In December 1950, at the Nellis Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas, the Atomic Energy Commission set off the first atomic bomb since Nagasaki. The year before, the Soviets had conducted their first atomic test—an unpleasant surprise to most Americans—and Mao had taken over China. Truman announced in January of ’50 that he was directing the AEC to start work on the vastly more destructive hydrogen bomb. In February Senator Joseph McCarthy announced that he had in his possession a list of 205 Communists who were working in the State Department. In May Alger Hiss was convicted of perjury, and in June the North Koreans, supported by the USSR, advanced south of the 38th parallel and invaded South Korea. The United Nations (then just five years old) sent troops, but by December MacArthur’s armies were in retreat.

Desert Bloom is set in that hot December. Korea, McCarthy, the Nellis Air Force Base are all part of the outer storm, but director Eugene Corr is more interested in the inner weather of a single family, some of those ostensibly simple folk—no one here but us chickens—who are as complicated as they come.

Amid all the details that go into making a movie, creating characters is not usually a priority. Producers will pour their energies into developing a “look” or a “star,” as part of their effort to make a “smash,” but that’s as far as the effort goes. Usually when Hollywood takes up a bit of history, at best ifs a pageant and at worst a disaster. When was the last time anyone made a film about the Civil War or the VITAL SIGNS Cuban Missile Crisis because he was interested in plumbing the depths of the characters of Lincoln or JFK or, for that matter, of anyone else of the time? Nobody gives a hoot about a personality. People want to make films about whole eras because they like the rush of the grand historical sweep. They want the wind in their characters’ hair, spray on their faces, and the New World rising out of the sea, shining like Botticelli’s Venus. It’s the Cecil B. De Mille syndrome—10 years in the making! On four continents! With a cast of thousands! And, naturally, the characterization of Lincoln or Columbus or Cleopatra suffers accordingly.

But, to his great credit, Corr has abandoned the forest for the trees: for Rose, 13; Lily, her mother; Starr, her favorite aunt; and Jack, her stepfather. The story line is built around Rose, and it’s principally her memories of the time and her point of view that we’re allowed to share—first boyfriend, first glasses, victory at the county spelling bee. The movie, nevertheless, is Jon Voight’s.

Voight plays Jack, who came home from the Second World War badly scarred, and his limp is only part of it. Barricading himself with his clippings, medals, old war stories, and shortwave can’t help him stop the nightmares or keep him from drinking. Jack is both the hero and villain of the piece. He is sometimes kind, sometimes drunk and bumbling, sometimes drunk and cruel, pitiful at certain times, despicable at others. He has to correct himself, “nigger” to “Negro,” when talking about Duke Ellington, whose music he reveres. And he has a paranoia about Jews, that somehow coexists with true admiration and even some identification with Einstein—”They thought Einstein was retarded,” he says over one strained breakfast, where he is fighting to keep his children’s affection, his wife’s esteem, and his own self-respect, “but he was the opposite of retarded. He was a genius!”

His relations with his stepdaughter Rose show the most strain, and he takes a lot of his frustration out on her. And yet it’s Jack, not Lily, who shows up at Rose’s moment of triumph at the spelling bee (absolutely the funniest bee in movie history), and it’s Jack, not Lily, who notices Rose is missing the night she runs away. He’s a wonderful character, completely contradictory and completely realistic, with his virtues all inextricably mixed-up with his faults, in one great Gordian knot of a personality.

Of all the characters, only Lily (played by JoBeth Williams) rings occasionally untrue, sometimes bordering on parody. Nothing comes out of her mouth that isn’t one of the cliches used by people who have long since stopped thinking. For Lily there is some excuse: not thinking too hard is her way of coping, and seeing things as she wants to see them is an improvement on reality, given that her first husband ran out and left her with three girls to raise, and her second spouse is still intermittently fighting with the 3rd Army. When times are tough there’s a lot of comfort in cliches, and Lily takes refuge there time and again. They serve all her purposes—to soothe, to rebuke, to praise.

“Rise and shine, it’s A-bomb time,” she calls to her sleeping children the morning of the test—that’s Lily, true to the end. And as with that line, there is no funny moment in Desert Bloom that doesn’t have something serious or sad to it; nothing frightening that isn’t also sometimes ridiculous; no one utterly dear who isn’t sometimes extremely unkind. It’s a beautifully made movie, and everything and everyone in it is handled with a light and true touch. That includes the frame story—for the whole movie leads up to the morning of the test, and in these days of such strident films as The China Syndrome and The Day After, peopled with characters that are only foils for a message that’s sledgehammered home, Corr’s restraint is astonishing. It’s clear he is no fan of those tests, or of the AEC, but he doesn’t pontificate. There is no wailing and gnashing of teeth. Instead, he holds the Miss A-bomb of 1951 contest, advertises Atomic Coiffures, has the school blood tests conducted in the “Fun Room,” and then has Rose quietly wonder why everyone in town is being asked to wear dog tags. The few frightening moments are brief, and Corr pulls back from each, wise enough to know that melodrama would ruin his film.

The movie ends with the setting off of the bomb. Rose has been found and brought home, everyone is forgiven, the two younger girls are wakened, and boom! Off it goes. As the cloud rises, Barbara Jo, the littlest one, says in her high voice, “It’s beautiful,” and of course it is.


[Desert Bloom; written and directed by Eugene Corr; produced by Michael Housman; Columbia Pictures]