Eyewitnesses to War

  • When director Steven Spielberg was a teenager, he had a memorable encounter with his hero, the legendary John Ford. The aspiring filmmaker and the aging icon discovered they had something very special in common: a fascination with D-day.

    Ford had been in charge of the camera unit at Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, his mission to film the Operation Overlord invasion that landed 176,000 Allied soldiers on the beaches of Normandy for the massive assault against the Germans occupying France. Yet somehow Ford's footage was lost until 1998, when Melvyn R. Paisley, a World War II aviator and Reagan-era Assistant Secretary of the Navy, found a few canisters of the missing film deep within the National Archives. Spielberg, whose father had also served in the U.S. Army Air Corps and who would win the Best Director Oscar for his own D-day movie, Saving Private Ryan, was intrigued when he read about Paisley's find in the New Yorker.

    So intrigued, in fact, that he recruited documentary maker and TIME film critic Richard Schickel and immediately started hunting for more raw footage from World War II. With Paisley's help, they amassed 600 hours' worth and began editing the remarkable trove. The result is Shooting War, a spectacularly conceived and haunting 90-min. documentary that premieres June 5, in conjunction with the opening of the National D-Day Museum, at a conference sponsored by the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans.

    Narrated by Tom Hanks and scored by composer Arthur B. Rubinstein, Shooting War--which is due to air on ABC late this summer--is not for the fainthearted. It is the great WW II documentary Ford never got to make. "Don't pretty it up," Spielberg insisted to Schickel, who directed and wrote the film. "I want to see the wounded and the dying. I want people to understand that's what war is about."

    The documentary leaves little doubt about that. Image after image sears the soul: Japanese kamikazes crashing their planes into aircraft carriers off Okinawa; American G.I.s blown to bits by 16-in. mortar shells in Tarawa; a Japanese woman throwing her baby and then herself off a cliff in Saipan rather than surrender; the frozen bodies of American G.I.s massacred by German SS in the Ardennes Forest; the beaten carcass of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini hanging by his heels in a square in Milan; and, of course, the emaciated corpses of slaughtered Jews piled up like cords of wood at Dachau.

    Shooting War begins with never-before-seen outtakes from John Ford's Hollywood re-creation of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, and ends with the actual footage of the annihilation of Nagasaki by a U.S. atom bomb on Aug. 9, 1945. What makes the images so immediate, however, is the harrowing commentary from some of the 23 combat cameramen interviewed for the film. "I came to view these cameramen as they view other servicemen--as heroes of the quotidian," says Schickel. "They were guys doing their jobs without thought of glory or fame. They remain unassuming, often humorous, always realistic about their accomplishments."

    Among the tales of battlefield duty behind a lens are those told by Don Honeyman, who captured the liberation of Manila; Dick Taylor, who filmed Americans being mowed down on Omaha Beach on the first day of the invasion; and Norman Hatch, whose footage proved the authenticity of Joe Rosenthal's famous photo of U.S. Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima.

    Thankfully, many of the grislier sequences in Shooting War are interspersed with gentler scenes: a young girl handing a G.I. a daisy, French peasants pitching hay even in a bomb-ravaged countryside, Thanksgiving turkeys being air-dropped to U.S. soldiers in the Far East. But these reprieves are brief: unlike the relentlessly pro-Allied cinematic morale boosters made by Ford and others at the time, Shooting War also shows an Australian infantryman using a flamethrower on a screaming Japanese soldier in Borneo, as well as Japanese orphans shaking uncontrollably from radiation sickness after the U.S. dropped the atom bomb.

    Spielberg, Schickel and Hanks will discuss the making of Shooting War before an audience of 3,000 World War II veterans this week in New Orleans. At a small prescreening of the documentary, a handful of "greatest generation" heroes cried throughout it, knowing, as they had learned when they gave their all for democracy a half-century ago, that freedom from tyranny remains the highest aspiration of mankind.

    Douglas Brinkley is director of the Eisenhower Center at the University of New Orleans