Yanks was a massive box office bomb in 1979, which could well account for the fact you may not have heard of it. John Schlesinger managed to capitalise on the success of his taut 1976 thriller Marathon Man (is it safe?) by convincing Universal to bankroll his passion project, a sweeping romantic love story set in the middle of World War Two amidst the phenomenon of American GI’s coming to England after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and charming the pants (quite literally) off the English roses. All this happened. So why did no one turn out for Yanks?
You wonder if this just arrived at the wrong time. Western audiences at the end of the 70’s were not particularly enthused by war, following the fustercluck that was Vietnam and the subsequent depression that followed the baby boomer 60’s revolution. Wars in space? Sure. Richard Gere as the dashing American falling in love with Lisa Eichhorn’s prim and proper Northern English lass? Not so much. Ten or twenty years earlier, or even maybe ten years later when war stories following pictures like Platoon or Full Metal Jacket (not that this is *anything* like them) were a little more cache. Who knows?
It could simply be the fact that Yanks ends up being rather average, despite the fact Schlesinger has clearly done his research. There is a visual authenticity to his picture which lends it some weight, given it was filmed in Lancashire and surrounds, allowing him to capture just how alien these swaggering Americans would have been on a landscape with no sense of immigration, living industrial lives with traditions going back centuries. If the script is often clumsy and ham fisted, Yanks does get across the cultural divide between two very different nations who might share a history but no longer share common ground.
The problem is that Gere and Eichhorn’s central romance is lifeless. The two have almost no chemistry and the latter’s acting ability is questionable to say the least; Jean is the core role in many respects, given Gere’s GI Matt upends the life of she and her traditional Northern family (although the casting of a very Welsh Rachel Roberts, in one of her last major roles before a tragic early death by suicide, raises an eyebrow). It is a complicated role Eichhorn simply lacks the chops to pull off and she hampers the fresh faced Gere, yet to hit his stride with the 1980’s pictures that would make him America’s number one cinematic sex symbol.
Yanks is also way too long, struggling to remain on track as it attempts to pack in various different wartime aspects it wants to comment on – racism within the GI’s for one thing, as a nightclub brawl between American soldiers angry at black soldiers dancing with white English woman. It just never quite all hangs together and primarily thanks to the fact you just don’t fully believe in the central romance. If only more time had been spent with Vanessa Redgrave’s upper class woman and William Devane’s Captain, which is the far more interesting dynamic.
Overall, it’s a nicely shot missed opportunity with strong, authentic production design – indeed the same could be said for this release from Eureka, which tags on an old studio interview with Schlesinger as a makeshift commentary (in fairness the fact he’s been dead for 15 years makes him contributing anything new a mite difficult), and otherwise beyond trailers includes a collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film, plus some rare archival imagery. Does it immerse you fully into how Yanks came to be? Not really.
There’s a stronger film lurking inside Yanks. It’s a shame it never emerged.
Yanks is now available on DVD/BluRay from Eureka Entertainment.