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This fall has seen the release of The Other Side of the Wind, which legendary director Orson Welles left unfinished many decades ago. It’s not the only “new” movie made with very old footage out this year. The Cold Blue is a curious blend of fresh and historical material, made up of contemporary interviews and outtakes from a 74-year-old film. It’s not as insightful as it could be, but its imagery is never less than astonishing.
After the US’s entry into World War II, Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler (best known today for The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, and Ben-Hur) volunteered for the US Army Air Forces. Serving as a major, he directed documentaries about the air war in Europe and the Mediterranean. In 1943, he and his crew brought 16mm color cameras aboard Boeing B-17 Flying Fortresses on bombing runs over Germany. The resultant film, 1944’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, purported to show the final mission of the bomber Memphis Belle. (It was actually pieced together from several different missions.)
All of Wyler’s raw footage from the various missions was recently discovered preserved in the National Archives, which then partnered with Vulcan Productions and Creative Differences to make a new documentary from the material. While all the men who flew the Memphis Belle have since passed, Cold Blue director Erik Nelson and his crew got some of the few surviving veterans of the Eighth Air Force to speak about their own experiences aboard B-17’s during the war. The Cold Blue, screening this weekend at the AFI Fest in Los Angeles, recounts what it was like to fly such dangerous missions in planes that were neither heated nor pressurized.
The veterans lend context to the footage, but they frequently almost seem like afterthoughts. The visuals captured by Wyler’s crew are overpoweringly mesmerizing. Even in the midst of combat, there’s an unreal quality to the 16mm footage. It could almost be counted against the film that it doesn’t quite convey the danger. After all, one of Wyler’s cameramen, Harold Tannenbaum, died during production when the plane he was on was shot down. But this is less about making the viewer feel like they are there than giving them a new way to consider World War II.
The restoration of Wyler’s footage is impeccable. We don’t generally think of this time in color — most movies and newsreels of the period were in black and white. Color is for the postwar world. But The Cold Blue isn’t exactly showing us what things “really” looked like. No real sky looks the kind of saturated blue that it does in 16mm. Watching the documentary feels like drifting into a daydream while listening to these anecdotes, or being able to see their memories.
Some of the messages the interviewees impart are clichéd — that people should remember those who “fought for freedom,” that civilians should remember these events so that they aren’t repeated, etc. The mundanity of these observations sometimes clash with the near transcendence expressed in the visuals. But whenever The Cold Blue quiets down and gets out of its own way, it’s unforgettable.