Film & TV

A Bomber’s-Eye View of World War II in The Cold Blue

A shot from Erik Nelson’s The Cold Blue
Director Erik Nelson’s affecting documentary mixes restored archival footage of B-17 missions with narration from the men who flew them.

The men of the Eighth Air Force craved fresh eggs for breakfast, a rare treat at their base in England during World War II. When they were served, though, the men blanched. Fresh eggs were set aside for those going on especially dangerous missions. You wanted fresh eggs, but you didn’t want fresh eggs.

The new documentary The Cold Blue is thick with such details, surprising and strange and funny but above all horrifying. The level of everyday heroism on offer almost surpasses our capacity to absorb it. The variety of ways by which men could get killed was vast. What men were expected to do was merely to throw themselves in a storm of lethal fire, go to bed, rise, and repeat.

Even the genesis of The Cold Blue is hard to reconcile with today’s sensibilities. In 1943, William Wyler was already among the most distinguished Hollywood directors, having made Wuthering Heights and Mrs. Miniver. (He would go on to make The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, and Ben-Hur and remains the only person to direct three films to win the Best Picture Oscar.) Wyler, a Jew from Alsace-Lorraine who came to America in 1921, volunteered to join the Army in 1942, spending three years as a major and joining bombing missions over Europe to film the 45-minute documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Wyler’s extraordinary footage was damaged under difficult conditions, but a team led by director Erik Nelson pored over 15 hours of celluloid Wyler and his team of three cinematographers shot. Nelson assembled The Cold Blue by  combining restored footage shot by Wyler with new scenes and voiceover narration from veterans of those B-17 missions. The resulting document of courage is playing a single night in theaters (May 23) ahead of an HBO debut on June 6, the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

Wyler’s cinematographer Harold Tannenbaum was among those killed during the unspeakably harrowing bombing runs, and Wyler himself suffered hearing loss in one hear while filming. Men from B-17 crews speak in Nelson’s film of watching planes flying in such close formation that occasionally two would collide, each of them crashing. Pilots had to remind their ten-man crews not to waste too much time gawping at crashing planes; there was work to do.

Unlike the British, who ordinarily flew at night, American bombers were told to carry out their runs in broad daylight, over heavily defended targets. Their planes were not pressurized or heated. “On a warm day, it would be 28 below. Sometimes it got 60 below,” recalls one veteran. One man’s hands froze to a plexiglass window and his fingers had to be amputated. Frostbite could set in within ten minutes.

With its focus on everyday experience and its eye for powerful detail, The Cold Blue is a kind of spiritual sequel to Peter Jackson’s magnificent World War I documentary They Shall Not Grow Old. Wyler’s footage, shot in saturated colors that give it a hyper-real quality, exhibits a pointillist fascination with the minute, its images and sounds explained by the voiceovers. We learn why the bombs made whistling sounds and how the soldiers decorated their planes. One illustration is captioned, “In Hitler’s face” over a cartoon of an attacking skunk. Wyler takes us inside briefing rooms where bombing targets were identified in childishly simple maps. During the meetings, priests would make their rounds, offering to hear confession and give communion to Catholics. Over the course of the war, more men — 28,000 — lost their lives in the Eighth Air Force than in the entire Marine Corps. The odds of surviving 25 combat missions were less than one in four.

The Cold Blue also recalls another recent filmmaking effort, George Clooney’s feeble adaptation of Catch-22 as a miniseries for Hulu. Though Catch-22 is based on a novel that is in turn informed by the experiences of author Joseph Heller, who flew dozens of missions in a B-25, it feels false and strained, particularly when Clooney is onscreen mugging for laughs as though he’s doing a CBS sitcom. The Cold Blue doesn’t shout its ironies. Its mordant twists occur organically: We learn that if you managed to bail out of your plane and hit the silks for salvation, when you hit the ground, you might be murdered by a gang of German farmers with pitchforks.

In 1944, in an effort to hasten the end of the war, the Army Air Forces ended their precision-bombing policy and moved on to “pattern bombing,” greatly increasing the suffering of noncombatants. The Cold Blue pauses to consider that 300,000 German civilians were killed by bombers, and 7.5 million rendered homeless. “That never crossed my mind, about a human being, being down there,” recalls one vet. None of Catch-22’s characters are so devastatingly blasé.

The history of war movies alternates between patriotic fervor on the one hand and disillusionment on the other. Wyler himself embodied both moods. His last film before he joined the Army was the unabashed propaganda piece Mrs. Miniver; his first film after the war was The Best Years of Our Lives, which probed the alienation of returning vets. In between, his experience on B-17s taught him to see war with both eyes open. Vividly following up on his work, The Cold Blue is an important new volume in the library of World War II films.

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