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The First Motion Picture Unit made hundreds of G.I. training films, as well as movies to boost homefront morale. (Margaret Herrick Library/Academy Of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences)

World War II: The Movie

When the U.S. Army Air Forces needed 100,000 men to volunteer, General Hap Arnold recruited Hollywood.

“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.”

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.

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