After the success of Marathon Man (1976), John Schlesinger chose to direct WWII drama Yanks (1979), which eschewed large-scale battle scenes, and instead centred on disparate lives away from the front line. Working from a screenplay by Colin Welland - who would later scoop an Oscar for Chariots of Fire (1980), the film explores the impacts on a small Northern town when a large platoon of American G.I.s descends upon them and sets up camp in the build-up to D-Day in 1944.
The G.I.s soon become acquainted with a very British way of life: copious cups of tea, fish and chips, blackout restrictions and rambunctious sing-alongs at the local flicks. Their brazen behaviour on the other hand, often targeting lonesome female townsfolk whose partners are away at war, soon builds resentment in the community. As one resident observes with disdain, “They act like they own the place”. On the evidence here, no wonder “Overpaid, oversexed and over here” became such a common turn of phrase during that period.
The film focusses on three soldiers and their romantic entanglements with local women of differing backgrounds. When thoughtful young Sergeant Matt Dyson (Richard Gere) sets eyes on soft-spoken working-class Jean Moreton (Lisa Eichhorn) he’s immediately smitten. Their deepening friendship is frowned upon by Jean’s parents though, who run a small shop in which she too works. They are mindful that their daughter has plans to marry childhood sweetheart Ray (Casualty’s Derek Thompson) when he returns home from the war, fearing Matt’s intrusion will jeopardise everything. As Jean’s father (an earnest Tony Melody) so eloquently advises, “You can’t ride two horses with one arse”. Although she is initially cautious of falling for his gentle charms, love-struck Dyson is not going to give up easily – and the ambitious mess-hall chef hopes to win her family over too with some nifty baking.
This marked an early role for Gere, before he struck box office gold three years later with An Officer and a Gentleman. Yanks is undeniably not among the actor’s best work, or top Gere if you will, but he still exhibits enough charisma to carry the film. More importantly there’s definite chemistry between him and Eichhorn, one of his lesser known leading ladies. The actress gives a great performance here, and I recall her being equally impressive opposite Jeff Bridges and the late John Heard in Ivan Passer’s intriguing yet underrated Cutter's Way (1981). Her character here may at first come across as reticent, grappling with emotional conflict, but later proves to be no pushover. She has a wonderful scene during a New Year’s Eve bash, where racial tensions suddenly boil over between the G.I.s, prompting Jean to make a stand and defiantly dance with one of the black soldiers, encouraging her other white friends to do likewise. If only Yanks had more moments like this, as elsewhere it often lacks the intended emotional power. This is surprising given Schlesinger’s proven track record for making solid character driven dramas, including A Kind of Loving (1962) and Billy Liar (1963).
A second – and less engrossing - storyline follows Captain John (William Devane) as he pays regular visits to wealthy socialite Helen (Vanessa Redgrave) at her exceptionally large mansion. She helps tirelessly with the Red Cross effort and even plays in a local orchestra, while trying to console her distraught son who’s being bullied at boarding school. During this difficult time, she confides in John and, despite her better judgement, embarks on an affair whilst her husband is away. Cue lots of longing looks from Redgrave and Devane continually flashing that trademark toothy grin, as their characters soon take to the sky in a bomber plane for a romantic trip to Ireland. Given the least screen time is a third courtship between wannabe Prize fighter Sgt. Danny Ruffelo (Chick Vennera) and vivacious Molly (Wendy Morgan), whose paths first cross on a packed bus.
With its sumptuous production design - by BAFTA nominated Brian Morris, the film manages to create a lovingly authentic feel for the period, accompanied by Richard Rodney Bennett’s evocative score. There are plenty of nice details, such as a scene showing how strict rationing forces the residents to queue expectantly at the Moreton’s greengrocer shop for a fresh delivery of food. The script is not without cheeky humour, sometimes emanating from the kids who devise ways of making money from their newfound visitors or who just hang around in the hope for some parting treats. Despite a cast comprising many familiar faces from both sides of the Atlantic, including veteran Joan Hickson and John Ratzenberger among others, the film just never quite takes off as it should. It’s further marred by a lumbering running time of 138 minutes, which was reduced from the director’s first cut of nearly three hours. Despite all this, I still found much to enjoy, but was left with a feeling that with slightly more work on the script and further trimming back in the editing suite, Yanks could have been so much more.
Eureka! have released Yanks in a dual-format edition, marking the first time it has been available on Blu-ray in the UK. In fact, you would struggle to find it on BD anywhere else in the world. The new HD transfer, preserving an aspect ratio of 1.85:1, looks solid without any signs of damage. Audio is the original mono, which does a fine job, ensuring dialogue is crisp and clear throughout. No imperfections were observed. English subtitles have been included. The film carries a 15 rating, which it has had since first released on video in the late 1980s.
It’s a shame that there are no recent interviews with any of the cast, particularly Eichhorn who went on to have a varied career in both film and television – she appeared only a couple of years ago at Frightfest in London promoting horror film Offensive. It would have been interesting to have had some deleted scenes too, just to see what was taken out prior to the film's theatrical release.
The main extra on the disc is an archival interview with director Schlesinger, who discusses his earlier career. This audio track can be played over the film for the entire duration.
As well as an original theatrical trailer, there is a collector’s booklet featuring new writing alongside some rare archival imagery (not available for review).
Yanks is released by Eureka! on 3rd December 2018.