1939...Europe steps into the abyss. Fascism in Germany has pushed its' expansionist intentions too far with the invasion of Poland, igniting a World War that will consume tens of millions of human lives before ending in the shroud of two nuclear attacks six years later. The Soviets are willing to play ball with Hitler at first; Stalin has his eye on expanding too, and the non-aggression pact with Hitler seemed like the best means to achieve this end...So too Imperial Japan..Fascist Italy. As Communist , Fascist, and Imperial forces around the world moved their machines into position to dominate the world, a Depression-weary and weakened US is torn in debate as to how to react to the apocalyptic scenarios raging on all sides. One American product that was produced out of this troubled time was to become one of the most beloved fantasy movies of all time, The Wizard of Oz.
One of the bad raps that fantasy has always been given is the term escapist. Well, surely if there was ever a time when folks needed a nice reprieve from reality, it was in 1939. And, too be sure, the wonderful songs and vibrant technicolor visions that Oz offered did transport its' viewers to a happier, funner place. But not a place not fraught with its own dangers, its own forces of darkness bent on possession and destruction of free peoples.
Really good fantasy works on a mythic level. It not only tells a good story, but it gives you a boon of some kind as well. It equips us with what we need in order to stay rooted in humanity and yet spiritually enlightened. The things that the main characters were searching for were the very things that American viewers were going to need to tap into: the Scarecrow wanted brains; the Tin Man wanted a heart, and The Cowardly Lion needed courage. All Dorothy wanted was to return to her home. In the war years that followed, it was the ingenuity, the humanity, the fearlessness, and the desire for peace that not only brought America through the greatest war the world has ever known, but brought it to world prominence when the dust settled.
Now, I am not asserting that it was because of Oz that America won the war. But I believe that the assertion that these things that the characters felt they desperately needed in order to cope were in their possession all along and were to found by searching within not without was a wonderfully empowering message to pluck up an anxious populace. And of course, the mantra of "there's no place like home" was enough to keep desperate soldiers in far-flung hell holes of war motivated to survive; to return to their mother lands.
2001...A still reeling from the 9/11 attacks America goes to the much anticipated first installment of The Lord of the Rings, "The Fellowship of the Ring." In a quiet scene between Frodo Baggins, a poetic, peace-loving hobbit and his friend and advisor wizard Gandalf the Grey, Frodo expresses his wishes that fate had not brought him to this frightening and dangerous place: deep in the bowels of an orc- infested mountain, an early step on a long, perilous, uncertain quest to take on a great evil. Gandalf responds in a way that spoke to all of us who felt like Frodo, wishing what happened had never happened. "So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." That beam of light came to us in a very dark time, and helped equip us for a new world, a new war, a new way of life.
2010...Shapes up to be a very uncertain time both domestically and abroad. Things have moved so quickly in the last year that it is difficult to foresee where we may be this time next year. Let's hope for some wisdom. Some heart. Some courage. And let's hope that our homes stay safe and strong. And let's hope for some good fantasy to help us steer into better times...