World War II: The Movie
When the U.S. Army Air Forces needed 100,000 men to volunteer, General Hap Arnold recruited Hollywood.
- By Mark Betancourt
- Air & Space magazine, March 2012
Margaret Herrick Library/Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences
(Page 3 of 6)
In the Pacific, American pilots couldn’t tell the difference between a Japanese Mitsubishi A6M Zero and a U.S. Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, and were shooting down their wingmen. An intact Zero was finally captured in Alaska, and was immediately loaded into a cargo plane and flown to Los Angeles, where unit cameramen were waiting. Within hours the Zero was doing maneuvers over the Californian desert as camera planes filmed it from every angle. The animation department worked through the night to develop a simple way of illustrating the Zero’s distinguishing characteristics. A finished film on how to identify the enemy airplane—complete with a cartoon comparing the fuselage to a cigar—was shipped out to air bases all over the Pacific theater the next day.
Howard Landres and Eugene Marks, now in their late 80s, are among the few alumni of the unit still living. They were childhood friends in Los Angeles, and they were only 19 when they joined the Air Forces as filmmakers. Both were going to college and working part time, Marks as an engineer at a recording studio and Landres in the reading room at MGM. Having heard that the Air Forces had formed a film unit close to home, they jumped at the chance to join. Landres showed up to interview with Lieutenant Reagan on a Thursday (his day off at MGM), and Reagan asked if he would be ready to join the Air Forces the next day.
“I said, ‘Tomorrow’s Friday! I have a date,’ ” Landres remembers. Reagan suggested the following Tuesday, and they had a deal. Marks also asked that his induction be postponed a few days, as he had tickets to a football game.
“You got to remember, this was a Hollywood unit,” says Landres. “Nobody really saluted as an officer passed. I mean, it was so not the military.” Many members of the unit lived at home and commuted to Fort Roach. The men addressed one another by first names, and in their free time they played badminton or volleyball on empty sound stages. All unit recruits were required to go through basic training before reporting to the post, says Landres, “but it wasn’t the basic-basic.”
“It was like, marching up and down the street for 20 minutes,” says Marks.
“How we won the war was not through this unit,” jokes producer Arthur Gardner. “If any real Army officer had come and spent a week there, he’d have been out of his mind.” Gardner, now 101 years old, had been an actor in the 1930 movie All Quiet on the Western Front, and already had an established producing career when he joined.
But there was serious business going on at Fort Roach. Several of the unit’s films were top secret, and during filming and editing, parts of the post were restricted. Marks remembers being issued a sidearm and ordered to accompany a batch of celluloid from the lot to a nearby processing facility. Later he learned the film was part of a briefing on the atomic bomb missions to Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
“We were pretty serious there,” says Landres. “I mean…we were still kids, but it was still a big war. The training films really were important, and they’re pretty well done. Because before that, there was really nothing stimulating when you saw an Army movie for training.”