Docurama // 2004 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Daniel MacDonald (Retired) // November 20th, 2007
They had escaped the Nazis, but returned to fight their own kind of war.
It is uncommon, to say the least, to find a documentary concerning the Second World War that can make you laugh out loud; The Ritchie Boys achieves this feat. Shortlisted for the Best Documentary Feature Oscar in 2004, The Ritchie Boys paints a unique and fascinating picture of men using their unique circumstance to aid in the war effort.
The Ritchie Boys are a group of Jewish intellectuals who escaped Hitler's Germany for America, then enlisted with the military to aid in defeating Hitler, training together at Camp Ritchie, Maryland. Initially eyed with suspicion, the Ritchie Boys soon proved their worth by using their German backgrounds to devise clever and sometimes amusing interrogation techniques and undermine Nazi strategies. Involved in the War both in the US and abroad, these men tended to use their smarts over their guns, and experienced unexpected levels of success.
As directed by German filmmaker Christian Bauer (Missing Allen -- Wo ist Allen Ross?), The Ritchie Boys weaves together interviews with eleven surviving members of the titular group, now in their eighties and still brimming with wit, offering sharp recollections of why and how they did what they did. The Boys' attention to detail is remarkable, and the subjects are natural storytellers. After the War, they went on to a disparate selection of occupations ranging from judge to English professor to artist, but none seems to have forgotten much about those years in the 40s when they brought their talents to bear against the German offensive.
The stories told are sometimes funny, sometimes sad, but always gripping. Early in the picture, two of the Ritchie Boys recount how they used captured German soldiers' deathly fear of the Russians against them, dressing up in Russian uniforms and speaking German with a strong Russian accent, terrifying their charges into confessing what they knew. During training at Camp Ritchie, some soldiers wore German uniforms and drove vehicles with cardboard cutouts of enemy transports through the streets in exercises with recruits, scaring the bejesus out of neighboring farmers who thought the German invasion had begun. And one subject shares a story about meeting the entertainer Marlene Dietrich (Touch of Evil), and taking her to visit with German POWs late one evening after a performance.
In contrast, the tone turns much more serious as several Boys reveal their rationale behind keeping the "H" or "J" on their dog tags -- letters indicating religious preference that would have almost certainly ensured worse treatment should they be captured by the Nazis -- when they were shipped overseas. Further, pacifist and artist Si Lewen indelibly stands out for his inability to shake the horrors of what he saw on the battlefield and in liberated concentration camps; Lewen acts as a weighty anchor throughout the picture, preventing The Ritchie Boys from losing sight of the more unconscionable aspects of its subject matter.
Overall, though, The Ritchie Boys is entertaining and positive, the stories told filled with adventure, surprise, and camaraderie. The time spent together was clearly a highlight of these men's lives, and the lasting friendships come across loud and clear. The straightforward, classic documentary approach fits the material well, letting the interviews speak for themselves without any fancy narrative techniques, but the workmanlike presentation may put off less patient viewers. For anyone interested in a new angle to the Second World War, though, this documentary is bound to educate and satisfy.
As usual, Docurama has afforded The Ritchie Boys a classy release, starting with its crisp 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. Stock footage from sources of varying quality is in distinct contrast with the present day interviews, the latter representing high resolution digital video with impressive dynamic range and very little grain. I noticed no shimmering, edge enhancement, or mosquito noise in these segments that make up the bulk of the picture. One quibble would be Bauer's decision to stretch some of the stock footage to fill the frame rather than pillarboxing in its original aspect ratio -- I would suggest that anyone put off by the requisite black bars probably wouldn't be that interested in the film to start with. Audio is in 2-channel stereo, nothing that particularly stands out, but the music and voices are well balanced, dynamic range is sufficient for the material and is free from distortion or tearing.
A whopping 43 minutes of additional interview material is included, more stories from the war that fill out some of the Boys' experiences but would have created a bloated narrative had they been included. A short textual biography of Bauer is also included for your reading pleasure.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 2004
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Scenes
* Filmmaker Biography