DVD: U-Boats: The Wolfpack / B-17: The Flying Fortress (1987)

September 11, 2020 | By

Film: Excellent

Transfer: Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  BSX Entertainment

Region: 0 (NTSC)

Released: April 14, 2020

Genre:  Documentary / WWII / TV

Synopsis: Two half-hour WWII documentaries narrated by Edward Mulhare which originally aired on syndicated TV.

Special Features: 2020 Trailer / Photo Gallery (1:53) / Original Soundtrack (41:25).




Very little is known about this (presumably) four-part documentary series produced by Midwich Entertainment over (presumably) 2 years, narrated by character actor and serious voice extraordinaire Edward Mulhare (TV’s Knight Rider), but two episodes, U-Boats: The Wolfpack and B-17: The Flying Fortress, live on not only for their otherwise solid content, but their scores by Christopher (“Chris”) Young, future composer of Hellraiser (1987), Urban Legends (1998), and Drag Me to Hell (2009).

Not unlike his music for the student short-turned-feature Pranks / The Dorm That Dripped Blood (1982), this seminal work for TV showcased Young’s knack for orchestral writing – thematic, experimental, and full-blooded – and it’s the music, previously released on LP and later CD by Cerberus Records, that’s brought the half-hour episodes back into circulation (and maybe the release of the feature film Greyhound, which follows the assault of German U-boats from the Allied convoy’s perspective).

In terms of the two docs on this DVD, the logical assumption is the quartet of half-hour productions were sold to syndicated TV and aired not long after their production dates, after which they effectively vanished, save perhaps for the odd airing timed for a WWII anniversary on documentary specialty channels.

Like Pranks, Young’s music has overt traces of Bernard Herrmann (oh, those patented muted woodwinds) and Jerry Goldsmith (namely muscular march rhythms and stirring brass), but it’s also fair to suggest the episodes may have been temp tracked in large part with material from the latter composer’s The Blue Max (1966), a dour tale of a fame-hungry German WWI fighter pilot who’s ultimately sacrificed by the military during the waning years of the war.

The roots leading directly to Goldsmith’s epic are striking (as is each episode’s closing music being very evocative of Capricorn One), but Young uses the Blue Max’s “Bridge Duel” music as instrumental underpinnings for the score, blending his own material when it’s clear his new themes would work much better in illustrating the ruthlessness of the battle between swarming U-boats and the merchant marines, and the allied escorts risking lives to get supplies to blockaded England.

According to former U-boat captain Herbert A Werner, life for the nearly 30,000 Germans who joined the submarine assault was rather miserable, with long shifts and food rotting within weeks adding extra strain on the long voyages across Europe and the eastern U.S. coast. Under the command of Admiral Doenitz, the branded Wolfpack descended upon the U.S. and wreaked havoc off the North American coast. As John M. Waters, Capt. U.S. Coast Guard, recounts, the first 6 months resulted in tons of lost supplies and life, but it was during the assault on the Britain-bound ships where the U-boats began to lose their grip, with British radar, the invention of sonar, breaking the German marine codes, and air assaults playing a large part in the Wolfpack’s defeat.

Even at 22 mins., Wolfpack provides a compact overview of the battle between the allies and German Nazis, relying on taut narration to bridge the two present day interviews with rich newsreel footage. Young’s music and a solid sound design augments the drama, and the saga is punctuated by images of the U.S. captured U-boat 505.

Young’s music is repurposed in the second doc, B-17: The Flying Fortress (1987), in which B&W and rare colour footage in augmented by interviews with Gen. Curtis E. Lemay. 98,000 planes were built, 12,000 of which were the B-17, the massive four-engine plane with turret guns and capability of dropping heavy payloads. Most of the airmen were in their twenties, and many learned how to fly and shoot during abbreviated training sessions and while in action over Europe. Veterans Theodore S. Drew, Bud Kingsbury, Tom Landry, David W. Litsinger, and Lemay recall training and numerous harrowing moments, the substantive loss of life and injury, and the strategic shift when massive carpet bombing turned German cities into incendiary pits.

Like Wolfpack, Flying Fortress features the same tight narration and editing, and the story of the bomber’s pivotal role in WWII is stressed by the men’s numerous recollections.

The DVD by BSX Entertainment (themselves a soundtrack label and distributor) features crisp transfers from likely U-Matic or Betacam tape sources, and the mono mixes are clean & balanced. The last seconds of the End Credits are clipped – perhaps an effort by the current owner to excise the original distributor.

In terms of extras, a new trailer touts the series and Young’s involvement with stereo cues and new sound effects; a stills gallery of zoomed-in & out frame grabs are set to Young’s title music; and the music for (presumably) the four episodes are presented in a separate stereo score gallery (minus cue indexed and track titles).

The last extra is a nice bonus that showcases the young composer’s unique skills in writing striking themes, and embracing the wonderful dissonance and robustness of an orchestra (and making a small ensemble sound big with very slight synth support).

The DVD’s a no-brainer for fans of the composer and WWII – the docs are concise, solid accounts which emphasize facts over style, and the footage isn’t edited in over-stylized ADD montages. One hopes the other two episodes, Secret Weapons of WW2 and Luftwaffe: The Air Weapon, also make it to DVD, although their scores, which also have roots to Goldsmith’s Capricorn One and bits of Twilight Zone: The Movie, were reportedly repurposed from the Roger Corman-produced, post-apocalyptic Mad Max riff Wheels of Fire (1985), and the soldier of fortune actioner Getting Even (1986), both scored by Young.

Young would revisit the war genre – the TV anthology series Vietnam War Story (1987-1988) and TV movie Last Flight Out (1990), and most notably in the percussive Bat-21 (1988), which has some stylistic similarities to the Midwich scores

U-Boats: The Wolfpack and B-17: The Flying Fortress were executive produced by Craig Haffner, produced by Richard Jones and Patrick Griffin on Wolfpack and Jones and Pfeiffer on Flying Fortress, associate producer P.J. Price, editor Spencer Willets at Varitel Video for Wolfpack and John Moore on Flying Fortress, with animated title designed by KABC Graphics.



© 2020 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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