Monday, August 19, 2013

The Movies Expanded Our Horizons

Rialto Theater, Eldorado Arkansas.
Photo courtesy of Cinema Treasures.
Life in Southwest Arkansas during the 1940s and early 1950s was much more like that of the Nineteenth Century than what we are experiencing today. The majority of the population still lived in the country, even those whose fathers worked in the booming oil industry. Many farmers still plowed behind mules. The roads held a variety of old vehicles, many Ford Model A's and even a few Model T's. Electricity, natural gas, and indoor plumbing were luxuries reserved for those who lived within the limits of cities. Electronic entertainment was usually limited to a single radio powered by a rechargeable battery. I sometimes feel that my grandchildren find my tales of these “days of yore” hard to believe.

Life, however, followed simple rhythms that were centuries old. Daily life centered around hard daily work--but weekends brought a reprieve. Whole families packed into family cars for the weekly shopping trip to the small cities. Even on these outings, a regular routine prevailed. Parents not wanting to corral whiny children had a ready source of childcare—the local movie theater. Saturday offerings included double features, usually “shoot-em-up” westerns, separated by newsreels and serials like “The Perils of Pauline." The films ran continuously. Parents could just drop off their kids with a couple of dimes for admission and candy and leave them there indefinitely. When shopping was finished, the theaters let people go in free to retrieve their offspring. A stop at the local hamburger joint for supper capped the day.

Gradually, long exposure to motion pictures began to change our perception of the world around us. Not all of the movies were westerns. Pictures like Dragon Seed, Pearl S. Buck’s story of harsh Chinese life under Japan’s domination, opened our eyes to other cultures. Tarzan shows and movies like "King Solomon’s Mines" introduced us to Africa. Despite heavy propaganda, newsreels and war movies made us aware of the vast scope of military operations throughout the world. After the war, cinemas shot at exotic locations throughout the world further broadened our horizons. My initial interest in engineering was sparked by a John Wayne movie called "Tycoon," about construction of a railroad in South America.

During my adolescent years, I must have seen nearly every movie that screened in our hometown. For years, I carried an afternoon paper route. The best way to escape the heat of scorching South Arkansas summers was in an air-conditioned movie theater. Frequently viewing images of the world at large fueled a desire to experience a life outside the limits of small town America. By working hard and getting a college education, I was able to live that dream--two degrees in Civil Engineering opened the door, and a long career as an officer in the U.S. Navy took me to many parts of the world, fulfilling childhood dreams.

One of the pictures I saw late in World War II was "The Story of Dr. Wassell,"somewhat fictionalized Cecil B.DeMille epic about a U.S. Navy doctor’s heroism in saving a number of badly wounded sailors from capture by the Japanese. Gary Cooper played the hero. It never occurred to me at the time that, decades later, I would relate the true facts surrounding Dr. Wassell in one of my novels. When I decided to write a novel about the early months of the war in the western Pacific, I was not even thinking about the doctor’s story. I concentrated for months on the savage battles between the vastly outnumbered American and Dutch navies against the modern Imperial Japanese Navy. When I began plotting the final chapters, however, it became apparent that no book about the Dutch East Indies campaign would be complete without including the story of these survivors of U.S.S. Marblehead and U.S.S. Houston. I employed artistic license to place my fictional characters in the midst of this heroic tale. The result is my second novel, recently released for Kindle, Hold Back the Sun.

Just as I could never have anticipated how the technology of the movies would impact my own life so directly, I often wonder, with awe and curiosity, how lives so seemingly-saturated by technology and media today will affect the adult lives of my grandchildren.

Note: Warren Bell's newest novel, Hold Back the Sun, has been released for Kindle in advance of the printed book launch. This new historical-fiction thriller, set in the Pacific, follows the US Asiatic Fleet in their battle with the Japanese.  Warren Bell's debut novel, Fall Eagle One, detailing a fictitious but plausible assassination attempt on FDR during World War II, is available for Kindle or in paperback on

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