Fans of classic war stories and aerial action are in for a unique and stirring mix of audio and visuals in Erik Nelson’s “The Cold Blue.” The handsome, lovingly reconstructed, if brief, documentary is based on unearthed footage shot by director William Wyler for his 1944 documentary “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.”
Wyler had already directed such esteemed features as “Wuthering Heights,” “The Little Foxes” and “Mrs. Miniver” (winning the directing Oscar for the last) when, in 1943, the then-40-year-old filmmaker enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces to record the air war in progress. His goal: to boost spirits at home by showcasing the bravery of American pilots and their crews.
This involved Wyler and his production team flying on B-17 bombers with the 8th Air Force during missions over Europe. The result was a wealth of vivid color footage — of the planes, the skies, the fighters and the fighting — at a time when most images coming out of World War II were in black and white. Tragically, one of Wyler’s cinematographers was killed when his plane was shot down in battle.
More than 70 years later, director Nelson learned that 34 reels of “Memphis Belle” outtakes existed in the vaults of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., and decided to repurpose them for an all-new film. But this noble task required a painstaking, frame-by frame, digital process to repair the scratched footage and restore it to its original clean state.
The 16-millimeter film was then transferred to 4K and the images enlarged for widescreen presentation. (Though “Blue” has been shown at festivals and in special screenings and opens Friday in a single Los Angeles-area theater, it will premiere on HBO June 6 to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-day.)
In addition, as Wyler’s work was recorded without sound, the audio also needed to be reconstructed. It’s all a major technical achievement by Nelson and company.
(As for Wyler, he went on to direct the acclaimed postwar drama “The Best Years of Our Lives,” “Roman Holiday,” “Ben-Hur,” “Funny Girl” and others, in a career that saw a record 12 Oscar nominations, including three wins and an Irving Thalberg Award.)
Nelson and his editors, Robert Erickson and Paul Marengo, have deftly blended a vibrant selection of footage with voice-over commentary from nine surviving veterans of the 8th Air Force: a mix of former pilots, gunners, navigators and bombardiers. These ex-flyers, all now in their 90s, serve as our guides, offering lucid memories on everything from training, combat, camaraderie and their brushes with death to the war’s aftermath.
Their stories and observations are alternately daunting, heroic, ironic and amusing, although the men all seem to agree that their time in the 8th was a essentially a “marriage” between soldiers and aircraft.
Their recollections include the ominous meaning of being served real eggs versus the more customary powdered kind (a “tough mission” was in the offing); how the Brits considered the Yanks “overpaid, oversexed and ‘over here’”; how, as the war dragged on, the Air Force switched from precision bombing to more widely destructive pattern bombing; and accounts of the dangerously frigid temperatures suffered while flying in the unpressurized and unheated B-17s at 30,000 feet (“On a warm day it would be 20 below”) — hence, the “cold blue” of the film’s title.
What’s startling to realize, as is often the case when considering soldiers in combat, is just how young these men were when they were flying on such remarkably perilous missions. Recalled one veteran, “I was 19 years old, the war came and we went and did what they told us to do.”
It’s estimated that these troops had a 50% chance of survival; more members of the 8th Air Force died than in all of the Marine Corps. As another former flyer aptly notes, “I look back now and see why young people go to war: Older people got more sense.”
Nelson, who traveled to Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and elsewhere to interview the film’s veterans, waits until the film is close to finished before putting faces to voices and letting us officially meet our elderly narrators. How great that these inspiring and poignant patriots are still around to tell their tales — and that Nelson had the foresight and skill to create such an exceptional tribute to them.