This television documentary of combat photographers in World War II is extraordinary in some ways. For one thing, who has paid much attention to them? Our memories and impressions of combat are of the images they took, not of the men themselves. We like to see our boys in action -- the Corsairs dropping napalm, the flame throwers cleaning out the caves in burst of orange, the Focke Wolfes disintegrating under the guns of our P 51s, the big booming artillery pieces in Italy, the plunging Kamikaze that skims in fire across the deck. We seldom think of the men behind the cameras.
Nor do we see everything they've shot. Typically we watch a bull dozer shovel dozens of dead Japanese into mass graves. We don't ordinarily see the swollen bodies of American Marines or soldiers bobbing in the slight surf of Tarawa or Normandy, or the bodies of American airmen, twisted in the wreckage of their B 17s. The censors spared the sensitive viewer during the war and in the feature films since then that have incorporated newsreel footage.
I would estimate that only about ten percent of the footage in this documentary is familiar to most viewers. The rest of it is strange and often horrifying. The struggles with the mules in some disregarded area of the China-Burma-India Theater or the brutality of the battle for Manilla. There is a lot of slogging on film but the film is rarely seen, presumably because it lacks drama. Or sometimes the shot may be dramatic but the camera was too shaky or slightly out of focus.
You'll see in this film the footage that is missing from most documentaries, and it will fill in the gaps in an informative way. One of the lessons to be learned from this kind of honesty is that death in combat tends to be ignoble, no matter which side you're on, and no matter the circumstances. You've seen Mussolini and his mistress hanging upside down, have have you seen what remains of the head of Mussolini's corpse?
It's also surprising to find so many photographers who went on to Hollywood careers or had their careers momentarily interrupted. John Ford, of course, who shot some of the Midway battle himself and won two Oscars for his short subjects. Wounded at Midway, he continued filming the attacking enemy planes, shouting and waving for them to fly this way or that.
John Huston's "The Battle of San Pietro" is also covered and it's revealed for the first time, for me anyway, that Huston had his photographers stage some of the battle scenes, though the soldiers of the 36th IR were real enough. But few people think of Richard Brooks ("In Cold Blood") as having filmed battle scenes. Even fewer think of Russ ("Faster Pussycat, Kill, Kill") Meyer as a combat photographer.
There are interspersed tales told by a dozen or so photographers from each one of the Armed Forces. Probably the most famous photo to come out of the war was the raising of the American flag atop Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima, which was taken by a civilian AP photographer. Most of them did more than simply aim their cameras and press a button. The very presence of a a photographer tended to boost morale. And some were trained as tank gunners or infantrymen and filled those roles from time to time.
This isn't an ordinary documentary about the war. It's a far more honest image of warfare than we're used to. I'd applaud it for that reason alone. Washington Irving was a little florid but had a point when he wrote, "Society is like a lawn, where every roughness is smoothed, every bramble eradicated, and where the eye is delighted by the smiling verdure of a velvet surface; he, however, who would study nature in its wildness and variety, must plunge into the forest, must explore the glen, must stem the torrent, and dare the precipice." Nature can be pretty ugly, including human nature.
The film is hosted by Tom Hanks and written and directed by Richard Schickel and it doesn't pull any punches. (The landings on Iwo Jima was a necessity. The assault on Peleliu, which cost more than a thousand American lives, wasn't.) I can't help but admire that kind of candor when it's presented without its usual propellant of anger. A mortally ill Steven Ambrose makes what's probably his final appearance on the screen.