated fairly and kindly, under an Allied world.

In late 1943, the Allies started to slowly come around to Dawson's idea as they stopped censoring penicillin stories and started instead to turn it into an item of radio and leaflet propaganda , a symbol of better things to come for all, if only all the world joined the Allies and defeated the Nazis.

To make this promise tangible, they started sending still-scarce penicillin, in widely publicized flights, to dying children in neutral nations, to prove they meant what they claimed.

Monstrances of Hope : Monstrances of Slime

Penicillin, the foul byproduct of basement slime had been converted into the symbol of Goodness, those tiny vials of life-giving yellow held aloft like monstrances of hope.

For Harry then to seize and pervert this heavenly symbol of life for heartless profit, while children - even children of the hated Axis - died horrible deaths, was  now regarded as unspeakably evil - seen almost literally as the work of The Devil himself....

Dec 4th 2012 : I have just read Philip Kerr's essay "Seeing Greene" , partly of the print booklet in the Criterion Collection re-issue of The Third Man on DVD, which makes pretty much the same points as I have about Harry Lime's post war behavior to Axis kids and bomber pilots behavior towards them, from 10,000 feet up, during the war.....

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