The Big Lift

This 1950 docudrama stars four-time Academy Award nominee Montgomery Clift and veteran character actor Paul Douglas as U.S. Airmen participating in the Berlin Airlift. To consolidate their control over the Occupied City of Berlin, the Russians closed off all land access to the city in 1948. With no access to food, fuel or other necessities, the city was on the verge of collapse. The U.S. responded by airlifting food and fuel into the city to keep the people of Berlin alive.

This movie was shot on location in 1949 in “Occupied Germany,” the same year the airlift ended, and featured extensive scenes of devastation. The film explores several factors immediately facing post-war Europe. When watching this movie, remember it was produced at a time when, to quote Winston Churchill, “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”

While the movie focuses on the airlift and its challenges, there are several sub-plots simultaneously unfolding.

Clift falls for and proposes marriage to a war-widowed German. She tells him her husband was drafted into the German Army and killed in Russia. But her husband was an ardent Nazi, a member of the SS who survived the War and managed to escape to the U.S. She is intent on marrying Clift and using him to gain passage to the U.S., where she plans to abandon him to be with her husband.

Douglas, tortured by the Germans while he was a prisoner of war, has a deep-seated hatred for Germany. He has a German “schatzi,” whom he initially uses as a laundry maid. She in turn uses him for food, cigarettes, stockings and other goods he provides. They eventually grow to respect each other, as he teaches her about democracy, and she helps him overcome his hatred of all things German.

Then there’s an intriguing exchange between Clift and a character named “Stieber,” who freely admits to Clift that he is a Russian spy. Clift asks him “Aren’t you afraid I’ll turn you in?” to which the spy replies, “Americans know I’m a spy. I count the planes that come to Tempelhof (Berlin’s main airport) … then I talk to Russians every three hours,” Clift says, “But the official figures are printed in the paper every day. The Russians must see it.” To which Stieber responds, “You believe this, I believe this, but Russians don’t believe. … Russians don’t believe what they see, only what other Russians say.” Stieber then explains the Russians have 15,000 spies in Berlin, while the Americans have 10,000, and there are 500 spies working for both sides!

One note of interest: Except for Clift and Douglas, all military personnel appearing in this film were U.S. servicemen on active duty in Germany!

From a historical standpoint this movie is a gem for its street scenes of post-war Berlin and for conveying the challenges facing Europe at the dawn of the Cold War.

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Steve Corbo

A founding member and corporate secretary of the Italian American Veterans Museum, Steve Corbo is the museum’s curator and a military consultant for Fra Noi. He has served for 25 years as president of S.A. Corbo & Associates Inc., providing professional liability insurance to health care providers. The son and nephew of World War II veterans and a passionate military historian for over 50 years, he has written and published articles on a variety of topics, including military history, and serves as the military consultant for Fra Noi, the Chicago-area Italian-American magazine.

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