Original release: April 26th, 1950
Running time: 120 minutes
Writer and director: George Seaton
Cast: Montgomery Clift, Paul Douglas, Cornell Borchers, Bruni Löbel, O.E. Hasse
On June 24th, 1945, after the end of World War II, Germany was split into four zones of occupation. Its capital, Berlin, was also split into four zones. During this multinational occupation, the Soviet Union blocked the Western Allies’ railway, road and canal access to the sectors of Berlin under Allied control with the aim of forcing them to allow the Soviets to supply Berlin with food and fuel which would give them practical control over the entire city.
In response, the Western Allies organized the Berlin airlift to carry supplies to people in West Berlin. This period of time came to be known as the Berlin Blockade and it lasted for 318 days, ending on May 12th, 1949. The United States Air Force and the British Royal Air Force flew over 200,000 flights in one year, providing up to 4700 tons of daily necessities such as fuel and food to the Berliners.
The Big Lift, written and directed by George Seaton, was filmed on location in Berlin in 1949 and tells the story of two U.S. Air Force sergeants. As well as using newsreel footage of the actual airlift, the film also offers us a glimpse of post-war Berlin as it struggled to get back on its feet after the devastation brought to it by the war.
Montgomery Clift plays Tech Sgt. Danny MacCullough, a flight engineer for the C-54 Skymasters. He’s ordered to fly with his crew from Frankfurt to Tempelhof Airport in Berlin to deliver coal. When the crew become the 100,000th flight of “Operation Vittles” Danny meets Frederica Burkhardt (Cornell Borchers), a war widow chosen to thank him on behalf of the women of Berlin.
Later on Frederica takes him on a tour of the city and he sees the hardships of the people there and the ruins the war left. While he’s handing out cigarettes, a worker accidentally spills poster paint on his uniform and Frederica takes him home to get him some civilian clothes to wear before make their way to a club for some drinks. It’s there he bumps into his friend, Master Sgt. Hank Kowalski (Paul Douglas), a former POW during World War II who resents Germans.
When Hank spots the guard who tortured him as a POW, he follows him and almost beats him to death, but Danny intercepts. Unfortunately, due to him wearing civilian clothes Danny’s mistaken for a German attacking an American solder and he’s chased into the Russian sector. Though he manages to make it back out, it’s a close call, making him realise even more how much he wants to get back to America.
In the time he’s in Berlin, Danny manages to fall in love with Frederica and hopes to marry her and take her back to America with him. The widow’s been through quite a lot with her husband having died during the war and her father presumed to have been killed when he was taken away for trying to stop the book burnings. However, she might not be all she seems and Hanks isn’t the only one who suspicions about the widow’s true intentions with Danny.
Frederica’s neighbour, Herr Stieber (O.E. Hasse), who openly works as a Russian spy, also suspects something’s out of place about her and he sneaks a peek at one of her letters thus finding out the truth. Meanwhile Hank comes to realise he’s been something of a hypocrite with his attitudes toward the Germans and there are some fun and thoughtful moments when he tries to explain to his girlfriend Gerda (Bruni Löbel) what democracy is.
As a Montgomery Clift film, The Big Lift isn’t quite up there with his other classics such as The Search (1948), Red River (1948), A Place In The Sun (1951) or From Here To Eternity (1953). Its narrative structure is choppy in places and the love story and revelation of betrayal didn’t leave me with the feeling of having witnessed a great drama. The strength of the film lies more in its historical backdrop, told in between the time of World War II and the forming of the GDR.
Though it doesn’t offer its star a chance to shine as he does in those aforementioned film, The Big Lift remains a film that should be seen by anyone who’s a Montgomery Clift fan or has an interest in post-war Berlin.
The founder of Static Mass Emporium and one of its Editors in Chief is a composer and music producer with a philosophy degree. Static Mass is where he lives his passion for film and writing about it. A fan of film classics, documentaries and World Cinema, Patrick prefers films with an impeccable way of storytelling that reflect on the human condition.
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