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From The Cold Blue (courtesy the American Film Institute)

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 yearThe 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.)

From The Cold Blue (courtesy the American Film Institute)

From The Cold Blue (courtesy the American Film Institute)

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.

From The Cold Blue (courtesy the American Film Institute)

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.

From The Cold Blue (courtesy the American Film Institute)

From The Cold Blue (courtesy the American Film Institute)

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.

The Cold Blue will be screening alongside The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress at AFI Fest in Hollywood on November 11. The film will air on HBO in June 2019.

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Dan Schindel

Dan Schindel is Associate Editor for Documentary at Hyperallergic. He is studying in the masters program at Merz Akademie in Stuttgart, Germany. You can find his all his links and public profiles here.

4 replies on “An Unforgettable Movie Collects Recently Discovered Color Footage of World War II”

  1. It was interesting how Goering said that it was good the USA made the B17 since they were so easy to shoot down. The B17 scored more shoot downs of enemy fighters that any other aircraft during WW2. He also found out the hard way how very effective they were. There may have been a wall around Nazi Germany but there was no roof over it.

  2. Wishing for a war never to happen again doesn’t seem trite to me. The writer has obviously never had to go without anything due to an armed conflict. And I hope we never do.

  3. These screenshots are absolutely beautiful. I suspect them of having cranked the saturation up a bit during restoration, but it just makes me want to go shoot 16mm color film again…

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