Last year I was watching the Movies For Men channel when I chanced upon an old black-and-white John Wayne film where, in the final scene, he drives a bulldozer over a cliff, along with a dozen or so exploding oil drums, and thus single-handedly defeats the Japanese army.
I smiled – I knew this film. When I was growing up, my dad and I watched what seemed like every war film ever made together. This one was called The Fighting Sea Bees. We lived in a two-bedroom bungalow in the suburban sprawl of Portsmouth – me, my older sister, mum and dad – and often after work you’d find my dad lying on the living room floor, head propped up, watching a war film, a Western or a silent comedy on BBC 2.
He took up quite a lot of the small-ish carpet – he was 6’2” tall with a strong swimmer’s build. After National Service in the RAF, he’d trained to be a teacher, and though he had a working-class background (he’d wash naked at the kitchen sink every night long after we had a shower installed), he dressed a bit like a WWII fighter pilot – big shock of black hair, a paisley silk scarf in open-neck shirt, and dark olive-green cardigan.
From about 1970, when I was four or five, to about 1978, when teenage behaviour started to take priority, I’d quietly sit myself on the floor beside him, gingerly laying my legs across his. You had to approach with care: he’d had a wartime naval upbringing, and on the few occasions his dad was home from sea, he’d beat seven shades of shit out of him. So my dad brooded, and had a terrible temper, he hated his job, but if you kept a low profile you’d generally be OK. And when he was in a good mood, clowning around, he had the ability to make you feel so special you’d get dizzy. “Gee, Paddy, look, John Wayne’s zapped the Japs!” he’d grin, getting you in a headlock.
Anyway, the night before last my other half was feeling unwell and went upstairs to bed. I flicked through the channels, and found the 1967 film The Night Of The Generals. It told the story of a Nazi general who murders women in Warsaw, Paris and Hamburg. Peter O’Toole is magnificent in the lead role, with a supporting cast including Omar Sharif, Donald Pleasence and Tom Courtenay. What was amazing about the film, besides the fact it was brilliantly written, acted and directed, was I’d NEVER seen it before.
It was way past midnight when the credits rolled, and the house was deadly quiet. I had an overwhelming impulse to talk to my dad about it, so I finished the dregs of the bottle of red wine in front of me and walked into the back room. I switched on the light, and there he was sitting at the end of the dining room table, as usual. His hair is now grey and thinning, and he looks a little gaunt, but he still has twinkling blue eyes, and long, elegant fingers, the nails filed square and their pink-ish moons perfect semi-circles.
I said, “You remember The Night Of The Generals?”
“Peter O’Toole? Great film.”
Dad recalled the scene at the end when O’Toole’s character is due to address a reunion of his old Panzer tank regiment in 1965. He told me that in the ’80s he and my mum went on a coach trip to Bavaria and stumbled across a bunch of old Nazis having a similar get-together. He got talking to them and then became embroiled in some kind of drunken altercation and was thrown out.
I laughed. He was looking pale and tired, so I switched off the light, went into the kitchen and poured myself a pre-bed whiskey, one of dad’s habits.
He’s been dead for almost 20 years now, of course, a botched heart operation, but we still love talking about those old war films.
Pat Gilbert is a writer and editor. Originally from Portsmouth, he now lives in Kent.