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Documenting the 1940s - Images of War, Combat Reports, Postwar News, TV Newsreels

documentary film footage

In 1940, the documentary presentation of real life, whether in newsreel, short subject, or feature-length form, was a subordinate entry in the staple program of classical Hollywood cinema, an attendant-in-waiting to the unchallenged supremacy of fanciful motion picture fiction in categories A or B. By the middle of the decade, however, news on-screen and the documentary contended with the entertainment feature film for impact and import. The war years witnessed the mature prime of the newsreel, theretofore little more than a moving image headline service, and the dynamic reemergence of the documentary, an option that had lain dormant in the American cinema since the silent era. Yet their elevation in status from the inconsequential to the indispensable was short-lived. Without the spectacle of a world at war and its intimate link to the world at home, attention to the newsreel and documentary waned. By 1950, both forms were diminished and disparaged—and one was facing extinction from a newly born rival, television.

Images of War

The war brought about a sustained commitment to comprehensive newsreel reportage and elaborate documentary production. The exigencies of “the present emergency”—the need to inform, educate, and inspire—propelled the recalibration of news on-screen and the revitalization of a dormant documentary tradition. For the first time in American history, documentaries were backed by the full resources of the studios and the cooperation, sometimes coordination, of the U.S. government. Washington and Hollywood, military photographic units and studio employees, initiated an intensive and extensive venture into motion picture production. From 1941 to 1945, the nonfiction film was a theatrical attraction in its own right, attended to as avidly as the putative top of the bill—sometimes more. The war years remain the dynamic center of filmic record-keeping, “the Great Struggle” (as the director Frank Capra labeled Hollywood’s war work) being also the great high renaissance of the American documentary.

The transforming influence of the war on newsreel reporting expressed itself most clearly in two areas of protracted contention: delays in getting war footage to home-front screens and deletions of vivid combat material. The progressive speedup in timely coverage of headline-worthy happenings was the first noticeable shift. Newsreel images of the first year of war had arrived on-screen so tardily as to seem an afterthought. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, which by pure coincidence was recorded in part by the 20th Century-Fox cameraman Al Brick, who was on assignment in Hawaii to obtain location footage for TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI (1942), was withheld from release until 27 February 1942. Moreover, when it did reach the home-front screen, the Pearl Harbor footage was heavily censored by nervous navy officers. For the next year, the deletion of spectacular combat action was as bothersome as the delays in arrival.

Subject to official censorship and dependent on the armed forces for access to remote battlefields, the commercial newsreels could do naught but comply with a system of cooperative, military-supervised coverage known in the jargon of the day as “rotacoverage” (“pool reporting” in current broadcast vernacular). But the rota-coverage accounted for relatively few of the combat images that came to the commercial newsreel screen. The Army Signal Corps and the navy photographic units superseded   (scooped?) the newsreels by strictly regulating independent access to overseas locales and battle sites. The military then provided official footage, shot by its own combat photographers and censored by security officers, to the commercial newsreels. During the war, the five newsreels shared this identical stock of raw material supplied by the armed forces. Hence, the differences between their war reporting became largely a matter of logo, commentator, and editing. This explains why so many compilation flashbacks to World War II resurrect the exact same archival footage.

Throughout the first year of war, interminable delays and perplexing deletions were the main sources of antagonism between newsreel editors and news makers. Playing the patriotic card, newsreel editors argued that timely combat footage was essential for home-front education and morale. In 1942, surveying the “tepid, serene recital of an entire world at war” on exhibition at a newsreel theater in New York, Variety sardonically recorded a fair sampling of early wartime newsreel fare: “American doughboys are on parade in Iceland (Paramount). An RAF squadron tees off for a raid on the French coast (Fox). Congressman [Martin] Dies recalls how his [House Un-American Activities] committee once came in possession of a map that showed that the Japs had heinous designs on the United States (Universal). A cavalry troop somewhere in the northwest demonstrates how this arm of the service has been mobilized for reconnaissance (RKO-Pathé).” Nary a shot was shown fired in anger.

Not until the autumn of 1943 did the military and the newsreels reach a mutually advantageous accommodation. The shift in policy was precipitated by the very public protests of Francis S. Harmon, vice chairman of the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry (WAC), who argued that to apprehend the war fully the home front needed to see shots of frontline combat—and American casualties—on the newsreel screen, and “not merely pictures of Yanks riding jeeps and dispensing cigarettes to natives.” Before a meeting of East Coast exhibitors, Harmon openly appealed to Donald M. Nelson, chairman of the War Production Board, and Palmer Hoyt, head of the domestic branch of the Office of War Information, to persuade the military to release realistic, even harrowing, scenes of combat to the newsreels. In September 1943, the dispute was finally resolved by executive action. After a conference with the OWI chief Elmer Davis and representatives of the War and Navy Departments, FDR himself ordered a more newsreel-friendly policy. The army then lifted its ban on featuring weapons such as the bazooka and the flamethrower in action and (the most sensitive issue) on showing Americans dead in battle. Moreover, as a measure of good-faith compliance, the army thereafter indicated “the number of feet deleted and the type and locale of the deleted subject” in the footage it supplied the newsreels.

After FDR’s directive, the evasive omissions and “Pollyanna slants” that characterized newsreel coverage of the first year and a half of war gave way to a more comprehensive and unvarnished depiction of combat action. Given the expressive and explicit photojournalism in wire-service photos and Life, the newsreels warranted the extra measure of latitude and respect. Besides, the newsreels had become the medium for apprising the home front of frontline action and government policy. In 1944, RKO-Pathé’s Walton C. Ament, chairman of the newsreel division of the War Activities Committee, claimed that “every week, 100 million people in the United States see at least one of the twice weekly releases of the various companies, viewing historical happenings of the year,” with an estimated 88 percent of the clips dealing with some facet of the war effort.

Working in tandem with the newsreel was the renascent documentary, whose abrupt promotion in status was underscored by the establishment in 1941 of a best-documentary category by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Wartime necessity and the symbiosis between Hollywood and Washington spawned three distinct documentary forms: the nuts-and-bolts training film, the orientation picture, and the combat report. Some were perfunctory and unimaginative, but others offered a fertile field of expression for technical experimentation and artistic talent. All were part of an unprecedented and unparalleled deployment of government and studio resources in the service of documentary production.

The daunting task of military education, of schooling 12 million armed forces recruits in the skills of modern warfare, fell mainly to what was christened the nuts-and-bolts film. First through the Hollywood-based Research Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, later on a strict contract basis, the studios fulfilled government contracts for production of arcane training and information films with titles such as “The 60mm and 81mm Mortar Sights and Sight Setting” and “The Anti-Aircraft Searchlight Battery—Emplacement.” With ranks swollen by draftees from the motion picture industry, the military’s own production units—located at Fort Monmouth, New Jersey; Wright Field, Ohio; Culver City, California; and the Signal Corps Photographic Center housed in the old Paramount Studios in Astoria, New York—also churned out literally Page 406  hundreds of training films on the nuts and bolts of war. Typically running from ten to twenty minutes, and often instructing GIs in subjects of utmost secrecy (radar, bomb sights, coding), the films were restricted to use by the military.

Of course, the military exploited its Hollywood moviemakers for more than dry assembly-disassembly, connect-the-dots lessons. Mechanical training was necessarily supplemented with behavioral instruction. The military’s famous “Fighting Man” films (1942—1945), a stark series of lessons on the mental attitudes and physical skills needed to survive in combat, evoked a full gamut of spectator emotions—fear, courage, loyalty, sadism, loneliness—as it taught how “to kill or be killed.” BAPTISM OF FIRE (1943) uses interior monologue to render the psychological turmoil of a soldier anticipating combat, shedding first blood, and steadying himself to go on fighting.

The second documentary category allowed for more creative filmmaking opportunities: the orientation film—or, more accurately, wartime propaganda (a word uttered with some trepidation in Hollywood and Washington because of its Axis associations). Orientation films taught not technical skills but worldviews—history, values, morality, politics. The War Department’s fulsome embrace of the inspirational or morale-building role of motion pictures can be attributed to the vision of one man, Army Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, who insisted upon motivated men in a democratic armed services. “In this war a very special effort was made to care for the minds of men as well as their bodies,” Marshall wrote in one of his biennial war reports. “From the very beginning, the Army recognized that [the] strain [of war] must be counteracted by healthy informational and recreational activities.” On 14 February 1942, the responsibility for the execution of that mandate fell to a newly commissioned major and former Hollywood maestro, Frank Capra.

On 6 June 1942, Capra took command of the 834th Signal Service Photographic Detachment, a unit activated “especially for the purpose of producing orientation films” and initially comprising “eight officers and thirty-five enlisted men drawn from the various technical fields of the motion picture company on the west coast.” Under Capra’s supervision, the 834th Photo Signal Detachment (as it became known) produced a legendary series of orientation films for the Army Pictorial Service. The 834th might be thought of as the first fully operating and professionally staffed documentary studio in American history. Capra’s seven-part “Why We Fight” series (1942-1945) remains the enduring landmark, the most influential and widely seen of all wartime documentaries and perhaps the most influential documentary series ever. For the first time in U.S. history, the full inventory of motion picture magic was marshaled for overt instructional and propaganda purposes.

Capra’s unit fashioned a wholly new canvas for the documentarian’s art. The wartime innovation was the compilation film, a fluid reworking of archival footage orchestrated by the documentarian as historical survey and political argument. The newsreel boys and the early documentary adventurers had always highlighted the spot coverage of onlocation fieldwork, capturing images in inaccessible locales and transporting them back to American bijous for inspection. The members of Capra’s 834th Photo Signal Detachment molded their documentaries from archival footage (called “library material” in the jargon of the day). Their workplace was not in the field, shooting on location and framing the fabulous “money shot” at risk of life and limb, but at the editing table scanning a moviola. From material unearthed and made to order, they arranged a rich mosaic of motion picture images and created a new movie from old movies. Capra and his crew (which included the director Anatole Litvak and the writers John Gunther, William L. Shirer, and Eric Knight) pillaged old newsreels, documentaries, and Hollywood movies; shot special scenes for exposition and transition; designed maps and illustrations; and then bound the strains together into a seamless cinematic web. No one had done anything quite like it before.

The art of weaving together archival footage to create a new tapestry of cinema was the product of historical synchronicity and the cooperation of the enemy. The Nazis had not merely recorded their pageants on film but orchestrated them for film. “Why We Fight” could review the past through the medium of motion pictures because, for the first time, the past was accessible through cinema: the rise of fascism coincided with the development of the sound motion picture in the 1930s. Recasting the motion picture work of Joseph Goebbels’s Reichsfilmkammer and the Japanese High Command, “Why We Fight” usurped images from their original context. The written prologue to KNOW YOUR ENEMY : JAPAN (1945) explained the counteroffensive: “This film has been compiled from authentic newsreel, official United Nations, and captured enemy film. Free use has been made of certain Japanese motion pictures with historical backgrounds. When necessary, for purposes of clarity, a few re-enactments have been made under War Department supervision.”

No “captured enemy film” was incorporated more regularly into American orientation than Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL (1935), the official party record of the 1934 Nazi Party Congress at Nuremberg. Part of the reason for the incessant recurrence of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL in wartime orientation films was sheer necessity: it was one of the few lengthy documents of the militaristic Nazi ethos available in the early years of the war. With the exception of the freelance cameraman Julien Bryan, whose restricted photography appeared in the “March of Time” segment “Inside Nazi Germany—1938,” almost no independent footage of Nazi Germany was available in stateside library stock. But availability alone does not explain the dominance of Riefenstahl’s footage. Capra himself wrote of the sheer visual attraction of the images, the “blood-chilling spectacle” that was “the classic, powerhouse propaganda film of our times.” Resolving to “mount a counter-attack,” Capra marshaled the enemy’s own images against him (or her). In “Why We Fight,” the images were no less impressive, but the context of grim analysis and moral outrage framed and contained them. Riefenstahl’s dynamic forces became Capra’s deluded automatons. By 1945, her images had become iconic, visual shorthand for the Nazi menace.

At the order of General Marshall, every American in uniform was required to see the Capra series as part of his or her military training. Three entries were released commercially to home-front theaters (PRELUDE TO WAR , 1943; THE BATTLE OF RUSSIA, and WAR COMES TO AMERICA, 1945) and the complete series played widely in a “16mm circuit” comprising church basements, lodges, and factory assembly halls. For an entire generation of Americans, “Why We Fight” was the proclamation that ordered the past, explained the present, and envisioned the future.

Though “Why We Fight” was the most influential and well remembered of the orientation films, literally hundreds of other morale-building and informative shorts—made on the cuff by the studios, by individual branches of the armed forces, under the aegis of one of the myriad new government agencies, and by state legislatures and private companies “doing their wartime bit”—unspooled on the commercial screen. From 1941 to 1945, WAC arranged for the regular screening of nearly 160 “Victory” films to the nations home-front theaters, carefully monitoring exhibitors to make sure the films were screened during every program. Occasionally, a “Victory” film received favorable publicity as a theatrical attraction in its own right, particularly when matinee idols eased the transition from fictional entertainment to documentary education. Stars in uniform made especially attractive narrators when they spoke from experience. Two of the most popular, Lt. James Stewart in WINNING YOUR WINGS (1942) and Lt. Clark Gable W WINGS UP (1943), assumed the guise of friendly narrators to recruit for the Army Air Corps or review the rigors of officer candidate school. In a much lighter vein, the biweekly “Army-Navy Screen Magazine” resembled a khaki-colored version of the newsreel/screen magazine smorgasbord, serving its all-GI audience with everything from cautionary VD vignettes to starlet shenanigans by request.

Combat Reports

The third documentary category born of war was the combat report. Where Capra’s orientation was instructional in purpose and archival in creative spirit, the combat reports were rushed dispatches from the battle front. Providing a warrior’s-eye view of frontline action, it embraced a gritty aesthetic and exuded a mean, sometimes bloodthirsty attitude. The fluid montage and storyboarded construction of the orientation films bespoke controlled perspective and level calm. The cinematic grammar of the combat report, conversely, signified camera work under fire: obstructed, jerky, out of focus, off-kilter, up close, and jagged. In accentuating the danger of photography shot under duress, it harkened back to the silent-era adventures of cameramen who forayed into “darkest Africa” to “bring ’em back alive” (and on film). But here the dangerous game was human, and the subject matter and imminent theme death by violence.

The screen credits of the combat reports—or rather the unacknowledged filmmakers, since the military documentaries were not credited to individuals but instead to the unit and responsible branch of the armed services—reflect another significant feature of the documentary. For the first time, many of Hollywood’s most seasoned and talented directors turned collectively away from feature entertainment to documentary production. A pantheon of top-notch directors and prestige producers entered the fray to deploy what the motion picture trade press and studio boosters called the “celluloid weapon.” Not coincidentally, the most popular of the combat reports then, and best known now, were supervised and directed by famed and accomplished filmmakers: John Ford’s THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY (1942), Darryl Zanuck’s AT THE FRONT IN NORTH AFRICA (1943), John Hustons REPORT FROM THE ALEUTIANS (1943) and THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO (1945), and William Wyler’s THE MEMPHIS BELLE (1944). However, no auteurist touch adorned the series of blunt combat reports that captured the peculiar ruthlessness of the war in the Pacific theater—the eerie terrain, hidden enemy, and impulse to utter extermination on display in THE BATTLE FOR THE MARIANAS (1944), FURY IN THE PACIFIC (1945), ATTACK ! THE BATTLE FOR NEW BRITAIN (1944), WITH THE MARINES AT TARAWA (1944), and TO THE SHORES OF IWO JIMA (1945).

The combat reports functioned as a military-minded screen magazine and expanded on stories first covered by the five newsreels. Newsreel accounts of any major military action were followed up by a documentary recapitulation from the armed services involved. After a couple of months, a two-to four-reel government issue reviewed the campaign and retraced its movements, reassuringly structuring and cinematically framing the completed action. For example, the campaign in Italy, climaxing with the entry of the U.S. Army into Rome on 4 June 1944, was expeditiously underscored with the WAC-coordinated release of the Army Signal Corps’ THE LIBERATION OF ROME (1944). Film taken of the battle of Okinawa on 22 March 1945 arrived in Washington on 29 March and hit newsreel screens the next week, on 3 April. (The footage was then shipped back to Okinawa for viewing by Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and his aides by 13 April.) The combat report expansion arrived on 26 July: THE FLEET THAT CAME TO STAY .

Perhaps the most extraordinary combat footage and the most astonishing testimony to the cinematic ordering of the chaos of combat was the filming of the battle of Iwo Jima. A total of fifty thousand feet of footage was shot by some sixty combat cameramen from the U.S. Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Coast Guard under the supervision of Lt. Cdr. John W. McLain, a former Hollywood screenwriter, and Lt. Cdr. William Park, a former Paramount News executive who supervised the newsreel coverage. Several weeks prior to the operation, McLain was given access to the Iwo Jima invasion plan, the better to storyboard his own beachhead tactics. Even under fire, his cameramen were expected to abide by proper film grammar. McLain reported that “photographers were instructed to shoot American action right to left, and enemy action left to right, thus enabling the public to get a good perspective of the action from the screen and also to help the film cutters do a better job.” The spectacular and brutal Iwo Jima footage left the island on 21 February 1945 in McClain’s personal custody and reached newsreel screens (in black-and-white) on 8 March 1945. All five newsreels devoted their entire issue to the battle. Editors at Warner Bros. had compiled the footage into TO THE SHORES OF IWO JIMA , a searing Technicolor record of the bloodiest days in the history of the Marine Corps.

Throughout the war years, therefore, combat-laden newsreels and documentary shorts accompanied the full-length feature presentation on the theatrical staple program—and frequently outstripped it in spectacular imagery and dramatic impact. It stood to reason. Ignoring the consternation of civilian editors, the armed services would often hold back their best footage from the newsreels and use it to punch up the action in their own films. “Run To the Shores of Iwo Jima as soon as you can,” a wartime exhibitor urged in the pages of Motion Picture Herald. “It is one of the best twenty-minute shorts that has been released yet.”

Distilled to essentials, the military ethos and cinematic style of the combat report yoked Hollywood convention to documentary innovation. Familiar codes of cinematicorientation were interwoven with radically new screen moments and filmic techniques. The easily identifiable voices of Hollywood actors narrated the action, dissolves and set pieces signaled transition or provided exposition, and staged scenarios prefaced unstaged action. But amid the Hollywood convention was a new screen aesthetic that not only permitted technical flaws in photography but showcased them as verification of fidelity to reality. Prior to the war, a professional-quality 35mm studio focus and resolution was a sine qua non of classical Hollywood projection. Suspending the studio “tradition of quality” and the rigid regulations of the American Association of Cinematography, the jagged edges of photography under the gun—not the classically framed vision of soundstage Hollywood—provided the drama, danger, and awe of the combat report.

As in classical Hollywood cinema, however, the combat report granted the spectator a privileged perspective on the action. Wherever possible, home-front moviegoers were given the best seat in the house. Whether aiming from behind the crosshairs of fifty-caliber machine guns, through the slits of tanks, or over the top of landing barges, hugging the sand of besieged beachheads or looking down at enemy cities through bombsights, the camera lens was a surrogate for the warrior’s field of vision. Typically, the danger of photography shot in the line of fire is accentuated by the visible presence on-screen of the photographer himself. Personal risk was implicit in the acquisition of any combat scene and explicit in the credits and advertising. “Nine of my cameramen buddies were killed or wounded filming this picture,” an illustrated marine said in the ad sheets for FURY IN THE PACIFIC . Sometimes the on-screen appearance of the photographer confirmed his participation in the thick of the action, as when Darryl Zanuck is spied clenching his cigar during an aerial attack in More often, the presence of the filmmaker-photographer is felt or heard rather than seen, as when John Ford’s camera is knocked out of frame from the concussion of an exploding bomb in AT THE FRONT IN NORTH AFRICA . THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY or when John Huston provides eyewitness narration to REPORT FROM THE A LEUTIANS and THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO .

Besides self-aggrandizement, the presence of the photographer lent testimonial verification to the authenticity of the on-screen action. A pivotal refutation to the duplicity of Axis propaganda, the verity of the combat report—its certified, unstaged, spontaneous reality—was a sacred covenant between screen and spectator. In at least two films, the British Ministry of Information’s DESERT VICTORY (1943) and Frank Capra’s TUNISIAN VICTORY (1944), combat footage was staged—more to assist narrative coherence than to send out false information, said defenders when the Hollywood trade press pointed out the fabrications. John Ford’s DECEMBER 7TH (1943), the official navy record of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, also reenacted scenes, but here the purpose was avowedly a historical review; only to a later generation, unfamiliar with the extant footage, has Ford’s material, created on a backlot at 20th Century-Fox, been mistaken for authentic footage. Rumors of staged combat footage were widespread enough among the viewing public to prompt the army to issue an official statement of denial in 1943, a striking corroboration of the sharp eyes and cinematic sophistication of the wartime audience.

Another perceptible difference between the newsreels and the combat reports was that some of the most memorable examples of the latter—AT THE FRONT IN NORTH AFRICA , THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY , THE MEMPHIS BELLE , and TO THE SHORES OF IWO JIMA —were shot on color stock, generally in 16mm Kodachrome, which was then “bumped up” to 35mm Technicolor for release prints. Color stock, once associated mainly with cartoons, musicals, and costume dramas, was relied on increasingly as the war went on. Its use was more common in the Pacific than the European theater, owing to the navy’s need for vibrant hues to discern meteorological and geographic details amid vast expanses of ocean and sky. The aerial perspective of the army air force likewise made color stock a medium well suited for battle damage assessment and intelligence gathering. Yet to some eyes, by evoking the frivolity of Hollywood’s escapist fare, the full spectrum of primary colors seemed incongruous with the stark horror of war. A Technicolor war disclosed for the first time a paradox of documentary aesthetics: though reality is in color, black-and-white looks more “realistic.”

The realist aesthetic of the combat report was enhanced by a series of new and sophisticated cameras that made possible the recording of realities heretofore unexposed to the lens. The exigencies of war greatly accelerated the development of all manner of esoteric camera technology: underwater and aerial cameras, magazineloaded, lightweight 16mm cameras, and high-speed specialty cameras that could microscopically photograph ballistics, the stress on machines and vessels, and surgical procedures. Often military designers worked side by side with Hollywood technicians and directors to advance the effectiveness of “the celluloid weapon.” For example, Harry Cunningham, one of the motion picture industry’s most respected camera designers, devised a special combat camera equipped with a gunstock and four lenses built into a revolving turret—35mm, 75mm, six-inch, and ten-inch. Late of the Battle of Midway, Lt. Cdr. John Ford found these lenses to have the most useful range for combat photography. A combat camera crew might thus be issued four of Cunningham’s cameras, with each member assigned to shoot the combat action with a particular lens. To facilitate construction of Cunningham’s camera, RKO Studio opened up its machine shop to the U.S. Navy.

Finally, the combat report served as a kind of chapter ending to a completed campaign, closing out the action and punctuating the victorious finale. As the war moved toward its climax, the combat reports unspooled like episodes of a serial. The Pacific theater combat reports trace an east-to-west (to Far East) trajectory congenial to the American eye for frontier progress, sweeping in line across the mid-Pacific (WITH THE MARINES AT TARAWA , ATTACK ! THE BATTLE FOR NEW BRITAIN , and THE BATTLE FOR THE MARIANAS ) through the Philippines, Peleliu, and Saipan (BROUGHT TO ACTION , 1945; and FURY IN THE PACIFIC ), and on to the main island of Japan (TARGET TOKYO , 1945; TO THE SHORES OF IWO JIMA; and THE FLEET THAT CAME TO STAY ).

Before the combat report was mustered out of the staple program, two fin de guerre recapitulations memorialized the form. THE TRUE GLORY (1945), a documentary overview of the Allied campaign in Europe from D day to VE day, was a kind of combat report compilation film, meting out new footage and reviewing the best of the old. Jointly produced by British and American units overseen by Carol Reed and Garson Kanin, respectively, THE TRUE GLORY took a from-the-bottom-up perspective on the largest amphibious assault in history. Though introduced by and featuring privileged remarks from General Eisenhower, a chorus of disparate voices dominates the soundtrack, speaking the interior monologue of men and women of all ranks and nations. In the combat report’s most sustained and eloquent use of the film soundtrack, the voices do not so much narrate the action as confide personal impressions to counterpoint the Big Picture. Reversing the conceit of John Ford’s DECEMBER 7TH , which uses one voice to speak the posthumous lines of a band of multi-ethnic Pearl Harbor casualties (“How does it happen that all of you talk and sound alike?” “We are all alike. We are all Americans”), THE TRUE GLORY records a rich and idiosyncratic polyphony of accents to sing the message of Allied diversity: southern drawls and Scottish burrs, New York slang and the queens English. Not a one is prone to the bluster or sentimentality that characterized some of the omniscient narrators of the early combat reports. In contrast, THE ATOM STRIKES (1945) seems to recognize the need for silent reflection when contemplating the final death blows of the Pacific theater. Despite the visible devastation apparent in aerial shots of the two most famous targets of the Second World War, the official military account of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki managed to include not a single shot of a burnt body or scarred victim.

Ironically, neither the violence of combat battle nor the horrors of landscapes after battle would have the indelible impact of the most appalling documentary images of the war. Army Signal Corps footage of Nazi concentration camps, soon supplemented by British and Soviet footage, began appearing in the newsreels in late April 1945. General Eisenhower insisted that the footage be shown in every American community—in theaters, factories, high schools, and civic arenas. Through circulation in the newsreels (each of which devoted whole issues to the camps) and in documentaries such as the WAC release THAT JUSTICE BE DONE (1945), the Soviet Unions NAZI A TROCITIES (released stateside by Artkino in 1945), and the War Department’s DEATH MILLS (1946), Americans learned a set of place names that, no less than Pearl Harbor, would live in infamy: Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, Dachau, Treblinka, Auschwitz. …

Postwar News

After the most spectacular news story of the century, after a series of progressively explicit and unimaginably horrifying images in the final months of the war, the content of the newsreels and documentaries seemed almost to diminish visibly in energy after 1945. In the immediate postwar period, the cultural work of restoration and readjustment modulated the tone, urgency, and force of documentary cinema. To scan the newsreels of the period is to witness a prolonged denouement to the fury of war: strangers embracing in Times Square, joyful family reunions in small-town America, streams upon streams of parading battalions disembarking from troopships and smothered by ticker tape, and soon housing shortages and classrooms crowded with ex-servicemen on the GI Bill.

Only the Berlin Airlift of 1948-1949 “provided newsreel photographers in Europe with the first real postwar ‘news subject’ [of a] magnitude equal that of any wartime event,” averred the veteran Paramount newsreel photographer John Dured. Back in Europe after a three-year absence, Dured likened his feelings to those of a Hollywood cameraman returning to a studio to find “the stages in ruin and his best actors gone and replaced by new faces devoid of personality and color.” Who save an American newsreel photographer could look back on continent-wide slaughter with such wistful nostalgia? Lamented Dured: “Gone was the incredulous Goering, the pompous Mussolini, the sinister Hitler, … gone were they all from the European scene and my camera viewfinder.”

The fate of the documentary was no less bleak. Despite high hopes for its potential as a commercial attraction, the documentary in postwar America received few veteran’s benefits for its wartime service. Toward the close of the war, critics and industry insiders hailed the progress of the American documentary, approvingly cited the popularity of the combat reports, and predicted great things for the form that had at last “come of age” and attracted talent, resources, and audience. Yet as a theatrical draw or artistic form, it was relegated to antebellum status, little heeded beyond a small coterie of buffs and intellectuals. If not quite the staple program oddity it was before 1941, the documentary—short-form or feature-length—was certainly nothing like the welcomed entry it had been during wartime. The occasional exception underscored its anomalous status. MGM’s THE SECRET LAND (1947), a serene seventy-one-minute documentary record of Robert E. Byrd’s expedition to the South Pole in 1946, was described as “one of the few documentary films ever compiled and edited by a major company.” Though it continued the war-born process of shooting in 16mm Kodachrome and bumping up the footage to 35mm Technicolor for theatrical release, and of using celebrities for voice-over commentary (Robert Montgomery, Robert Taylor, and Van Heflin), THE SECRET LAND never enjoyed the popularity of THE MEMPHIS BELLE or TO SHORES OF IWO JIMA . To be counted a tolerable attraction by American moviegoers, the viability of the documentary depended on its intrinsically spectacular allure or the uncontested immediacy and importance of its subject matter.

Throughout the postwar era, the late war remained the preeminent measure of documentary spectacle. The compilation film was an important continuity; appropriately, many of the postwar documentaries were compilations of World War II film. As the Allies uncovered enemy footage and the War Department cleared previously censored material for commercial release, the moving image record of the Second World War became an expanding archival treasure chest. RKO’s DESIGN FOR DEATH (1947) supplemented extant American material with Japanese newsreels and historical films lately released by the Alien Property Custodian of the U.S. Customs Service. An independent outfit, American Film Producers, scavenged the newsreel vaults for THE LOVE LIFE OF ADOLF HITLER (1948), mainly for glimpses of Eva Braun in a bathing suit.

A goodly portion of the material that saw postwar release was far more explicit than the footage shown during 1941-1945. Freed from security restrictions and morale considerations, the War Department archives and newsreel outtakes revealed a world at war even more brutal than the one the wartime screen had so recently projected. Always inveterate record-keepers, the Nazis had preserved on film a thorough inventory of their wartime horrors: gruesome experiments, routine depredations, and mass executions. As Allied investigators into war crimes gathered evidence against the surviving Axis leaders, the motion picture record became an eloquent witness for the prosecution. At the outset of the first round of Nuremberg trials in November 1945, the original newsreel footage of Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald, and Dachau was screened for the tribunal in a decision made not “out of logic but by felt necessity,” recalled the historian Telford Taylor, then an army colonel on the American prosecution staff. To bolster their case, the Americans also offered in evidence a documentary record of the Nazi ascent to power called THE NAZI PLAN (1945).

For their part in the Nuremberg prosecutions, the Soviet Union entered into evidence THE ATROCITIES BY THE GERMAN FASCIST INVADERS IN THE USSR (1946). The Soviet film was an exceptionally chilling record of the mass murder of Russian POWs and the implementation of “the final solution” in Poland. In time, its images would help shift the filmic memory of the Holocaust away from the Nazi concentration camps on the western front (liberated by Anglo-American armies) and toward the camps on the eastern front (liberated by the Soviet Union), where the technology of genocide operated at full power The Soviet footage bequeathed two unforgettable screen moments to the documentary record of World War II: the residue of mass death piled up in mountains of shoes, eyeglasses, and women’s hair, and a row of children at Auschwitz unrolling their shirtsleeves to expose the serial numbers tattooed on their arms. The War Department incorporated the Soviet images of Auschwitz into its troop education film DEATH MILLS , as did the Allied command in an overview of the trials entitled NÜRNBERGUND SEINE LEHRE (1947).

World War II aside, the most popular compilation film of the late 1940s was probably THE ROOSEVELT STORY (1947), an eighty-minute documentary supervised by Elliot Roosevelt, the late president’s son. THE ROOSEVELT STORY —which a mere decade before might have been the title of a studio-produced epic—heralded what was to become an influential subgenre of the compilation film: the documentary biopic. Having lived a good portion of their lives in front of the moving camera, great men of the twentieth century left behind an imposing celluloid legacy. Certainly the media savvy FDR had played before the cameras with nearly as much frequency and facility as on the radio. A hagiography-via-cinema of the beloved leader, THE ROOSEVELT STORY showed just how comprehensive a motion picture recapitulation of a twentieth-century figure could be, how thoroughly a full-length feature captured the arc of a man’s life. Buttressed with still photographs and lent expository drama by Canada Lee as “the Voice of the Depression” and Ed Begley as “the Voice of the Opposition,” THE ROOSEVELT STORY reviewed a photo album that began with Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s wedding (filmed for the newsreels in 1905), continued through economic crisis, wartime burdens, and the rigors of four presidential election campaigns (including his last great public speech lambasting Republicans for criticizing “my little dog Fala”), and concluded with the funeral procession and grieving multitudes in the streets of Washington, D.C. For many in the contemporaneous audience, the review of FDR’s motion picture life was a measure of their own histories, his very public scrapbook calling up personal memories of a parallel journey through history.

But even THE ROOSEVELT STORY failed to break into Variety’s annual list of the eighty top-grossing films of 1947. Lacking theatrical appeal, studio interest, and generous subsidies from the OWI or War Department, the postwar documentary depended for survival on foundation support, corporate sponsorship, or government contracts. One of the most reliable and generous patrons of documentary production was the United States Information Agency (USIA). Forbidden to distribute materials domestically, the USIA financed half-hour portraits of Americana at $50,000 an episode for the edification of foreign audiences. As the peacetime descendant of the overseas branch of the Office of War Information, the agency incorporated its war-taught lessons about the power of film as a weapon in American foreign policy. (Congress had also learned a lesson from Joseph Goebbels: it forbade the executive branch agency from distributing any of its propaganda domestically.) Likewise, a few special-interest groups with political motives used the documentary as a leaflet for their causes. Similar in spirit to the USIA films, if premature as foreign policy, was Meyer Levin’s THE ILLEGALS (1948). The independently produced documentary, financed by the Jewish Distribution Agency, depicted the plight of displaced persons making their way from Poland to Palestine. It played mainly in temples and town halls as a fund-raiser for Zionist causes.

Along with official Washington and special-interest groups, corporate boardrooms registered the value of documentary orientation films as advertisements for themselves. Few companies were naive enough to assume that a paean to the company line would have theatrical appeal, but a modest investment in motion picture production yielded a palpable product in film form, tangible evidence of prestige and ongoing goodwill for corporate giants. Doing what the USIA could not, the Ford Motor Company in 1948 underwrote a series of regional self-portraits called “America At Home,” whose entries included MEN OF GLOUCESTER , PUEBLO BOY , and SOUTHERN HIGHLANDERS . Taking not a single screen credit for its $200,000 investment, Standard Oil of New Jersey bankrolled Robert Flaherty’s LOUISIANA STORY (1948), an on-location record of the pristine relationship between oil rigs and the backcountry bayou, a film as aesthetically gorgeous as it is ecologically suspect.

Surveying the paltry entries on the postwar screen and revising the rosy predictions of 1945, one friend of the documentary could only reiterate the standard prewar diagnosis: “The documentary film has not yet come into its own in America.” Even for captive audiences—students, soldiers, job trainees—documentaries had to be short, since anything longer than two reels (about twenty minutes) failed to engender “sustained interest.” 34 In 1948, Motion Picture Herald editor Terry Ramsaye, himself a former newsreel and documentary editor, summed up the disappointments of the besieged aficionados of the form. “The place of the non-fiction picture in the entertainment world is yet to be made.”

With an estimated sixty thousand 16mm sound projectors flickering around the nation in 1948, a burgeoning nontheatrical market seemed a promising outlet for documentary films that, as 35mm attractions, had no box-office potential. Hence, Flaherty’s LOUISIANA STORY was released in 16mm a year after its standard theatrical run in 35mm. Cinema 16, a pioneering film society founded in the fall of 1947, provided one of the first regular venues devoted exclusively to alternatives to mainstream Hollywood fare and in the process set an early pattern for what by the 1960s would be a thriving network of university film societies and art houses. In 1948, the critic James Agee evoked the distribution and exhibition limitations (and some of the romance of atmospheric screenings) in the alternative 16mm circuit: “Some of [the films] do get shown around, more or less, in union halls, parish houses, schools; some others, I imagine, by societies of amateur moviemakers, or in the homes of friends, or, in a sort of extension of shop talk, among the people who made them in the first place.” To Agee’s dismay, however, the insulation from the commercial marketplace fostered more dullness and elitism than innovation and populism. He was speaking about more than the standard venues for 16mm cinema when he detected “a churchly smell to the whole business.”

For the 35mm commercial documentary, meanwhile, escalating production costs exacerbated the theatrical doldrums. Costs for the production of a typical documentary short subject had risen an estimated 40-60 percent from the war years, yet exhibitors balked at paying higher rentals or risking advertising budgets to publicize nonfeatured attractions. Moreover, the kind of subject that possessed theatrical appeal before the war—mainly travelogues and nature films—looked quaint to a war-tempered generation on intimate terms with exotic locales and heart-pounding adventure. Acknowledging in 1948 that filmgoers “have lived through a lot of reality in the last ten years,” RKOPathé‘s Phil Reisman Jr. unaccountably proposed a movement away from short subjects to feature-length documentaries. "If you can’t sell documentary shorts for what they cost," reasoned Reisman, “make 60-minute fact films and sell them for the bottom half of that double bill. Many a March of Time or This Is America could be expanded to six reels of more solid entertainment than a lot of present features.” Reisman’s critical judgment may have been sound, but his commercial sense was flawed. The screen magazines, at a price tag in excess of $50,000 per issue and long unprofitable as theatrical attractions, were in no better shape than the venerable travelogues. 37

Ironically, as the documentary film languished and the screen magazines expired, documentary style thrived. The impact of the wartime documentary tradition found an unexpectedly friendly reception in, of all places, the Hollywood entertainment feature. After 1945, a studied incorporation of newsreel and documentary technique challenged the illusionist aesthetic of classical Hollywood cinema. When a generation of directors, cameramen, and sound technicians returned from the battlefield to the Hollywood soundstage, they were animated by a desire to move beyond the confines of closed-in studio sets. Because the war had accelerated the development of everything from lightweight 16mm cameras to underwater photography, technical advances abetted the urge, particularly the faster film speeds and higher-quality film stocks that made location shooting practicable and cost-effective. The climate-controlled environment of the soundstage, deemed essential for professional quality lighting, sound, and set design, was a frustrating constraint for men who had weathered artillery bombardment and automatic weapons fire. The cinematographer James Wong Howe spoke for a generation of photographers anxious to liberate themselves from the reins of studio convention. “We confine and restrain movement because of the problems created by ponderous equipment,” argued Howe in 1948. “When you pan or tilt a camera on a tripod as we do today with 35mm, it is quite different from panning or tilting by hand.” For the stadium fight scenes in Robert Rossen’s boxing melodrama BODY AND SOUL (1947), Howe unleashed four ex-combat cameramen to prowl the stands with hand-held cameras for cutaway coverage. He then donned roller skates and had a grip maneuver him around the boxing ring—giving moviegoers a better-than-ringside seat on the action. “Our stuff will have the same quality as the combat footage,” Wong told Rossen. “If a few shots are out of focus, so much the better. We’ll have a real fight on the screen for the first time.”

The motion picture industry called it “newsdrama cinematography,” an amalgam of the best elements of “studio and newsreel technique.” Deemed most appropriate for gritty urban melodramas and social problem films, it was characterized by a full range of war-taught skills: location shooting, hand-held mobile photography, and reliance on high-resolution black-and-white grain, available lighting, and actual “sets.” Exemplars include THE HOUSE ON 92ND STREET (1945), 13 RUE MADELEINE (1946), BOOMERANG (1947), THE NAKED CITY (1948), and CITY ACROSS THE RIVER (1949). “The result has been an authentic newsreel atmosphere, surprisingly different from a studio made film, and one that is especially vital and dramatic for factual stories,” reported Henry Hathaway, director of 13 RUE MADELEINE . In 1949, when the Academy Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded the Oscar for best cinematography to William Daniels for THE NAKED CITY , the gesture was seen as “a most welcome nod of approval for the documentary style of photography that has characterized some of Hollywood’s most outstanding photoplays during the last two years.” Even the MGM musical—the epitome of studio-bound, choreographed artificiality—moved on location to the streets of New York to shoot portions of ON THE TOWN (1949).

If the postwar commercial cinema is a credible signpost, then a perceptual shift in the quality of moving image spectatorship, difficult to gauge but impossible to discount, occurred in the wake of the war and as a result of the war-born documentary technique. For a generation of wartime cinephiles educated, oriented, and uplifted by news onscreen and documentary cinema, the movies were no longer a dream screen and Hollywood no longer purely a factory for entertainment. In form (the newsreel style) and in content (the social problem film), Hollywood might have a relationship to reality that, if at heart no less illusionist, was at least less fantastical and glamorous.

TV Newsreels

The durable appeal of documentary aesthetics did not rebound to the advantage of the forms that developed them. When television began to broadcast live images, when the simultaneous arrival of news and moving image became a living-room reality, the diagnosis for the theatrical newsreel was terminal. Though prewar trade press reports had warned of looming competition from television since its public demonstration at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair, the diversion of resources from research and development unrelated to the business of war caused many motion picture executives to mistake a postponement for a cancellation. The stunning financial success and cultural esteem the Hollywood system had earned during the wartime interregnum imbued them with a heady sense of invulnerability. Already though, in 1945, television news reports and sports events were being broadcast to a few pioneering tele-families. In BREWSTER’S MILLIONS (1945), a group of returning war veterans convene in an upscale office and watch a televised horse race. The celluloid (television) image is newsreel footage, not broadcast transmission, but the nonchalance of the scene must have been tantalizing. Inadvertently, Hollywood had held out the promise that the returning veteran would preside over the newsreel in private space. A few years later, with the motion picture industry’s lifeblood threatened by the new medium, references to television in feature films would be conspicuously absent or defensively condescending.

During television’s infancy, motion picture industry executives watched in denial and disbelief as their once-devoted public pursued the new and younger suitor. Obviously, the coverage of live events was the unchallenged purview of the new medium, and the two most popular spectator sports in the nation—baseball and politics—were forthwith annexed by television. Yet for a time it seemed that the theatrical newsreel and television news could coexist profitably, as if there were enough news (and enough money) to go around. Far from supplanting newsreel photography, television’s appetite for 16mm coverage in the field was initially voracious. Early broadcasting technology (suffocating klieg lights and unwieldy cameras tethered to huge electrical cables) put television in something of the position of the Hollywood studios during the conversion to sound. As a news-gathering (as opposed to news-disseminating) medium, television was bolted to the floors of broadcast booths and restricted to controlled environments. For television, the spot coverage of seasoned newsreel film crews was a way to expand its field of vision and supplement its programming.

Three groups competed for a piece of the action in the lucrative television news market: the networks themselves (through their own news divisions), the three wire services (Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service), and the five commercial newsreels. Of the three, the newsreels possessed the tradition and training for the swift acquisition of 16mm motion picture news. Yet they were at a disadvantage against their two rivals because, in providing news footage to television, they undercut themselves in theaters. Moreover, the major studios at this point were reluctant to traffic with the enemy, and, naturally, movie exhibitors protested any newsreel distribution deals with television.

The wire services felt no compunction about breaking into the wholesale supply of moving image news. In January 1947, Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service all entered the field of newsreel production for television broadcasting. The wire services shot their footage in 16mm, struck individual prints for each broadcaster, and airmailed the reels to subscriber stations, a process that allowed for television broadcast of a filmed report in “all parts of the country within 36 hours” after the camera rolled. Possessing a mere twenty-six licensed television stations that served some forty million Americans, mainly on the East Coast, the embryonic medium was soon outrunning the theatrical newsreel in breadth of coverage and speed of arrival. That summer, NBC televised pictures of a flood in Oregon, flying the footage to New York for telecast within twenty-four hours. “It is expected that sufficient flow of footage will ensue to provide a daily presentation of news subjects by each station,” remarked a prophetic editor for American Cinematographer in 1948, describing what became the nightly news.

Attempts to beat back “tele-news” by accentuating the theatrical superiority of news-reel photography evoked the pathos of a condemned medium groping for a last-minute commutation. In 1947, Warner Pathé News opted to film the Tournament of Roses Parade and the Rose Bowl in color under the delusion that “what’s being lost in timeliness is being compensated for in the color spectacle which only the newsreels will have.” Alas, the next week the newsreels hopes “fizzled out in a blur of orange and green tints” as a botched two-color Cinecolor process projected a spectacle that was multichromic but indiscernible. Vivid color registration required time—and time was what the newsreels could not afford.

A revamped kind of screen journalism that could provide a judicious summary of news highlights seemed an answer. “News-plus-background” issues devoting their full running time to one selected topic (rather than the staccato smorgasbord approach) had become commonplace in the final months of the war, with entire issues devoted to the liberation of Paris, the fighting on Iwo Jima, and the Nazi concentration camps. Promising a new niche and a possible reprieve, the war-born strategy was resurrected in the postwar era. Thus, all the commercial newsreels devoted their end-week issue (26 January 1949) to coverage of Truman’s inauguration. “They couldn’t compete with video in fullness of coverage, of course, but it is open to question whether or not theater audiences didn’t do just as well as TV watchers in having the highlights edited and packed tightly into eight or nine minutes,” Variety commented. Editors at all five commercial newsreels conceded that “the reel must change its style to a more three dimensional treatment of news to meet the tele challenge.”

Ultimately, faced with competition from the wire services and a dawning sense of the inevitable, the commercial newsreels cut deals with the television networks for their services. The studios could not resist the lure of ready cash in a declining market for their theatrical features, especially since—a guilty secret for years—the newsreels had typically operated in the red since the onset of the sound era, functioning “more as a service to exhibitors than as a money making venture.” Twentieth Century-Fox moved first. In a deal bankrolled by Camel cigarettes, Movietone News agreed to supply NBC with daily editions of a newsreel beginning 16 February 1948, a date that marks “the first time any outfit has attempted to turn out a daily newsreel.” This experiment, however, lasted less than a year. Television news preferred a media-friendly format: a video montage of film clips, live reporting, and live commentary by a talking-head anchor. Over the next years, the network news divisions would maintain a variety of different financial arrangements with the commercial newsreels. With broadcast television soon garnering the resources to field its own newsreel cameramen, it turned to the older newsreels only for supplementary material or on those increasingly rare occasions when their own divisions were scooped. And as news on the small screen thrived, news on the big screen wilted.

The lingering illness and progressive dissolution of the newsreel was little noticed and largely unmourned. Recycling a vintage metaphor, Variety remarked caustically that the “flashing of the newsreel on the screen in most theaters today 1948 usually marks a breather for the majority of customers to hike out to the lobby for a smoke.” “We appeal to a small audience that is shrinking,” a spokesman for New York’s Embassy Newsreel Theater conceded when his house switched over to a feature film program in 1949. With moving image news elsewhere more readily and promptly available (if not more clearly visible), the theatrical newsreel was a moot medium.

As if on a long death watch, the motion picture trade press tracked the degenerative decline of newsreel and screen magazine exhibition over the next decade and a half. The two screen magazines succumbed early. Citing “rising costs and a desire to switch its creative talent to TV,” “The March of Time” ceased production in July 1951. “This Is America” followed the next month. Of the newsreels, RKO-Pathé was first to go, on 23 August 1956, followed by Paramount on 15 February 1957 and Fox Movietone in 1963. MGM and Universal held out longest, with MGM ending 30 November 1967 and Universal flickering out on 31 December 1967. Longtime money losers—by the mid-1950s the newsreels were losing $1 million per annum for the studios—they kept going mainly on deals with television and to carry the studio flag. In an elegiac obituary that named the killer and mourned the victims, Motion Picture Herald wrote: “The television era in approximately fifteen years put an end to one of the oldest established features of the theater screen, the twice a week newsreel.” In truth, as a stateside theatrical entity, the newsreel had been dead on its feet since the mid-1950s, consigned to exhibition in foreign lands and remote U.S. military bases.

Appropriately perhaps, the last time the newsreel appears prominently and persuasively in a prestige A picture is at the end of SUNSET BOULEVARD (1950). A new Hollywood slant on the old Hollywood, Billy Wilder’s black comedy harkens back to a lost era of silent filmmaking even as the classical studio system contemplated its own decline in the age of television. In a final scene of dementia and delusion, Paramount News cameras whir and record the last big screen close-up of the washed-up screen star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson). By then, the newsreels too were facing the same fate as the silent cinema.

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