Seventy-five years ago…
Charlie Brown cartoons were usually cute and funny, but they were often poignant. One of my favorites from the 1980s was the little gem, What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? Originally broadcast on May 30, 1983, it’s the continuation of the adventures Charlie Brown, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Woodstock and Snoopy had in the 1980 feature film, Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (And Don’t Come Back!). Obviously, it was the year before the fortieth anniversary of D-day, also known as Operation Overlord, so the timing was fortuitous.
If anyone hasn’t seen Bon Voyage, which I highly recommend, by the way, the characters spend two weeks as exchange students in France. It’s an unusual film for the franchise in a lot of ways–the backgrounds are unusually detailed, and adults have actual dialogue instead of the usual wah-wah-wah. It also has an unsympathetic character, the Baron of the Chateau Mal Voisin and his sweet grandaughter, Violette.
I’m not going to ruin anything, but What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? picks up where Bon Voyage leaves off. It begins with Charlie Brown at home pasting photos in his album, when his sister, Sally, comes up to him and asks about his trip back to the United States. “And did you learn anything?” she presses him. “What did you learn?”
Turns out, Linus asked Charlie Brown the same question. Charlie Brown begins the story at the point when he and the group are pulling away from the Chateau. Since the village they’ve been staying in is waaaay out in the country, they have a long drive ahead of them.
After reaching the main road, where Snoopy gets rear-ended and Marcie chews out the other motorists, they chug along until the car breaks down. Snoopy is so mad he kicks the car, which falls to pieces, and while the group has lunch, Snoopy attempts to cobble things together.
“Cobble” is the operative word. The group comes out later to see Snoopy puttering down the street in a heap of a car, and they make a beeline for the nearest used car lot. The proprietor is an older lady who’s pretty star-struck to find out that Snoopy is a World War One Flying Ace, and readily gives them a new car. Well, not exactly new. It has a hand-crank ignition.
The group realizes they’re lost, and they bunk down for the night on a cliff overlooking a beach. Everyone else passes out, but Linus wakes up early. He’s got an odd feeling about where they are, and starts looking around.
Then suddenly it all clicks. Linus sees planes overhead, and the beach covered in barbed wire, and the men coming ashore from across the channel. He runs to tell Charlie Brown and the others that they’re at Omaha Beach.
Linus explains all the particulars of the June 6, 1944 attack, and the facts he gives are chilling and spot on The film doesn’t romanticize the invasion, which shows how important it was to Schulz that the program communicate the immense gravity of the event. Of all the beaches where Operation Overlord was fought, Omaha Beach was the most difficult to take. Linus accurately states that “by ten-thirty in the morning, over three thousand men had been killed or wounded.” He adds, “Within minutes of the ramps being lowered, one company was decimated.”
The show makes it plain that the Nazis had the advantage in that their gun emplacements overlooked the beach, which allowed them to fire directly at the Allied troops. Linus also says that the Allies came close to losing at Omaha Beach, but doesn’t mention that the only thing that saved the operation was the lack of German preparedness. Hitler had thought the invasion would take place at Calais, the narrowest part of the channel, so he fortified his troops there.
Linus takes the group up the hill to the American Cemetery, where he quotes General Eisenhower, who returned to Omaha Beach with Walter Cronkite for the twentieth anniversary of the invasion (watch a clip here).
Eisenhower emphasized the youth of the men who fought–many of the tombstones give ages of 18, 19, and 20–and that they were cut off in their prime. He goes on to say, “I devoutly hope that we will never again have to see such scenes as these. I think and hope and pray that humanity will learn more than we had learned up to that time.”
The group moves on, and find they’re on the road to Ypres, Belgium, which was a major section of the Western Front in World War One. Linus has Snoopy stop the car when he sees a field full of poppies, which would, of course, be Flanders Fields. The show matter-of-factly depicts the devastation that was still visible almost seventy years later, such as giant shell-holes in the ground and intact trenches. But the main emphasis of the group’s visit to Flanders is J.M. McCrae, the Canadian officer who wrote the poem, “In Flanders Fields.” The program shows the British Field Dressing Station, where McCrae worked.
McCrae was inspired to write “In Flanders Fields” one day when he looked out and saw red poppies growing where troops had recently died. He never intended to publish his work, but one of his colleagues found it and sent it to the newspapers. McCrae died of pneumonia on January 23, 1918.
Linus quotes the first two verses of the poem, which are about lives interrupted and beauty left behind.
However, he leaves out the third verse, likely for time, but also because the producers may have been concerned it wouldn’t go over well with audiences so soon after the Vietnam War:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
–J.M. McCrae, “In Flanders Fields”
The show goes silent. Charlie Brown and Linus see nothing but poppies. They go through a gate, and look back, still seeing nothing but poppies. That’s when Linus asks, “What have we learned, Charlie Brown?”
The special was very personal to Charles Schulz, who was a World War Two veteran. He was drafted into the Army and served with the 20th Armored Division, stationed in La Havre, France in February of 1945. Ironically enough, they were billeted at the Chateau du Malvoisin for six weeks before moving on to Belgium, Holland, and Germany. According to the Charles M. Schulz Museum, Schulz’s unit had just crossed the Rhine when they learned of Franklin Roosevelt’s death. Schulz saw combat, but he never shot anyone–the one time he could have, he forgot to load his gun, and the German soldier he was fighting willingly surrendered anyway.
On his way back to the United States, Schulz was able to experience the French celebrating their first Bastille Day since the Nazi occupation of France began in 1940, and no doubt this played into both Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown and What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown?
Schulz called himself “a foot soldier,” and was very proud of his overseas service, especially his Combat Infrantrymen Badge. However, his time in the Army changed him, as it did everyone who served, and showed him horrors he could never have conceived. When he paid tribute to those who fought, he was doing it out of personal experience and deep understanding. By just focusing on Omaha Beach, Schulz threw the spotlight on Americans’ sacrifice on June 6th and how easily it could have gone badly. We took the toughest beach and had the most to lose. Others agreed with him, as What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? received a Peabody Award and was nominated for a Primetime Emmy.
I think one of the best things about What Have We Learned, Charlie Brown? is that it not only pays tribute to both those Allied troops who took part and those who fell, but inspires a desire to find out more, to learn why these battles were fought, and who the men were who fought them. That’s how it affected me as a small child, anyway. It is a deeply moving program that simply and beautifully honors that momentous day in 1944.
For more D-day films, please see Hamlette’s Soliloquy and Coffee, Classics, and Craziness. Thanks for hosting, ladies–I’m so glad we did this. Thanks for reading, all, and I hope to see you tomorrow for Shamedown #5.