Appellate Judge Dave "Saving Private" Ryan presents World War Two—now in color!
"You just wanted to hate all the German people after that."
Long before Band of Brothers was a gleam in HBO's eye, legendary director George Stevens (Swing Time, Gunga Din, Giant, Shane) had made his own version—live, and on location. Like many of his generation, Stevens had been enlisted to help fight World War II; in his case, as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army's Signal Corps. Stevens was charged with organizing a group of Hollywood folk and recording the Allied invasion of Normandy, and whatever action would follow. The unit (dubbed "Stevens's Irregulars") shot on the standard Army motion picture stock: 35mm black and white newsreel film. But Stevens brought a little extra equipment for his own personal use: a hand-held 16mm camera, and a good-sized stock of 16mm Kodachrome color film. As Stevens and his crew traveled throughout France, Belgium, and Germany with the liberating armies, he occasionally stopped to take some color footage of the things he saw and experienced.
Fifty years later, Stevens' son, George Jr., gathered the virtually untouched film footage and assembled the Emmy-award winning documentary George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin, now available on DVD. This documentary isn't a comprehensive World War II history, nor is it an incisive look at an important battle in the war. Instead, it's just the story of one unit and the war-related events it experienced, all captured in glorious color.
On the road from Normandy to Berlin, the Irregulars saw more than their share of death. Bodies strewn by the side of country roads; bodies in shell-riddled buildings; bodies stacked at Dachau as if posing for one of Hieronymus Bosch's paintings of Hell. But they also saw great joy—especially in the faces of the citizens of Paris, finally free of Nazi occupation. Throughout the presentation, we hear the recollections and thoughts of some of Stevens's unit members—including future screenwriter Ivan Moffit (Giant, Tender is the Night), future novelist Irwin Shaw (The Young Lions, Rich Man, Poor Man), and future TV directing stalwart Hollingswood Morse (better-known to MST3K fans as the director of the Rocky Jones, Space Ranger films).
Did I mention that it's in color?
The documentary's strength and weakness is its lack of documentary structure. The film doesn't really have any focus—it's just the story of Stevens, his men, and the jobs they were assigned to do, which happened to put them in the middle of the action during one of the most historic years in the 20th Century. There's no real narrative thread; this behind-the-lines crew is really just tagging along as history is made a few kilometers in front of them. In one sense, this means that the film meanders along until the Nazis are defeated. On the other hand, this lack of focus actually humanizes the war. War isn't just about the hero who jumps on a grenade to save his unit—it's also about the guys who drive the trucks that deliver the soup to the kitchen. It's about the civilians who get in the way, and the captured prisoners whose war has ended. We see all these things through Stevens' lens—the tragic, the mundane, and everything in between. It's a different view of the war, one that isn't often seen.
Given that the footage is 50 years old, the picture quality is remarkably good. Some of the 16mm footage shows sign of aging, and occasional damage, but some of it is absolutely pristine and vivid. Colors? Well, you know the score on Kodachrome—it gives us those nice bright colors, the greens of summer, and makes it seem all the world's a sunny day. (Thank you, Mr. Simon.) In practical terms, it means that 1940s-era Kodachrome doesn't have the most accurate color reproduction capability in film history. It tends to oversaturate yellows and reds, and undersaturate blues. That gives it a golden, nostalgic-feeling color tone—one that 1940s period pieces love to emulate these days. (Except now, they pay people to do it digitally, of course.)
Sound is provided in a mono track; it's adequate. There are no extras.
Ultimately, you're not really going to learn anything from George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin. That doesn't make it a worthless documentary, though—far from it. This is a unique look at a World War II, a war that's been so exhaustively documented I would have thought it impossible to do a documentary feature on it that could truly be called "unique." Well, here's the exception that proves me wrong. Fun for WWII buffs, or fans of historical color footage. (Note: There are some rather disturbing images of corpses and war victims here; this is probably not a good disc for younger children or the squeamish.)
Not a home run, but a good solid double.
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