Film: From Hollywood to Nuremberg – John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens (2012)

May 15, 2014 | By


FromHollywoodToNuremberg_pic_sFilm: Excellent

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Genre:  Documentary / Toronto Jewish Film Festival 2014

Synopsis: Detailed background and chronicle of the U.S. Army’s First Motion Picture Unit, headed by John Ford and aided by fellow directors George Stevens and Samuel Fuller who together documented the D-Day landings, and the liberation of Europe and Nazi concentration camps.

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Realizing the gravity of WWII and the potential usefulness in capturing the horror of war and refute Nazi Germany’s massive propaganda machine, director John Ford (Drums Along the Mohawk, The Grapes of Wrath, How Green Was My Valley) helped assemble what became the U.S. Army’s First Motion Picture Unit which initially trained technicians to be ‘battle ready’ and document war (with a little propagandistic enhancements) once they were sent to the front lines on land and sea.

Under Ford’s command were fellow directors George Stevens (The Diary of Anne Frank, The Only Game in Town) and future writer-director Samuel Fuller (Forty Guns, House of Bamboo), and esteemed and longtime cameraman to Ford, Gregg Toland, who helped train cinematographers and later (with Ford) directed the propaganda film, December 7th (1943) regarding the bombing of Pearl Harbor. (The doc featured both real and recreated material since cameramen were clearly not present in the lead-up to and attack on the stationed fleet.)

Director Christian Delage went through familiar and much lesser-known film archives to weave together this gradually gripping account of the First Motion Picture Unit’s formation, its success in bringing both news, military propaganda, and the horrors of war to the American public, and affecting the filmmakers to the point where each at one time made one or several statements against intolerance, if not semi-autobiographical wartime experiences.

Delage also relies on the written words of the filmmakers, plus rare interview extracts of Ford and Fuller to firm up the doc’s gradual focus on all three directors eventually dealing with graphic scenes at two of Nazi Germany’s most notorious concentration camps – Dachau, filmed by Stevens, and Falkenau, by Fuller – where the remains of the dead were placed into mass burials by captured Nazis, and the resulting footage was used to successfully prosecute Nazi officials in Nuremberg.

Delage’s narrative structure also examines the specific filmic methods each director used to create both contrasts between the Nazis and camp survivors using specific camera placements, and sustained wide shots to ensure the footage verified each and every Nazi atrocity.

There are many moving sections within the doc – from the directors’ own observations, and the footage itself – but perhaps the most visceral material comes from Fuller, a former newsman whose own parlance was no-nonsense and meted out with blunt force. His account of repatriating the remains of fallen (blown-up) soldiers on D-Day is especially horrific, as is footage of the slow death of a grievously wounded German soldier whom Fuller filmed in the woods as fellow U.S. Marines provided some humanistic comfort.

Fuller would later revisit his experience in the autobiographical war drama The Big Red One (1980), whereas the rare colour footage shot by Ford would make its way into The Battle of Midway (1942). Stevens’ own footage was later edited into the memorable PBS documentary George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin (1994),

Running 53 mins., Delage’s film provides an excellent backstory to the more personal involvement of Hollywood’s top directors in WWII, and deserves a proper DVD release, perhaps with Delage’s prior film, Nuremberg: The Nazis Facing Their Crimes / Nuremberg – Les nazis face à leurs crimes (2006).

Other directors involved with American propaganda and wartime productions include Frank Capra’s 7-part series Why We Fight (1941-1945); John Huston’s San Pietro (1945) and Let There Be Light (1946); Billy Wilder’s Death Mills (1945), made to aide in the de-Nazification of Germans and Austrians; and Alfred Hitchcock’s grueling and unfinished Memory of the Camps, first broadcast on PBS in 1985, and which recently underwent a restoration.



© 2014 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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