World War II: The Movie

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

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)
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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.”

According to Crump, the Surgeon General of the Air Forces claimed that a 10-minute film made by the unit could teach his men more about caring for the wounded than he could teach them in a month. In his memoirs, German Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel wrote of the American military, “Our major miscalculation was in underestimating their quick and complete mastery of film education.” Partly as a result of the training in which the First Motion Picture Unit played such an essential role, more bombers and fighters were in the air over Europe faster than the Germans could organize to repel them.

When the war ended, the unit was disbanded, and Hal Roach Studios was returned to its owner with several million dollars’ worth of improvements, courtesy of the Army Air Forces. The studio went back to making commercial films, but eventually closed. In 1963, it was demolished. Gene Marks became a music editor, and worked on such varied films as The Exorcist and Spaceballs. Donald Meyer, a writer for the unit, went on to pen hundreds of songs, including the Billie Holiday hit “For Heaven’s Sake.” A few of Fort Roach’s filmmakers stayed in the military, and some went on to film the many nuclear bomb tests conducted by the United States throughout the cold war.

When the Germans surrendered in May 1945, General Arnold gave Crump one last task: to travel throughout Europe shooting color film of the impact Arnold’s air force had had. Crump and his crew traveled from city to city, including Berlin, filming the damage done by years of bombing. They recorded the interrogations of top Nazi officials captured after V-E Day. They shot footage of the Nazi concentration camps Ohrdruf and Buchenwald as Allied forces liberated the camps.

Back in California, Ronald Reagan and Technical Sergeant Malvin Wald, a scriptwriter, were among the few people to see the developed film of the camps. “Even though it was a summer day, Reagan came out shivering—we all did,” Wald recalled in a 2002 interview. “We’d never seen anything like that.” Arnold was ultimately unable to procure enough funding from Congress to create a documentary using Crump’s footage, and the unused raw film was interred in archives.

After the war, Crump was asked to stay on to command a new film facility being set up in Florida. The Air Forces brass had been so impressed with the job he’d done at Fort Roach that they offered him the rank of general. But Crump retired his commission and went back to work for Jack Warner.

Crump remembered being on the Warner Brothers lot shooting a civilian movie when two Air Forces officers showed up. They had seen Resisting Enemy Interrogation in training. Overseas, they were shot down and captured in Germany. After the downed airmen had been taken in a very familiar truck, through a very familiar gate, they looked at each other in disbelief. There was the exact same chateau from the movie. “We’d die laughing,” Crump recalled them saying, “because it was just like the movies. We all felt like we were in the movies.”

Crump told them how the film was made, the tricks they’d used, and all the expertise and talent that had gone into it.

When they asked him how he knew so much about it, he didn’t tell them that he’d built the First Motion Picture Unit from scratch, or that he had produced the film that helped them through their captivity. Crump replied only, “Oh, I was in the Air Force too.”

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