‘A Testament To Freedom’
Glenn Marcus grew up in the flickering light of the old-style movie house, not today’s corporate multiplex cinemas. The smell of mustiness and popcorn still takes him back to the Hollywood Theatre in Arbutus, which his grandfather owned and ran as a mom-and-pop business: his aunt sold concessions, his dad helped out with the books on the weekends, and his grandmother routed out anybody who got too comfortable or couples who were too close for comfort.
Little wonder then that today Marcus, who spent a dozen years at PBS, is a documentarian with an Emmy Award-winning film to his credit and a partner in a small film production company that researches and produces primarily historical documentaries. The Baltimore native grew up in Fallstaff and Mount Washington and celebrated his bar mitzvah at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; later, he was youth director at Washington Hebrew.
His history of the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., marked the 10-year anniversary of its unveiling with a showing last Friday on Maryland Public Television (Channel 22). While Marcus and his partner, filmmaker Robert Uth, often focus on historical topics, including Emmy-winning “Korean War Stories” and “Tesla, Master of Lighting,” which both ran on PBS, “The World War II Memorial: A Testament to Freedom” holds particular personal meaning for Marcus.
The one-hour film tells the tale of the conception, design and construction of the memorial interwoven with a brief overview of the war’s history. Marcus’s father and uncle were WWII veterans, members of that “greatest generation,” as Tom Brokow so succinctly named the men and women raised during the Depression who went to war between 1940 and 1945. His father, Sydney Marcus, was part of the operation that landed at Normandy Beach; his father’s brother, Milton, never came home. Milton Marcus is buried overseas at Lorraine American Cemetery in France, one of 22 U.S. military cemeteries located overseas.
Marcus appears at his uncle’s graveside in another Marcus/Uth film, New Voyage’s 2009 “Hallowed Grounds: America’s Overseas Military Cemeteries,” which featured all 22 memorial burial grounds across Western and Eastern Europe and in the Philippines and Japan. While director Uth is not Jewish, Marcus noted that whenever a wide-angle shot of the vast cemetery graves was called for, a Jewish grave indicated by a Star of David was captured amid all the crosses.
Marcus’s on-film appearance in “Hallowed Grounds” was, he said, spur of the moment, but one of his life’s most moving experiences. Asked what he knew about his uncle, Marcus replied, “I only knew he died in the war and was buried in France. I can barely even talk about it now, but it was so profound.” His father wouldn’t — or couldn’t — talk about his late brother. It was that way with that generation, Marcus said: “That was classic, that generation and the way men were about not sharing feelings. [The war] was a nightmare they didn’t want to relive. If you’d been in combat, you could never really explain it to someone who hasn’t been there. When those guys came home they wanted to get on with their lives.” He believes that when he was filmed at his uncle’s grave that was the first time a mourner’s kaddish was said over an American soldier’s grave on foreign soil.
What the older generation wanted to forget, their children choose to remember. For Marcus that means commemoration and preservation, and what better way to do that than by telling the story and recapping the history of World War II and the memorial on film. Judaism, in particular, values and upholds memorializing as an integral aspect of individual and communal observances.
“My father was very reluctant to talk about his war-time experiences,” Marcus said. “I knew not to ask. It was just hush, hush because of Uncle Milton’s death.” Delving into the controversies and history of what it took to design and construct the World War II Memorial was a way to both assuage some of the guilt he assimilated from his father and to heal some of his pain on never having met his uncle.
Marcus, who lives in northwest Washington and teaches film history for the Johns Hopkins University Advanced Academic Programs in Washington, is pleased that PBS is re-screening the documentary because it featurs some heavy hitters, including Paul Tibbets, who dropped the atom bomb over Japan. “He didn’t talk very often,” Marcus explained, “and he only agreed to this interview because his veterans’ organizations vouched for us.” Other well-known veterans who appear in interviews include actors James Arness and Tony Curtis, former Sens. Bob Dole, Daniel Inouye and George McGovern, baseball star Yogi Berra and John Eisenhower, son of Dwight D. Eisenhower.
These days Marcus and Uth are at work on another war documentary, this one telling the story in words, pictures and film of World War I, which has never been done on screen from an American point of view, Marcus said.
On the nation’s 10th anniversary of the World War II memorial and the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landing, Marcus is pleased that Americans still have the capacity to remember these events. The memorial with its carved bronze depictions of different wartime fronts and branches of the armed services is viewed intently by aging veterans who visit. The memorial, Marcus said, works best as a place both of commemoration and of public forum, where later generations can learn from the memorial itself and from its visitors, that great generation that fought battles abroad and on the home front. “We, of course, have a long tradition of controversial memorials in the U.S.,” Marcus said. “But the real question is who is the memorial for and what will it be like in 50 years.”