Friday, May 30, 2014

WWII in Color

Hollywood film director George Stevens was aboard the HMS Belfast the day of the largest seaborne invasion in history. On D-Day, he landed on the shores of Normandy with his 16 millimeter camera and a stockpile of Kodachrome film to record a personal visual diary of WWII. The film was developed and hidden away for decades, but would later on go on to become the main historical record of the war in color.

George Stevens had been a prominent film director since the 1930s and rose to fame directing A-listers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. Inspired by Leni Riefenstahl's Nazi propaganda movies, Stevens enlisted in 1942 and was assigned to lead the combat motion-picture coverage for newsreels and military archives. He was to provide coverage of the war in black-and-white film but it was the color film he shot (strictly for his personal use) that would become his legacy. 

It is said that Stevens ceased making the comedies he was known for after the war to focus on more serious subject matter. He went on to direct The Diary of Anne Frank, which won him an Academy Award nomination. After Steven's death in 1975, his son George Stevens Jr. discovered the film and produced a documentary on his father's life and extraordinary WWII footage.

George Stevens Sr. (left) and Jr. (right). Image sources: Oscars and Capitol File Magazine 

"This film came on and it was sort of grey-blue skies and barrage balloons, those big things that hung in the sky, and it was on a ship. It turned out (to be) the HMS Belfast, and it was suddenly I realized the morning of the 6th of June, the beginning of the greatest seaborne invasion in history," he said. "I had this feeling that my eyes were the first eyes that hadn't been there who were seeing this day in colour, and I watched this film unfold and on this ship - and all of these men with their flak jackets and anticipation of this day - and around a corner on the ship comes this man - helmet and jacket - and walks into a close-up, and it's my 37-year-old father. It was so moving."

George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin begins during "Operation Overlord," and continues on to show the devastation of French towns, the liberation of Paris, Generals De Gaulle, Patton, and Montgomery, German POWs, and the horrifying scenes during the U.S. Army's discovery of the Dachau concentration camp. One member of Steven's crew (a.k.a. "Steven's Irregulars") narrates, "As a 20-year-old man…with a sheltered life behind him…it was a terrible shock. How can one human being do this to another human being." He goes on to say, "Impossible to think of; how does one justify the smallest murder?…You just wanna' hate all the Germans at this time."

The documentary is available to view online, and is narrated by Stevens Jr. and members of "Stevens' Irregulars." Although this film is the most important color chronicle of the war, it is not alone. "We thought at the time that this was the only color film of the war in Europe. As it turned out, there was some German film that had not yet been discovered," Stevens Jr. said. "But it is the greatest body of color film, and World War II was a black-and-white war. That's how we see it. That's how we saw it. And suddenly to see it in color, it just took on a whole other dimension."

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