Saturday, August 13, 2016

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe, by Robert Matzen


“What is it you want, Hitler? What do you want? You want the moon? Just say the word and I'll throw a lasso around it and pull it down. Hey. That's a pretty good idea. I'll give you the moon, Hitler. ”

 (No one will get that.)

 

  I spent a lot of time with my grandparents as a kid, and so I grew up watching old movies. I was more familiar with depression-era  movies and movie stars than any ten-year-old should have been. My grandfather would tell me all about the stars of whatever movie we were watching at the time during the commercial breaks, so I knew that Jimmy Stewart had served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, but I always assumed that his service was one of those fake celebrity tours of duty, and that he was there more for publicity and to drum up war bonds sales than anything else.

 

 Boy, was I wrong.

 

 Not only did Stewart enlist, but he fought like a wildcat to be a combat pilot, despite the wishes of the Army and the movie studio moguls, who did everything that they could to keep him out of harm's way. 

 

  Author Robert Matzen has meticulously researched Stewart's time in the military, and his hard work and respect for his subject show on every page. Matzen details Stewart's early life and career (Who would have guessed that Stewart was such a famous ladies' man?) before segueing into his years in the military, where Stewart served bravely, and quickly rose up the ranks. Matzen does an admirable job of taking the reader along on the harrowing bombing raids that Stewart flew. (It's amazing that anyone lived through one of these bombing missions, let alone the staggering twenty-five that were necessary before being rotated out of combat.)

 

  Matzen follows Stewart through the end of the war and beyond, as he returns to Hollywood and attempts to revive his career in a Hollywood that seems to have moved past him. Stewart's stoic struggle with PTSD was particularly poignant, as was his lifelong refusal to discuss any aspects of his military service. Matzen really makes Stewart's personality come alive, showing his subject to be a perfect representation of "The greatest generation".

 

 If I had any problem with this book, it was with Matzen's frequent cutaways to chapters devoted to German General Adolf Galland, a fighter pilot who flew opposite Stewart, and Trudy McVicker (Formerly Gertrude Siepmann), who was a child in Germany during the war. I assume that Matzen added these chapters to get the perspective of the enemy and the wartime civilian, but since neither of them ever met Stewart, or crossed paths with him in any way, these chapters come across as, at best, filler, and, at worst, a meaningless distraction. Both Galland and McVicker seem to have led extraordinary lives, and I would happily read a book by Matzen about either one, but their stories seem out of place juxtaposed with Stewart's.

 

 That small quibble aside, I genuinely enjoyed this book, and heartily recommend it to military and films buffs alike.

 

 GoodKnight Books provided a review copy.