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It’s hard to say which is the more moving element in Erik Nelson’s documentary The Cold Blue, the visual or the audio. The visuals consist of excerpts from 15 hours of recently discovered color footage shot in 1943 by famed Hollywood director William Wyler for his landmark 1944 World War II doc The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. The audio features commentary by surviving members of the Eighth Air Force who describe their experiences in poignant detail. Combined, they make Cold Blue an important companion piece to Wyler’s classic and a powerful stand-alone film. Recently showcased at the New York Film Festival, the documentary is slated to air next year on HBO.
Discovered in the vaults of the National Archives, the 16mm footage has been beautifully restored to breathtaking immediacy. It’s all the more revelatory for being in color, since so much of our visual perspective on WWII comes from black-and-white images. Its impact is further enhanced by Richard Thompson’s superb musical score.
Wyler and his team flew on many B-17 bombing missions while making their documentary, which involved no small amount of danger. One of the cinematographers, Harold J. Tannenbaum, was killed when the bomber in which he was flying was shot down over France. The Memphis Belle crew managed to survive 25 missions over Europe in 1943; all of its members have since passed away, so the narration for this film is provided by other veterans of the Eighth Air Force.
Despite their advanced age, the men’s memories are incredibly vivid. They also prove themselves articulate and insightful commentators. “I was 21 years old. We felt like we could live forever,” one of them observes. “Anyone who said they weren’t afraid was full of crap,” says another.
Even though the events described took place 75 years ago, their emotions are still raw. One man breaks down while recounting the story of a fellow pilot who was killed on the same day that his son was born. The fatality rate was indeed high; we’re informed that more men died flying in the Eighth Air Force than in the entirety of the United States Marines. “I look back now and see why young people go to war,” a former pilot observes. “Older people got more sense.”
Some of the commentary features dark humor. One airman recalls being wary when real eggs, instead of powdered ones, were served for breakfast, because it usually meant that they were in for a dangerous mission. Another says the same thing about the appearances of a Catholic priest hearing confessions. And a third, after describing the time he saw two U.S. planes collide and go down, adds sardonically, “That’s when I started smoking, by the way.”
The flying conditions were extremely rigorous as well as dangerous. The B-17s, which the men all praise in lavish terms, weren’t pressurized or heated. So when they hit altitudes of 25,000 feet, the cold was equivalent to standing at the top of Mt. Everest (hence the film’s title).
Toward the war’s end, the Air Force was ordered to do pattern bombing rather than precision, resulting in the deaths of many more civilians. “Never gave it a thought, they were just Germans,” one comments. “They’re gonna do it to us, we’re better off doing it to them first,” another remembers thinking.
With one exception, we don’t actually see the elderly narrators until shortly before the film’s conclusion, their frail appearances inevitably affecting when contrasted with the vintage photos of their younger selves appearing periodically throughout the film. Time may have weathered their faces, but their spirits retain the vitality of youth. When asked if he considers himself to be part of the “Greatest Generation,” one man has an amusing answer: “Well, I’m beginning to believe it,” he chuckles. Another, when asked what he thinks about people calling him a hero, observes, “They’re probably right.” As The Cold Blue so vividly illustrates, they certainly are.
Production companies: Creative Differences, Vulcan Productions
Director: Erik Nelson
Executive producers: Paul G. Allen, W. Clark Bunting, Rocky Collins, Carole Tomko
Composer: Richard Thompson
Venue: New York Film Festival
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