Drifting Cinema is an essay series about both underseen films and films that I generally love, or am critically stimulated by. These essays will vary in tone, structure, and purpose. The one constant will be cinema, itself.
“William Witney worked under the assumption that there has never been a scene ever written that couldn’t be improved by adding a fistfight.”- Burt Reynolds, on William Witney.
“We take the hill and then what? It’s gonna be a long war.”- Ken Lynch as “The Lieutenant” in Paratroop Command.
Part 1: Blocking
His death didn’t even make the 2003 Oscars In Memoriam segment. A titan’s flame blown out by time only for the candle to be left idle, unappreciated. Its wax hardened and the candle became just another thing on the shelf to be forgotten. William Witney’s flame should ignite a passion in the hearts of every young and upcoming filmmaker. His oeuvre should be studied, critiqued, and appreciated. But sometimes importance and visibility do not take a seat beside one another.
Born in Lawton, Oklahoma in 1915, Witney grew up close to both the military and the moving pictures—two things that would leave on him impressions that would last a lifetime. Making his way to Hollywood, William Witney hung around doing odd jobs at Mascot Pictures—a small studio known for b-movies and western serials that would later in 1936, alongside many other companies, be merged into the creation of Republic Pictures—while waiting for his Navy entrance exam. He failed the exam and ended up staying at the studio working in both the editing and sound departments. Time passed and eventually, he found himself in the director’s chair—The Painted Stallion (1937) being his first real directing gig (he had been an assistant and second unit director on various serials and films up to that point). His filmography, like many directors of the studio era, is vast. He worked and worked and worked.
William Witney helmed many westerns, thrillers, and war pictures/serials from the 1940s to the early 1970s. While many of his films have sadly been left unappreciated and forgotten to time, his touch on the celluloid image can be seen in most action films today—more on this later. It, in a way, is understandable why William Witney’s name and work have been more or less left in the rearview mirror, just out of sight. He never worked for the big studios, his budgets were always of the shoestring variety and Witney was not a man concerned with the talking and story aspects of his pictures. His films often showcased nothing but a skeleton of a narrative, but that does not matter. William Witney was concerned with action, with visual movement, and how that action can impact both the actors at play and the audiences who watched his movies.
William Witney’s cinematic impact is most felt in how he staged his action scenes. He was a man who believed good action could salvage any picture. In fact, he was often known to get bored during scenes that called for lots of dialogue and would often yell, “Cut!” only to then relay to his actors how they should just fight it out. A snide remark, a punch, and off they went. Rather than shooting action in one go, as was popular at the time, Witney chose to shoot fight sequences as a series of carefully choreographed shots. This technique is still used today. Witney is often credited as the creator of the modern cinematic fistfight. The technique was taken from musicals—Witney witnessed Busby Berkeley (an American musical choreographer/director best known for choreographing five musicals back-to-back for Warner Bros. during The Great Depression: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, and Fashions of 1934) choreographing his dance sequences using such a method. The rest is history. He served in World War II, was as an uncredited second unit director in Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964), directed multiple episodes of Bonanza (check out the episode titled “Tommy” for one of the most human episodes of television to be made in the serial era), and even taught film classes at The University of Portland later in his life.
Yet, it seems like history has forgotten William Witney—an important director who was never really given his well deserved time in the spotlight. Though his name has grown more recognizable over the years thanks to famous directors and actors, such as Quentin Tarantino and Burt Reynolds, who have spoken highly of the man and championed his work. I’m now going to do the same. Seek out the works of William Witney. Look past his films’ low budgets and blunt narratives and gaze wondrously at how he made his films look and feel like they are the only things that mattered—there is a blunt urgency to every picture he directed. He carried that bluntness throughout his whole life up until his death on March 17th, 2002.
Part 2: Rehearsing
Paratroop Command (1959) is a deceptively simple film, and it just so happens to be William Witney’s finest silver screen creation. It is one of the many World War II films of the post-war era that focuses on the steely faced American paratrooper heroes and the staccato language they spoke to the Nazis with their Thompson submachines guns, rapturous muzzle flashes and all. But where most war films of the period only speak to objective heroism—see the mindnumbing The Longest Day for a prime example of this—Paratroop Command complicates things, and at only 70 minutes it does so at a lean, deliberate pace. Charlie, played by Richard Bakalyan, is a soldier who earns the ire of his fellow paratroopers after accidentally killing one of his own men. The film starts in 1942 with the allied invasion of Africa. Charlie and his fellow paratroopers immediately drop into combat—German infantry, machine gun placements, and AA guns rain hell on the incoming allies. The dying starts before the men even land in the dirt, and the fighting and killing and anger and regret and sadness last through the end of the picture, as the allies make their way up, into, and across Italy. The narrative is hardly there and the plot consists of “just keep going and killing and dying” and it is through this bluntness of purpose and simplicity of design that sets Paratroop Command apart from the endless World War II films of its era. There is a stark realism to the picture that makes the movies around it look like the clean studio lot pictures that they are, hell, they all were. But it is in how Witney frames and uses his sets and landscapes that make the environments feel grounded and with purpose. It all looks the same but so what? War is hell, so let’s create hell in the endless, rocky desert.
It is also in how the narrative of Paratroop Command unfolds that makes the film feel rawer, more into the inferno of war rather than just an ember of the conflict leftover long after the battle has ended or moved elsewhere. Characters die and people move on. Rarely are deaths and violence drawn out for cinematic effect. The affecting nature of death is not how it is shown, but rather how it happens and that it happens at all. Men are killing one another. Nothing about that is cinematic and Witney chose to give everything about the film and its violence an uncomfortable matter of factness. The punctuality can still be felt today, especially in the film’s genuinely grueling final minutes.
Released through American International Pictures in 1959 as a double feature alongside Spencer Gordon Bennet’s Submarine Seahawk, Paratroop Command seemingly came and went. It did its theater and drive-in run and then functionally disappeared until it made its way to late night and morning television. Such was the case with so much cinema of that era. So much was being made—the bloat of Hollywood suffocated itself more often than not. But time passes and films resurface. The version of Paratroop Command that is available on DVD and most streaming platforms today does a brilliant service to the filmmaking craft of William Witney. The transfer is crisp and doesn’t obfuscate any of Witney’s immaculately helmed violence, and the black and white looks beautifully haunting. Faces are hollow and eyes say what the mouth and heart will not, or cannot. Paratroop Command is a film worth seeing and remembering. William Witney does a service to war and death—he portrays it as he probably saw it: abrupt, agonizing, and ultimately meaningless.
Part 3: Action!
William Witney does not draw out the violence in Paratroop Command and that is precisely what makes it so hard to stomach, even today. While the majority of the lean film consists of action and gunfire, the act of death is not as common as one might expect it to be given how loud the film is. Lots of time is spent with these troops as they drop from the sky, slink through cover as gunfire tears the air overhead, and crawl through a desert hellscape pockmarked with machine-gun emplacements that fire endlessly knowing that they’re bound to kill something eventually. Gunfire, explosions, and men planning out their next counterattack are drawn out. These are the moments between the agony and the dying. But when death does occur, it only ever does so abruptly and without pomp or circumstance. Bodies crumple as gunfire rips through them. Sometimes these dying figures yelp or scream out in the pain of their final moments, but they still die all the same—in the dirt, both good and evil. And they often die at a distance. Sometimes close-quarters combat is portrayed and it is never clean. These soldiers are scared and Witney lets his actors play into the fear of meeting an enemy up-close. Bodies slam into one another as if these two sides didn’t know what to do once they got within arms’ reach of one another. Fists fly, bodies tumble, and knives plunge. It is drawn out because it has to be.
The dying that comes by the way of gunfire and explosions are not drawn out because they shouldn’t be. Why play them up? Audiences can guess what happens when a bullet enters and exits through someone’s chest. They die, how slow they die does not matter, they die all the same. And there is no exclamation point in death. It is blunt, devoid of affect and effect, and William Witney lets the coupling of sound, blocking, and editing stage death in such a blunt, brutal way.
Enter the death cut.
The death cut is what I’ve come to call how Witney often portrays dying in this film, but the concept and execution of the concept are not new and/or exclusive to this film or my critical work, far from it, actually. In reality, it is just a simple cutaway as someone dies, but Witney does something a little different. He hangs onto the person who was shot just long enough for us to see them fall or scream or writhe in agony so that we know they are dead or in the process of dying, and then and only then does he cut away from it. It is in this voyeuristic lingering that the death cut becomes known. Editing is a venture into what it must feel like to manipulate time. It becomes porous and malleable. But to cut an image is to end time for that image or sequence. It existed but now it is no longer there—it is a memory that we have seen and that the characters in the film know, reference, experience, and hold onto. But what happens before and after a cut is the simple process of various endings and beginnings. A door closes on a room where someone is sleeping and the camera cuts to the next morning where that same person is drinking coffee at a cafe. There is a distinct ending and beginning in that tiny sequence. A day ends and then another one begins. Before and after. The same can be said about the death cut, but where the death cut differs is that the cut itself also marks the end of a life.
In Paratroop Command, a German soldier fires at an American soldier as the GI raises his Thompson submachine gun. The German’s bullets kick up the dirt around the GI, but it is the GI who lets loose a torrent of gunfire that actually hits its intended target. The German soldier, who is far off in the distance in a medium-wide shot, can be seen jerking and yelping. His body then matter of factly stills and falls to the dirt. The camera lingers for a moment and then the death cut erases the life from the soldier, as well as their existence from the earth. Their being and their history ends where the next shot begins. We know they are dead because we saw them get shot, but it is further punctuated by Witney using a death cut to functionally rip them from time itself. They were once there and now they are no more, and they never will be again. Like Tarkovsky, Witney “sculpts in time” but he does so with bodies. The cinema of William Witney is often a linear affair, time only flows forwards and his editing exemplifies that: simple, deliberate, and always to the service of getting from point A to B to C. Witney edits to plot and purpose, but he also edits to life and death. His cuts speak less to a before and an after, but rather to breathing and cold stillness, to killing or surviving, and to the act of being ripped from time or being on the living end of a death cut.
Few films use cinematic language to speak on death with such a blunt ferocity, and William Witney’s Paratroop Command is a lean, often unsettling treatise on how cinema does death, and its existence alone shows how cinema can do death in ways that no other art form can—the death cut speaks to how terrifying death is, not because of the pain that often comes alongside death, but from the simple fact that death is an ending. Our place in time ends and never starts again and our histories do not fade to black; we just cease to be.
“Good headlights on your car, because you come to work in the dark and go home in the dark, and a good bladder, because you don’t have time to go potty.”- William Witney, on what it takes to become a good director.