A trip to our local art house cinema last night presented us with what was a very unusual film. We go regularly and sometimes the experience is shared with a mere handful of folk in a pretty empty cinema. It is often the case, after sitting through a performance, that we realise why the cinema was so empty. Last night the cinema was full, mainly with men and with more than a fair scattering of greying heads and white beards. From the beginning the audience watched in silence and rapt attention to a 72minute documentary. In fact, it was a documentary about a documentary with a documentary at the end about how the most recent one was made. Now, I am beginning to make it sound like it was watching paint dry, but it was riveting.
In 1943, William Wyler made a film about the progress of the war in Europe, following a bomber crew. This with the return and tour of the B17 bomber the “Memphis Bells”, was used as a propaganda tool to help raise moral at home back in the United States. The raw colour footage was recently discovered in a vault and Erik Nelsen and his team painstakingly restored, remastered the material, sharpened the colour and the images and developed it for the big screen. The original film was silent and the sound was added for this work, in a fascinating way with actual recordings of flights in similar aircraft including gunfire and flak. Over this Nelsen played the personal accounts and moving testimonies of men from the 8th Airforce now in there 80’s. Richard Thomson’s music which eventually morphed into his instantly recognisable guitar style matched the mood perfectly.
The technical aspects of the project alone were fascinating but what pinned me to my seat was the transparent honesty and warmth of these men who were willing to say something of their own personal stories caught up in the awfulness of it all. There was something transfixing about the poignant detail in their commentaries. While cockiness slipped in after the 20th mission they still knew they had a 50/50 chance of survival in the 21st. There was something beautiful about their loyalty to their family in the “ship” and their resolution to do their duty. Over the course of the war the 8th Airforce division lost 28,000 men. On the other side 300,000 German civilians were killed and 7.5 million Germans made homeless in the final stages of the campaign when the change from target to carpet bombing was made. The placing of these harrowing facts before the viewer provides the most solemn moment of the film.
And that was the films success. It was neither filled with patriotic fervour nor disillusionment and yet it was both. Erik Nelsen with Richard Thomson’s weeping guitar just left it there. And that’s the way it should be.
“What would you say now to your 20year old self?” a veteran was asked “Don’t go” he said.