This past week, I read the statement issued by the Ukrainian Library Association, available here online, and was undone by the simple acts of bravery shown by these librarians literally on the front lines of the conflict in and around Kiev. What really brought tears to my eyes was the news that the Maidan civil movement opened a free public library at Maidan, with the goal of donating all the collected books to village libraries across Ukraine. In the midst of everything, the spirit of community and sharing of news, resources, and information remains. It is inspiring, and I encourage all to read the ULA statement.
And that got me thinking … there are other tales of such bravery of hometown heroes, librarians amongst them, in real-life conflicts, as exemplified recently in the Ukraine. Oh, and read the children’s book The Librarian of Basra: A True Story from Iraq, if you haven’t already. Real-life inspiration, y’all.
But what about in movies? In the midst of war and conflict, how are reel librarians represented? Below is a round-up of reel librarian portrayals in war films. Going through my Master List, I compiled film titles and realized there are three main war eras represented, including World War II, the Cold War, and Futuristic Wars.
World War II
Borstal Boy (2000)
This first film on the list kicks off a theme in these war films, that most of them are focused on events taking place off the battlefield. This WWII film is based upon the autobiography of (in)famous Irish writer and activist Brendan Behan, and focuses on his time in a borstal, a kind of youth prison/labor camp in the UK.
A prison librarian (Arthur Riordan) shows up periodically throughout the film — including one time in drag during a play — and introduces Brendan to the works of Oscar Wilde, a “fellow Irishman, a fellow jailbird and rebel.” Interesting that he likens himself to a rebel, and ultimately he is an inspirational one to Brendan.
Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)
In this 1939 WWII propaganda film, a G-Man (Edward G. Robinson) investigates a Nazi spy ring in the U.S. It was a controversial film, as it was the first major Hollywood production to have “Nazi” in the title, while also promoting American participation in World War II.
Alas, there isn’t much scope for a reel librarian in this film. In a very brief scene about seven minutes into the film, one of the Nazi spies, Schneider (Francis Lederer), goes to the New York Public Library. We get a brief side glimpse of a young male librarian at a reference desk, who points Schneider toward the periodicals room, where he proceeds to read a German newspaper. So instead of a reel librarian hero during the “war on the homefront,” we get a reel librarian who unknowingly helps a Nazi spy.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
Another war-time film that is set at the homefront, namely of the experiences of George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart. Because of an ear injury sustained at an early age, he cannot enlist — unlike his brother, who becomes s decorated hero — but that doesn’t stop George from doing all he can at home for the war effort.
When George falls on hard times and is granted the wish to experience life as if he’d never been born, the film turns in an alternate reality nightmare. In that nightmare, his lovely wife, Mary (Donna Reed), becomes an old maid librarian. (SIGH.) The short scene in which George sees Mary as a librarian serves as the catalyst for wanting to return to his life.
The Man Who Never Was (1956)
Based on a true story of a successful WWII British tactic to divert the enemy’s forces in Sicily. A British intelligence team uses a dead man as a decoy — hence the title of the film — complete with faked documents that suggest an alternate British attack. Gloria Grahame plays Lucy Sherwood, a librarian who helps convince the enemy that the man’s identity is real. A low-key kind of heroine, to be sure, but one who plays a vital role in a real-life spy operation.
Sophie’s Choice (1982)
A majority of this drama is set in the aftermath of WWII, but the choice referred to in the title is one Sophie makes during the war. The film is told from the perspective of a Southern writer (Peter MacNicol) who moves to New York City, where he meets Sophie (Streep), a Holocaust survivor with a troubling past.
In a flashback scene, Sophie goes to a library to look up works by Emily Dickinson; she faints after an unpleasant exchange with the librarian. A hero this reel librarian is most certainly NOT; rather, he makes for one of the most unpleasant reel librarian portrayals ever onscreen.
The Cold War
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
Based on the John le Carré novel, this Cold War classic stars Richard Burton as Alec Leamus, a British spy who pretends to quit the Secret Service and defect to the Communists. As part of his cover as a failed spy, he starts work as a librarian at the Institute of Psychical Research. (OF COURSE.) Another librarian, Nan (Bloom), befriends him and joins in his defection.
I like to think of Alec Leamus — who is very much on the front lines of the Cold War — as the ultimate anti-hero. He is a fake librarian who ends up inspiring other reel librarians. Also, Burton is a rare reel librarian Oscar nominee, earning a nomination for Best Actor for this film.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)
Another adaptation of a work by John le Carré, this time of his 1974 novel of the same name and remake of the 1979 British miniseries starring Alec Guinness. In this version, Gary Oldman stars as George Smiley, the aging agent forced out of MI6 but called back in to investigate a mole, and he is fascinating to watch even when he doesn’t appear to be doing anything onscreen.
Smiley recruits agent Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch), and one mission has Peter off to the lion’s den — ahem, the library archives — where he heads off the attention of a female librarian (Laura Carmichael, who plays Edith on Downton Abbey). He also retrieves some vital records while wandering unsupervised in the library’s closed stacks. How very lax of those reel librarians.
Old Gringo (1989)
A schoolteacher (Jane Fonda) goes to Mexico in 1913 to teach and gets kidnapped by General Arroyo (Jimmy Smits) and his revolutionaries during the Mexican Revolution.
Although referred to as a spinster by her own mother, Fonda is not the reel librarian in this film. That (dis)honor belongs to Laurel Lyle, who gets shushed by Fonda in the film’s opening scene.
Fahrenheit 451 (1966)
In a dystopian film based on the classic Ray Bradbury novel, a fireman whose job is to destroy all books begins to question his so-called duty. No librarians — who probably were the first to go in this futuristic state — but the central message of censorship is close to all librarians’ hearts. Guy Montag (played by Oskar Werner) is another classic anti-hero, a fireman who creates fires instead of putting them out, who has to decide for himself what the true cost is for sacrificing the freedom to read.
The Handmaid’s Tale (1990)
In this dystopian tale, fertility is rare; fertile young women, trained as Handmaids, are treated as slaves in assigned households. Natasha Richardson plays a Handmaid, and we learn in one scene that she used to be a librarian.
There are no scenes of the battles raging on the outskirts of the central town setting, but it is obvious they are living in a military-controlled state. Kate/Offred (Richardson) is a Handmaid to a high-ranking military official (Robert Duvall). Although her profession really does not make a difference in this Class II film, she is intelligent and harbors an independent spirit.
Library Wars (2013)
This futuristic film — set in the not-too-distant future of 2019 — is based on a series of Japanese novels called Toshokan Sensō by Hiro Arikawa, published in 2006-2007. These novels have inspired a manga, an anime TV series plus an animated feature released last year.
This write-up on IMDb.com does make it sound like a more modern Fahrenheit 451. Librarians as the ultimate freedom fighters!
The War of the Worlds (1953)
Martians invade Earth in this sci-fi classic! Sylvia Van Buren (Ann Robinson), who teaches library science courses, teams up with the hero-scientist (Gene Barry) in order to defeat the aliens. It sounds very exciting, but onscreen, she doesn’t get the opportunity to do much more than scream.
I’m sure I’ve missed a few titles in this round-up. Any war movie titles to add? Please leave a comment and let me know.