Nibley Documentary Faith of an Observer to Screen at Sunstone Film Festival

Faith of an Observer poster/logo

Stylized version of the poster for Faith of an Observer: Conversations with Hugh Nibley.

The Sunstone Film Festival will feature a retrospective screening of the documentary film Faith of an Observer: Conversations with Hugh Nibley. The movie will show in the Union Theater in the University of Utah Olpin Student Center on Saturday, August 2, at 2:00. Following the screening there will be a discussion on the making of the film with two of the filmmakers involved, Sterling VanWagenen and Hugh’s son Alex Nibley.

Faith of an Observer was shot in 1983-84 in Egypt, France and various locations in the United States. It includes excerpts from several extensive interviews Nibley did conducted by Sterling and Alex along with supplementary interviews with Hugh’s family members, friends and  associates including Elder Neal A. Maxwell and Truman Madsen.

Alex Nibley said, “I wanted to make this movie because from an early age I saw that the public knew my father as either a writer or a public speaker, and neither of those personae represented the man I knew. I wanted to get Dad to speak on camera the way he talked in private and present that man to the world, because I found him much more interesting than the lecturer or the writer. To some extent, I think we succeeded; the Hugh Nibley you see in Faith of an Observer is more open, more relaxed and show a side of him the public rarely saw.”

The interviews cover a wide range of topics including education, ancient scripture, war, and the corrupting influence of a single-minded focus on making money. The conversations took place not only in a studio, but also in ancient Egyptian temples, the Cairo Museum, and Utah Beach where Hugh landed on D-Day.

Hugh Nibley was not an easy interview, and it was no small task getting Hugh to open up on camera. The story of how that happened and the special “wildlife photography” tactics Sterling and Alex used to get these unusual interviews will be part of the discussion following the screening.

Contact Sunstone for more information.

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Seventy Years Ago Today: Utah Beach, Normandy

Photo of American soldiers onboard a ship approaching the coast of Normandy.

American soldiers wait onboard their ship as they approach the coast of Normandy, June 6, 1944. Photo: National Archive

There was a big French battleship blazing away right next to us, and the Germans zeroed in on us with their 88s as we put the rope over the side and started to swarm down into the landing craft. As soon as I got down the rope ladder, the very spot where I should have been waiting on the ship was hit by an 88, and half a dozen tankmen were blown up. The chaplain I had been talking to was wounded. 

The landing craft went in as far as it could, and then there were still a couple of hundred yards – quite a way to go yet. I climbed in the Jeep and revved her up. I had packed it with sandbags so we could get some hold on the sandy beach, five or six guys loaded on so we’d get some traction on the bottom. We couldn’t afford to float around; we had to have traction. 

In we went with water up to our necks, and the pipe going up in the air, and all the guys who jumped on to help weight it down yelling, “Go Nibs! Keep going! Keep going!” All I had to do was press on the gas and it would go straight ahead, and it didn’t stall at all in six, seven feet of water. She did handsomely. It plowed right in and we were making towards the shore — buh, buh, buh, buh, with water up to our necks and the men cheering, “Go Nibs, go!” It must’ve been quite spectacular.

Photo of a jeep driving through water from a landing craft.

A jeep drives off through water toward the beach in Normandy, D-Day, June 6, 1944. Photo: National Archive

We were the first jeep to come in, so naturally the German 88s on the shore tried hard to stop us, first landing shells in front and then behind, and followed us all the way in, but they didn’t hit us. There was one command car ahead of us driven by a big redheaded Kentuckian, and that disappeared and was never seen again. The 88s were splashing on all sides and jets of water were going up — it was an exciting ride. 

I wasn’t afraid, I was too busy thinking about whether those wheels on the jeep would make contact and we’d keep going. If you lost your momentum, that would be frightening. But your heart is pounding, your adrenaline’s up, it’s that excitement that nature provides as your protection to keep you from being paralyzed by fear. As I’ve heard it said so many times, in battle you’re too busy or too excited to be frightened. So I was thinking about the Jeep and where to find our position and the like. Fear is the unknown, the uncertainty — there’s always that nagging fear when you don’t know what the score is. If you know what the danger is, that’s not so bad. 

I did a good job of waterproofing the jeep because it got to shore very well through that long stretched-out beach that goes out forever at low tide. A lot of them stalled in the water, but mine didn’t. We moved ahead and they cheered us on and we landed all right with German gunners popping 88 at us all the way; then we got up to the road and everybody scattered in all four directions. 

We were given instructions on how to find the headquarters. Everything was to be gauged by a certain windmill, which was to show us where we were. Of course they bombed the daylights out of it before we came and there was no windmill in sight. Everybody wandered around all over the place; I blundered into places. Things were going bad. Very bad. 

The first thing after landing, I did something I thought I could never do. We were trying to get to a farm there, but I was about to eat this bar of hard, bitter chocolate. We were pinned down and they started shooting in our direction, so we got into foxholes. There had just been a battle there recently and I jumped into a foxhole that was full of spattered brains. There was a helmet full of brains, and it was just a bloody mess in there, and I still had this chocolate bar in my hand. Well, I immediately lost my appetite. And then, after a few minutes, I was so hungry I calmly ate the chocolate in this grave just as unconcerned as anything. I never thought I could do a thing like that, but apparently you can shut off certain parts of the brain. I thought I could never face that sort of thing– it would be terrible; I’d lose my appetite. But you have to eat. I thought, “Well, this is the way war’s going to be, might as well get used to it.” I wouldn’t do that again, though.

[Excerpted from Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle]

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So is this Heroic?

C-47 tows Waco glider.

C-47 takes off towing a Waco glider. This is the type of glider in which Nibley rode in the invasion of Holland during Operation Market Garden. Photo from the National Archives.

[Hugh Nibley remembers Operation Market Garden, the “Bridge Too Far.”]

There were a lot of heroic doings, and I’m afraid many people didn’t get recognized for what they did. I knew many boys that did marvelous things. One of the most striking things happened at two o’clock in the morning. I have a little foxhole right on the edge of the canal covered with a small pup tent, and I would mark the war map there. The general wanted me to make a general map of the front, so I would mark the daily front in my foxhole and then take it over to headquarters. I was fairly cozy there on the bank, and one night I was busily marking the map in the middle of the night, very late, when I heard a terrific lot of shooting just a little ways down the bank. I could hear the British Bren guns going off, then the Tommy guns, and then German Schmeisers, all sorts of things firing away. Everybody was shooting like crazy. I thought, what in heavens name is going on there? And then, finally, silence.

I waited for a while, and then all of a sudden the tent flap parts and the kid dressed in the Dutch farm boy’s outfit bursts through the door of the tent and throws himself down into the straw on the bottom of the foxhole. For a minute or two all he could do was say, “There is a God! There is a God! There is a God! There is a God!” He’s crying, sopping wet. He’d just swum the canal with all those people shooting at him. He was a medic, and he’d been on the other side and had gotten lost and was taken prisoner. Then he escaped from the Germans, and a Dutch farm couple took him in and gave him this outfit, and he dressed as a Dutch peasant boy and pretended to be deaf and dumb. He pointed his mouth wherever he went so he wouldn’t give away his language. When he started to swim the canal to make a crossing over to our lines, everybody started shooting at him. They shot everything they could at him, machine guns, rifles – a whole company shooting at him like crazy mad. But they didn’t hit him, so he got to the other side fell into my foxhole crying, “There is a God! There is a God!”

Waco glider crashed in a field in Holland.

Waco glider crashed in a field in Holland. Photo from the National Archives.

He’d been taken all over that region and had carefully watched everything that was going on. He’d been very observant; he’d seen what was going on behind the lines, where the Germans were, what they were doing. He told me where he’d been and what need seen. This was priceless information so immediately I got on the horn to General Higgins and said, “Look, we’ve got a guy here who knows everything that’s going on behind the German lines.”

He said, “Well, let’s get him back to Brussels as fast as we can.”

I promised the kid, “Well, with this you’re going to get promoted or something. You’ll at least get a three-day pass for this information.”

They took him to Brussels and I heard a number of intelligence officers got promotions on the strength of the information he had. Then I saw him about four or five months later in Namur. I said, “Did you ever get your three-day pass?”

He said, “I didn’t get a one-day pass. I had to go right back to the line the next day.”

They didn’t care about him; he didn’t get anything. He was caught behind the lines, escaped, pretended to be deaf and dumb, got through enemy lines, swam the canal under heavy fire, and came back with a gold mine of information that caused all sorts of the excitement. You would think he should have gotten at least a three-day pass for giving them all that information. Everything they’d been looking for was just handed to them and got promotions for all these other people. But he didn’t get a medal or even a three-day pass. He was a medic and he had to go right back into the line. That’s the way you get rewarded sometimes in this life. So is this heroic? Can you get sentimental about this? If you get sentimental, you can get bitter.

[Excerpted from Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle] 

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Hence in a Cumulo-Nimbus Mood

Hugh Nibley in uniform

Hugh Nibley in uniform

Camp Ritchie, Oct. 29, and 1943

Dear Mother,

This day ends a strange and eventful furlough.  After a couple of days among the Amish in the Pennsylvania Dutch country (the autumn colors were incredibly brilliant) I ended up in New York where a whirlwind courtship culminated in a flat refusal. Hence in a cumulo-nimbus mood to Washington…

I have been made a Master Sergeant and in the great press of affairs take the liberty to saddle you with all my financial affairs on this continent.  That means you will receive an allotment of $100 a month plus a war-bond.  Such a sum would only embarrass me in the field — as it is I will get $40 a month — and you might find use for it.  The enclosed bond was picked up during a drive.  I will let you know what and when I can.  

It is unbelievable how many people there are in New York with nothing to do but look for something to do.  No artist is so bad, no art so bizarre, that it will not command an instantaneous and eager audience.  Everyone seems waiting and hoping that something good will show up.  This situation is vigorously exploited by the most pitifully ill-equipped performers in every field.  They fool nobody, of course, but get by simply on the vast and restless reserve-pool of first-nighters.  Perhaps I have not seen enough but to me it appears next to impossible for a good artist to go unnoticed for 36 hours in N.Y.  Reid should give it a try — just for the fun of it.  A horrible city, but big and lavish.  I must rush off now.

Love, 

Hugh

Editor’s note from Alex Nibley:

This letter was written shortly before HN shipped overseas from Camp Richie, which was the training facility for Military Intelligence during World War II. The incident HN refers to as the “whirlwind courtship [which] culminated in a flat refusal” was when he proposed to one Anahid Iskian, something he mentioned in other letters he was planning to do. (Hasty marriages as men were about to ship out were common at the time.)

After I wrote Sergeant Nibley PhD: Memories of an Unlikely Screaming Eagle, I heard the other side of the story. The friend who had introduced Hugh to Anahid read Sergeant Nibley PhD told me that after reading about it she had asked Anahid about the incident. Anahid had no recollection that Hugh had made her any offer at all. Apparently whatever proposal he had made was subtle enough or abstruse enough that its target failed to know that it even happened, and Anahid Iskian never married.

This was Hugh’s second attempt at getting married, the first time actually resulting in an engagement in 1941 to a Prussian modern dancer with Nazi sympathies, who also never married.

AN

Posted in Art, Culture, Music, Philosophy, War | 5 Comments

A Priesthood Manual for Backward Ten-Year-Olds

A toddler Hugh Nibley smiling

Hugh Nibley about one century ago

Happy Birthday Hugh Nibley, born March 27, 1910

No, we haven’t forgotten or given up. Sidetracked a little by other activities. But we have some new and, we hope, interesting postings coming up. Thank you to those of you have ever so gently prodded us to continue these posts.

Excerpt from a letter to Paul Springer

March 28, 1956

I have run into difficulties on the present [Melchizedek priesthood] lesson-manual: the committee wants something for backward ten-year-olds and they have a perfect right to it, only I keep telling them that I am not the guy to do it.* Accordingly I may get let out of this assignment, and instead of going to the Coast this spring take the usual time in the summer. Only I don’t know yet. Meantime I am working my head off on a dozen projects…

Our household as it grows larger is becoming ever more and more of an enclave, a foreign colony, in the midst of Provo. For one thing the lack of TV marks us as queer to the point of defiance; the program of serious literature** which has kept the kids amused all winter, and the wild informal “jaunts” we take whenever the weather allows  have set people to wondering if we are quite all right. My religious rantings serve to balance the books, but still people are disturbed and someday there may be some sort of showdown. Abdera without Aristotle, that is Provo. 

Thank God for Phyllis, who thinks exactly as I do on all essentials. Perhaps what should worry us is not that the world is going to pot, but that it may take too long in doing so. Well let’s make the most of things, after all, we have eternity to go and endless surprises ahead. I’ll let you know what the committee decides.

Nur Geduld.

[*The priesthood manual HN mentions here was, chapter by chapter, rejected by the publication committee with the comment that it was “over the heads” of the priesthood holders. The rejections were subsequently overruled by President David O. McKay, reportedly with the comment, “If it’s over their heads, let them reach for it.” That manual became An Approach to the Book of Mormon, still read today almost six decades after HN expected to be fired from the job of writing it.

**Don’t let him fool you. The program of “serious literature” to which HN refers here consisted largely of Mad Magazine, Nancy Drew and Edgar Rice Burroughs. ]

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World War II Memories: I lied Until I Even Cheered Myself Up

[Letter to Sloanie Nibley, May 17, 1945, from Heidelberg, Germany]

Dear Mother,

You mentioned in your last that I had never told you anything about my activities.  Come to think of it, I haven’t.  Of course not: your old Hugh isn’t one to go around sinking ships.  But now that it doesn’t make much difference whether ships are sunk or not I might as well ring off a bare chronicle of events as noted down in my little red appointment book, just to let you know what’s been going on all this time.

The latter part of November and early December[, 1943] were passed in barracks of the South Staffordshire regiment near Lichfield. The place was called Whittington Barracks — very cold, dark and stony, with a 150-years deposit of coal smoke and Empire tradition. Incidentally, the more you see of this sort of being that clearer it becomes that the Empah is nothing but a cheeky bit of window-dressing; top to bottom, it is pure eyewash. This impression was first borne upon me, however in the British War Office, where I worked alone on a little project for a few weeks in December and January.

The little book says I reached the HQ of the 101 on an unbelievable dark and stormy night, Jan 21.  We lived in tents without light or heat on top of a very windy hill with gliders tied down all around us. The mud was pelagic, the food unspeakable vile and very scarce ( at the foot of the hill a negro supply company lived on chicken and ice cream, but we never saw any of that unless we had some excuse to visit them).

I was quickly informed of what the role of the division was to be in the invasion, namely to spearhead the whole operation, landing 4 hours ahead of anyone else, and after being sworn to undying secrecy set about wising everyone up on the strength, disposition and honest intentions of the Germans.  To get this information we had to break all the rules of priority and procedure (this was the first Order of Battle team ever to work with a division) and became adept at falsification and intrigue, plain and fancy gate-crashing and advanced prevarication.

Since our undertaking was to be something unique in its kind a great many practice runs had to be gone through — after each one things looked blacker: it is fantastic how many things there are to go wrong in an airborne operation; everybody was worried to pieces, and I was wistfully envious of the simple linesmen who had no idea what they were in for. I gave lots of lectures to all the units about the German army, and the questions the boys asked on those occasions called for all the comfort I could give them — I lied until I even cheered myself up.

The other member of the team artfully managed to get himself transferred, after months of string-pulling, just before the invasion, but my luck was almost as good.  They had me down as No. 2 man in No. 1 glider when a lone unescorted Jeep called for a driver and I was told to take it in seaborne. The murderous British Horsa gliders were used in the invasion with disastrous effect: the crowd in my glider were all banged up and captured, my Lieutenant was never heard from again.

We sailed from Bristol on June 4 and on the sixth were off Vierville.  My fate seems always to have been first in line.  Our ship headed the convoy and as if that were not enough our party was to be the first ashore when contact was made with the division.  The ship was bombed repeatedly but never hit.  I stood at the head of the rope bladder for half an hour and then went down to the LCT without orders. Presently the very spot where I should be waiting was hit by an 88 and half a dozen tankmen blown up; the chaplain with whom I had been talking was wounded.

When we put in for shore the 88s tried hard to stop us first landing in front and then behind.  The ship was sunk.  This sort of thing goes on and on.  Who should be our naval artillery liaison man but one of my old Claremont pupils? after a lot of noise and excitement we moved into Carentan against the protest of the Germans who repeatedly tried to overrun our very thinly held position. Came the big storm and we found ourselves cut off from any support; it was what the British call a very sticky time.

On July 13 we went back to England: that was running back for another try.  A period of frantic preparation followed.  The objective would be chosen, the whole operation rehearsed, everyone resigned to fate and all set for the take-off, and then would come word that Patton had already reached the place, or was so near it that we would not have to go in.  This happened again and again and was very trying.

Finally the fantastic Holland operation, which everybody saw would be a bust unless the British commander acted his age: he gave a speech which set an all-time high for silliness and failure to grasp the most elementary aspect of the situation. The first flight went late on Sept 17 and the pilots came back with the worst possible news; terrible weather, murderous flack and waiting for us in the landing zone a division of German tanks.  But it was too late to turn back — regardless of weather we would have to make a try for it at dawn the next day.

Again I was No. 2 man in No. 1 glider on the right — the one the Germans always try for: our tow plane was the only one with a bathtub — a new and very secret device which the enemy was dying to get hold off; it was called a bathtub because it was a huge, bulky underslung affair that nobody could miss and the pilot said the Jerries would give anything to shoot it down.  With this cheering prospect we took to the air and of course I became very sick as I always do in a glider.

There was an old piece of armor plate lying on the floor and out of curiosity I wondered how it would be to sit on: just as I slipped it on my little chair with a characteristically witty remark it absorbed three machine-gun bullets while another went between my feet. This particular escape became proverbial in headquarters company.

The Dutch campaign was touch and to go with our people scattered all over the land and surrounded and outnumbered most of the time.  The other member of the team was run over by a tank while he was bringing in our jeep and the Lieutenant was wounded, but he stayed on the job — otherwise I would have had to do everything single-handed as in Normandy.  But I was pretty good at Dutch, which meant a lot of extra work and extra excitement of course.

On Nov. 27 we were back in training again, getting all steamed up for another operation. It was not a pleasant atmosphere and people started committing suicide.  Then came the breakthrough (exactly as I predicted weeks ahead) while the same day I got an order to come to Paris.  Which should it be, Bastogne or Paris?  Without regret I chose Paris, for with the order came a team which was to relieve me.  I showed them the ropes and they took over: both were killed the next day.

After Paris came Luxembourg where the big boys at Army Group insist that the breakthrough took them totally by surprise: an unpardonable state of affairs. At that exalted level no one ever thinks of anything but his career and they are worlds removed from the war — spend all their time the pinning decorations [on] each other, the Lord knows for what. After Luxembourg Belgium for a few weeks and then Paris again.  Paris becomes a terrible habit.

For the past month I have been in Heidelberg, which has not been scratched by the war.  Mannheim and Ludwigshafen have simply ceased to exist.  The weeks with the 6th Army Group have been delightful: we live in sumptuous quarters and have a club that makes the pavilions of the Golden Horn look like something on the wrong side of the tracks.  What the future holds is up to nobody.  All I control is my own mental process, which simply ignores the army, and that is all the power I ever want to have.

Hereafter when anything important transpires I will be allowed to let you know immediately.  Meanwhile we are moving with unerring compliance to prophecy straight into the Next War: nobody seems to believe even half-heartedly that the peace is permanent. We never will learn that there is no point to being clever: every sharp operator in Europe has walked right into his own trap.

If we know what’s good for us we won’t tangle with the Russians — ever: in one week the German break-through in the Ardennes had us scraping the bottom of the barrel, though we were dealing with less than a third of the German Army.  Unlike other armies the Russians have an unbelievable capacity for learning; unhampered by pride or tradition they have a positive veneration for truth and never seem to be able to learn enough; their vitality is fabulous, and their birth-rate is simply out of sight.  I think the Lord has big things in mind for them.

Love,

Hugh

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Nibley’s Plan to Leave BYU for his Career

[From an interview in 1983 on the subject of academia]

Then there was the time I was at Chicago [on sabbatical leave] and I decided, well, I’ll look for another job. And so I did, and I got a good offer at Pennsylvania – it was Clarion College in western Pennsylvania, a very good school, belonged to the University of Pennsylvania.

They had a special dinner for me. I didn’t realize it was special. Afterward the dean [of] the College of History, he told me. They offered me far more than I was getting at BYU. We met in the hall after dinner, and he said, “You realize we had lobster tonight. That’s the first time we’ve had it in years. That means you’re a very special guy. They’re offering you so much?” And I told him and he says, “You can get three times that much. Just ask them, you’ll get more than that.” So I had it fixed.

I wrote to the family and they blew up…They didn’t like that at all, moving to western Pennsylvania. Well, western Pennsylvania was gorgeously beautiful country, as you know it’s beautiful country around there, but I would miss the mountains terribly. And I wrote to the brethren, I wrote to Brother [Marion G.] Romney and he said, “Please, that would be a disaster. That would be the worst thing that could happen. Come back on your terms,” and so on. And [BYU President Ernest L.] Wilkinson agreed. He was rather upset and so forth. Ernie and I, we really went round and round on numbers of occasions.

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