A Time Out of War (1954)

Academy Award trivia buffs will know the 1954 production “A Time Out of War” was the first student film to win the Oscar – in the Short Subject (Two-Reel) category, beating out competition from the Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and Disney studios. And when you experience the film, you’ll understand how a small no-budget student project could one-up the major Hollywood players.

Set during the closing stretch of the Civil War, “A Time Out of War” takes place along the banks of a river on a hot afternoon. The Union soldiers Alden and Connor exchange light insults and occasional gunfire across to Craig, a Confederate on the opposite bank of the river. The men realize they’ve reached a stalemate and agree to a one-hour ceasefire. Connor tries to catch a fish in the river while Alden and Craig trade supplies by throwing the goods in a wrapped handkerchief across the water – Craig provides tobacco while Alden offers coffee and hardtack. The men exchange mild small talk, with Alden taking a brief nap. Connor’s fishing efforts produces an unexpected result – there will be no spoilers here, except to say that the discovery reaffirms a sense of humanity that often percolates unexpectedly in times of crisis.

Writer/director Denis Sanders adapted Robert W. Chambers’ 1897 short story “Pickets” for this film, which was originally meant to be a thesis project when he was an undergraduate at UCLA. The film moves at a quiet pace – there is no speechmaking or profound insights in the dialogue, but rather the quietly startling reality that wartime enemies might have more in common than they realize. The soundtrack’s minimal use of nature’s noises and instrumental music adds to the serenity of the ceasefire period. Terry Sanders, the brother of Denis, captured the humid beauty of the riverbank in an effective orthochromatic black-and-white cinematography, and the underplayed performances by Barry Atwater’s Craig, Robert Sherry’s Alden and Alan Cohen’s Connor adds to the authenticity of the project.

For those who mistakenly believe short films need to be overstuffed with talk, action, music and sound effects, “A Time Out of War” provides a brilliant example of what can be achieved in this genre.