Remembering D-Day, Band of Brothers, The War, and The Cold Blue

Nine surviving Eighth Air Force veterans recall the realities facing them on the ground and in the cockpits of their B-17 bombers as they headed out in formation to drop and dodge bombs and machine gun fire over Germany, circa 1943. From THE COLD BLUE, Erik Nelson’s frame-by-frame restoration of William Wyler’s classic WWII documentary, THE MEMPHIS BELLE (1944). Photo courtesy HBO.

Today, June 6, 2019, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“It plays like the stuff of military myth or legend, but it’s remarkably true: A disparate group of American recruits transformed into an elite rifle company, parachuted into France on June 6, 1944, and made history. The men of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army, began their mission on D-Day and fought their way across France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. They survived the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden.” —Judith Trojan

I wrote those words in an introduction to a series of interviews I conducted with the author and filmmakers responsible for the powerful, 10-part HBO dramatic miniseries, Band of Brothers (2001). The series was adapted from historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s award-winning nonfiction best seller of the same name by executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and an outstanding creative team.

Band of Brothers is an achievement that I, in my capacity as Director of the Christopher Awards, will always be proud to have honored with a Christopher Award. It continues to be one of the most important war films, standalone or series, that has ever been produced for TV/cable.  I literally wept, alone in our screening room, for 10 minutes after I finished watching the final episode…moved by its focus on the elderly veterans whose lives on the beach and battlefield were dramatized in the prior nine episodes.

The Allied liberation of Western Europe was orchestrated as a brilliant stealth operation that commenced on June 6, 1944, when some 156,00 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of France’s heavily fortified Normandy coastline. By late August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated, and by the following spring the Allies had defeated the Germans. The Normandy landings, that began on D-Day, have been called “the beginning of the end of war in Europe.”

It is more important than ever to remember and celebrate those who fought the good fight during World War II in Europe and the Pacific, achieving hard won victories that would change the course of history and secure the freedoms and opportunities that we continue to cherish today.

Photo courtesy Florentine Films.

Filmmaker Ken Burns had already redefined and elevated the documentary landscape with his groundbreaking nine-part PBS miniseries, The Civil War (1990), when he felt compelled to turn his attention to yet another war that would involve a much broader playing field.

“Towards the end of the Nineties, I had learned two awful facts, ” Ken Burns recalled in one of several interviews I conducted with him over the years.  “One is that we were losing a thousand veterans a day from the Second World War. And that many graduating high school students thought we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War.  I was appalled and felt, for the reason that we were losing our soldiers and our historical compass, that I had to dive back into the subject of war.”

Ken Burns’ seven-part documentary miniseries, The War, debuted on PBS in 2007.  It explored in human terms the lasting impact of WWII on average Americans from four different regions of the country.

A member of director William Wyler’s crew filming from the cockpit of a B-17 during an actual WWII combat mission over Germany, circa 1943. Photo courtesy HBO.

New to this mix of timely WWII films is The Cold Blue, an 82-minute documentary restoration and augmentation of three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler’s 1944 documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Wyler put his filmmaking chops to good use when, in 1943, he and his crew filmed Eighth Air Force bomber pilots, on land and from the cockpits of their B-17s during actual combat missions over Germany.

“My father was trying to make a documentary that would help the war effort,” remembered Wyler’s daughter, Catherine. “He was born in Europe, he was Jewish, and he had relatives he wanted to save.  He had a lot of trouble getting into the Air Force because he was 40 years old, but he wanted to show the people at home the courage of these men and their crews flying the bombers.”

Eighth Air Force Bombers in formation en route to Germany. Footage shot by William Wyler and his crew, circa 1943, now seen in Erik Nelson’s THE COLD BLUE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Seven decades later, while searching for random color footage of World War II aviation, filmmaker Erik Nelson was alerted to the fact that 34 reels of outtakes–raw color footage shot by William Wyler in 1943 over land and sea for The Memphis Belle–was being stored in the vaults of the National Archives.

Nelson and his team revisited The Memphis Belle, frame-by-frame, incorporating digitally restored color footage and updated sound design, as well as interviews with surviving WWII Air Force veterans, all in their nineties. The months-long process was complex, but it refreshed Wyler’s original film in a theatrically viable way.

“Every one of the original prints had faded, in some cases beyond recognition,” said Erik Nelson.  “There seemed to be no possibility of restoration.  We decided to take a chance by hoping that our 34 reels constituted the entirety of The Memphis Belle, and decided to place over 500 individual shots over The Memphis Belle’s existing soundtrack.  This heralds a new kind of restoration–where a film is literally recut from scratch with all of the original elements, yet preserves exactly the same content of the original.”

The result is a riveting, birds-eye look at what it was like for very young American airmen to endure more than 25 missions over Germany, deemed the most deadly target of the war.  Aside from the remarkable aerial combat footage, the film zeroes in on the rituals and camaraderie that cushioned the loss of comrades, the all-consuming fear of bodily harm or death, and the trauma of killing another human being, albeit an enemy airman, and bombing the civilian German landscape below to smithereens.

Footage shot by William Wyler and his crew during an actual bombing raid over Germany, circa 1943, from THE COLD BLUE. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Cold Blue, a production of Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions and Creative Differences, debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, June 6, 2019, 8:00 – 9:15 p.m. ET/PT, the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Check for additional HBO play dates in your region in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD. Band of Brothers (HBO) and Ken Burns’ The War (PBS) are readily available via streaming services and on DVD.–Judith Trojan

About Judith Trojan

Judith Trojan is an Award-winning journalist who has written and edited more than 1,000 film and TV reviews and celebrity profiles.
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