With the ending of “Game of Thrones”, people have been considering cancelling their subscriptions to HBO. Let me assure you, there is more to HBO than GoT. I originally subscribed because of “Band of Brothers” and stayed with it through “The Pacific” and “Generation Kill”. Before that, HBO gave us one of the best WWII movies – “When Trumpets Fade”. I’ll hang onto my subscription as I wait for the series on the 8th Air Force. Meanwhile, to tide war movie fans over, HBO provides us with a magnificent documentary on the bomber crews of the 8th. Recently, fifteen hours of footage shot by William Wyler’s cinematographers in 1943 were discovered in the vaults of the National Archives. The footage was comprehensive and included life at the bases and in the air. Wyler and his three cinematographers flew on many dangerous missions. Wyler (“Mrs. Miniver”) used the footage for his acclaimed documentary “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress”, which was released in 1944 and wowed audiences with its color photography. Director Erik Nelson restored the footage and interviewed nine veterans.
The documentary begins with a reference to the “Memphis Belle”, but once the connection is made, the film becomes an tribute to all the bomber crews. It is structured around chapters on various aspects of the veterans’ experiences. There is no narration, but Nelson does provide title cards giving interesting facts and background information. Some of the “chapters” are on topics like pre-flight, briefing, take-off, forming up, testing guns, flak, the bomb run, fighters, and the return. Even the ground crews get their due. The memories of the vets are coordinated with the footage flawlessly. And we don’t see repetitive footage like in many similar documentaries. All of it is color, and not colorized. The visuals are stunning, especially the aerial views. There is an ode to contrails. It seems incongruous that war can be so beautiful, but the shots of the ground and the bombers in formation are amazing. Nelson’s addition of the sounds of aerial combat and the mainly orchestral score complete the picture.
I’m sure the 8th Air Force series will be very entertaining, but it might not be as informative as this doc. Nelson does not hammer away at the various topics, but some themes develop. One is that war requires young men because they do not think anything will happen to them. This despite the title cards telling us that the chances of reaching 25 mission like the Memphis Belle did were not good. It wasn’t just death that claimed the men, the conditions included freezing temperatures that made frost bite a problem. The vets speak movingly about mates who were wounded and killed. Another theme is the crew were like family and they all worked together to do their duty. The documentary makes it clear that death was random and unpredictable. At least you were with your mates, but it was very tough to see other bomber crews go down. One of the veterans chokes up remembering a friend who died the day his son was born. An unexpected theme is that the men did not care about the damage they were doing. It was a job and the German people were on the receiving end of it. Their comments covers footage of homeless Germans and their bombed-out cities. The documentary finishes strong with interviews with the veterans so we get to see these remarkable men. (They are all in their nineties now.) Naturally, they don’t claim to be heroes, but the documentary belies that. Although one of them charmingly points out that if he was a hero, he would have reupped.
Considering its mission statement, “The Cold Blue” could not be better. It is as close to perfect as any could expect. In a nice touch, the film is dedicated not only to the 28,000 men who gave their lives, but specifically Harold Tannenbaum. He was one of Wyler’s cinematographers. His bomber went down over France. That footage was lost, but his and the other two cinematographers was enough to put together this great documentary. If you have HBO, you paid for it. It’s worth the subscription.
GRADE = A+