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 4 of 6)
An example of Fort Roach’s improvement to the military training experience was Resisting Enemy Interrogation, a feature-length thriller about a downed aircrew captured by the Nazis. The script is based on the experiences of two American airmen who had been held and interrogated at a chateau in southern Germany; set designers modeled the interiors of the chateau after the airmen’s memories of the real thing, and took detailed notes on the Germans’ tactics. The set builders even enlarged a postcard of the chateau to use as a backdrop for the opening scene.
Owen Crump remembered that when the film was first assigned, it had a palpable buzz. “Kind of like in a regular motion picture studio,” he said, “sometimes you get involved with a film that everybody, the cameramen, electricians and the gaffers, the cutters, everybody, and the actors, know they got one. Everybody feels it and gets excited.”
The film’s purpose is to show airmen-in-training how wily interrogators can be, and how catastrophic the consequences of talking. It’s riveting to watch. The dialogue, acting, cinematography, and music are all cranked up to Hollywood blockbuster-levels, a quality reflected by the film’s nomination for an Academy Award in 1945 in the category of Best Documentary Feature.
While many of the unit’s early films featured its famous actors onscreen, celebrities like Reagan were eventually used only for voice-over, so as not to distract trainees. Instead, most members of the unit served as actors at one time or another. Crump remembers when a visiting colonel unwittingly saluted an electrician dressed as a one-star general for a scene being shot nearby.
To train bomber crews going to Japan, the art department built a 90- by 60-foot scale model of Japan’s coast. The model was made out of paperboard, paint, plaster, dirt, and fabric; forests were made out of foam that had been put through a grinder. During filming, the camera would “fly” over the model to simulate the exact route of the bomb runs. Pilots returning from Japan said the model was incredibly accurate, even down to the varying colors of the seawater along the shore.
One of the crucial functions of the unit was to train combat cameramen in the use of motion picture cameras on the battlefield. Some of the trainees were Hollywood cinematographers; some were high school kids who had taken photography classes. All had to be taught how to load their own film and, if the need arose, how to develop it in the field. From Culver City, the cameramen would ship out all over the world to record the war. In some cases, footage from the front was sent to Fort Roach for use in its films. The men of the Combat Camera Units saw every type of action—they even trained to use machine guns in case a gunner was hit on a bombing run—and they were just as likely to be killed or wounded as their fighting comrades. Much of the aerial footage of World War II was shot by crews trained at Fort Roach.
While filming the documentary Memphis Belle, Oscar-winning director William Wyler and his camera crew flew in bombers over Europe and saw flak and machine-gun fire up close. Wyler wrote home about the challenges of shooting film at 29,000 feet in an unpressurized, unheated cabin. They had to hug their cameras to keep them from freezing up, and getting a good shot was difficult with the oxygen tanks they had to drag from window to window—while under enemy fire.
Most of the film professionals at Fort Roach never saw that side of the war, though occasionally they came close. Writer/director Stan Rubin, now 94, was sent to the Pacific island of Saipan to document the first B-29 mission to bomb Tokyo. While Rubin waited for the Superfortresses to leave, the Japanese bombed Saipan night after night. No bombs directly threatened the foxhole where he took shelter, but it was the closest he ever came to combat. He remembered his relative safety when interacting with regular servicemen who had seen the fighting first hand. “They were appreciative to a certain extent of what we were doing,” he says. “But it would never live up to those who had been in combat or were about to go into combat.”