The Cold Blue, a B-17 movie

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The Cold Blue is a new feature-length film constructed from the material of 34 reels of raw, colour, footage shot during bombing missions in Germany. Captured by William Wyler, it was originally shot for the 1944 documentary The Memphis Belle: A story of a Flying Fortress.

It will be in cinemas only on Thursday 4th July.

Wish I could see it.


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Article in Daily Telegraph 2/7/19

In the summer of 1943, Hollywood director William Wyler and three cameramen flew aboard B-17 bombers for five highly-dangerous combat missions over Germany, to capture footage for the classic Second World War documentary, Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress.

In the unheated B-17s, temperatures would drop as low as -60° C and the missions risked both death and capture. In fact, so dangerous were the missions that one of his cameramen, the cinematographer Harold J. Tannenbaum, was shot down and killed over France.

The finished Memphis Belle documentary named after the legendary B-17 plane inside which Wylers film was ostensibly set (he actually flew in various planes) – was just 45 minutes long.

But Wyler who directed the likes of Ben Hur, Mrs. Miniver, and The Best Years of our Lives – captured an incredible 15 hours of colour footage, which had been locked away in the US National Archives until being recently discovered by filmmaker Erik Nelson.

Now Nelson has crafted his own documentary, The Cold Blue, made from Wylers unused raw footage, now painstakingly restored and narrated by nine surviving B-17 crewmen, and a re-cut restoration of Wylers original Memphis Belle documentary.

Following on from They Shall Not Grow Old and Apollo 11, The Cold Blue is the latest documentary to put an alternative perspective of 20th century history onto the big screen, and will be shown in UK cinemas for one night only this Thursday July 4.

I won’t say the footage was lost, says Nelson, but it had to be found. When I saw the footage, it was not unlike Howard Carter opening the tomb of King Tut. It was this reaction of, Oh my god! because I could see what could be done with it.

As producer of Grizzly Man and director of The Gray State, Nelson is already skilled at creating his own documentaries from existing footage. Also a WW2 expert, Nelson had an initial idea to make a film before he’d even discovered the Wyler outtakes. But he had a vague idea that there was something special to be found in the National Archives. My producing partner Paul G. Allen and I went in looking for colour footage of World War 2 aeroplanes,” Nelson says. That was the mandate just to see what was there.”

While it conjures up images of some dusty, mysterious crate being unearthed hidden away in a secret government warehouse like the Ark of Covenant in Indiana Jones – it wasnt quite as dramatic as that. But Nelson still knew he chanced upon, in documentary filmmakers terms at least, a serious treasure trove. It was a nonchalant comment from his researcher, Lisa Hatjens, that tipped him off.

It was sitting in this archive and card catalogue, says Nelson. My researcher kicked through the catalogue and said, Of course, theres the 34 reels of the Memphis Belle outtakes. The moment she said it I said, Excuse me?! She explained what it was. Instantly the concept of this film came to me my initial idea was to make an art film using this ravishing footage that redefined the parameters of the historical documentary. And Im hoping I got close to that in the final product.

William Wylers film, about the final mission of the Memphis Belle, had been made to keep the yankee end up during the war effort, capturing both the astounding bravery of the young airmen and stunning air battles (the Memphis Belle itself was also put on morale-boosting duties, touring the US after it returned from action in Europe).

The Cold Blue has those moments of the action gunners firing rounds at German fighters, planes tail-spinning out of control, and plumes of black smoke exploding around the B-17s from German flak guns but Nelson's approach is more about the human side of the 8th Air Force crews.

Assembling nine surviving veterans, Nelson allows their stories to create a touching, if sometimes sombre and pensive portrait of 19-year-old boys sent off to war boys who are naïve, warm hearted, and simply dont know any better – as told from the perspective of old men who have been processing the effects of war for 75 years. Now in their 90s, they are still sprightly and articulate.

Well I can see why they young fellas to fight a war, says Al Villagran, who served as a gunner and radio operator. ''When you're younger you feel you can do anything. I think when you get older you get smarter.'

They talk about the relief of getting back from missions alive, only to be sent back into the skies at two hours notice the next morning; they reminisce about their pet dogs at base and the colourful names they painted onto the sides of their planes; and even what they ate for breakfast (If you got fresh eggs you knew you were gonna have a real tough mission! one of them says.)

In one way the film came together quickly, says Nelson. But in another way Id been waiting my whole career to do it. I didn’t want a traditional World War 2 documentary. One of the broadcasters in America rejected the film because they felt it was too meditative. That’s a fair cop but that’s exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to unmoor it from details and focus on things we don't normally think about.

These men played with their dogs, they looked cool in their sunglasses, and they liked to play grabass and pitch pennies. They would talk s––t for three hours over the intercom while on their way to Germany to avoid the tension, and their oxygen masks would freeze so they’d have to shake out the ice. These are things you don’t think about and it's almost the last chance we have to memoralise these facts.”

The Cold Blue is also something of a love letter to the B-17s, lionised in the film as hardy bombers that returned from the skies with their engines, tail fins, and wings shot to pieces the kind of damage that would have downed lesser planes but were quickly patched up and sent back into battle. Over 12,000 B-17s were made during the war, and almost 5,000 lost in combat over Europe.

Among the playfulness come moments of sudden horror: they describe how one crew member's hand froze to a plane window, so his fingers had to be amputated; and how friends were blasted out of the sky, including one pal who was killed the day his baby was born back home. Another story describes how another friend had parachuted to safety, but was pitchforked to death after landing.

For Nelson, the biggest challenge was the technical challenge of working with such old, delicate film stock. It was the first time 16mm World War II footage had been transferred to 4K.

The difficult part was to physically get the footage from these 75-year old crumbling sprockets, then getting the celluloid threaded onto a transfer device, he says. That project was undertaken by the National Archives. They wouldnt let the footage out of their doors. They did an extraordinary job and it took a long time to do it.

Profile picture for user J Boyle

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Interesting comment at the end of the Telegraph article.
Years ago, most silent-era films were lost when their nitrate stock began to crumble (and it was also combustible).

Now, 75 years on, the newer "safety" film is also deteriorating.
(as are videotape productions from the 70-80s. If you see comedies from that era, they look terrible now. Hopefully, some of those won't be preserved.)

And one other thing to concern ourselves with, so does old paper.
About 20 years ago I lived in the Washington area and went to the National Archives to look up information on my father's B-17 group.
I had requested the material ahead of time so they had a cart full of document boxes ready for me.

I found a lot of mission orders/crew assignments/information was on thin paper, some looked like old carbon copy-like sheets, but even the thicker original stationary was getting bad.

Even under ideal storage conditions, it won't last forever.

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Is it going world wide, I would like to see it