They Filmed the War in Color: The Pacific War (2005)

[21 November 2006]

By Brian Holcomb

Mama, Don't Take My Kodachrome Away!

When Paul Simon mused about the wonders of Kodachrome I’m sure he wasn’t writing a jingle for Mr. Eastman of Rochester, New York. But the sentiment expresses quite clearly the power that color film has had on all of us, having captured the modern American experience in bright Reds, Whites and Blues. However, most archival images of life before the ‘60s exist only in shades of black and white. It’s become such an accepted convention that black and white is often considered to be more “realistic” in representing the past. A convention used by films such as Schindler’s List as a kind of mnemonic shorthand to period realism. It presents a world that exists only in our imaginations: a time long ago when our grandparents apparently lived in a world that was all gray.

Breaking this convention provides the initial shock and power of René-Jean Boyeur’s documentary, The Pacific War. It’s as though someone were lifting the veil on the past for the very first time. The colors burst off the screen making the familiar both strange and wonderful.

Boyeur opens his film with the images of life on the American home front: the city streets and suburbia circa 1941. The war had been going on for some time and yet, as usual, Americans were so far away from the conflict that it seemed as much a daily reality to them as Iraq and Afghanistan does for many today. FDR was looking for a way to awaken them to this reality and galvanize support for the remainder of the war which appeared to be a rather long proposition. He decided to send top Hollywood filmmakers and photo-journalists to capture the war in dramatic color. The first and foremost called on to duty was none other than master filmmaker John Ford.

At first, Ford was tapped to make a dramatic recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor but even with all of his cinematic skill, it came off as staged with phony looking miniatures standing in for the “Arizona” and rampant sentimental propaganda at its core. The film was buried and Ford and others were sent into battle to film the real thing-covering the war in the Pacific from the aircraft carriers, atolls, and bombers, and bringing back footage unparalleled in it’s “you are there” point of view. They also dropped the false sentimentality, being told that their only orders were not to manipulate Grandma to tears while also avoiding anything that would lower morale.

The amazing footage they captured is the heart of the documentary: shots of silver bombers running out of road and dropping head-first into the dark ocean, sweeping attacks from Japanese squads silhouetted by the bright yellow sun, anti-aircraft fire in blazing orange bursting through the blue skies, and later, Kamikaze Zeros plunging directly into carriers, exploding in massive red fireballs like a trailer for a Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster.

There is a true visceral thrill in these violent images proving Francois Truffaut’s point that an actual “anti-war” film can never be made since the very nature of warfare makes war appear to be exciting. Intellectually, we understand that soldiers are dying onscreen and yet our lizard brain responds instinctually to the excitement and aesthetic beauty in what appears to be a fireworks and air stunt show.

Boyeur seems to realize this, and he exploits it for the first hour of his film, adding sound effects and dramatic music to a sharply edited series of action packed scenes. But slowly he begins to dilute the thrills with full color images of dead soldiers lined up like paper dolls to be plowed over in mass graves. However, it’s the images of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that demonstrate most clearly the very human price of warfare. Victory for the allies meant instant death at ground zero and for those who survived the initial impact, burned flesh, nuclear fallout, contamination, birth defects and desolation would be the fate. This human damage is presented honestly, without compromise. The question of morality is left to silence.

The documentary concludes appropriately with the end of the war, amid images of joy and the fatigue of rebuilding. Emperor Hirohito’s life is spared as the sole request of the people of Japan and he emerges from his Palace to face them-and the cameras-for the first time, announcing to the world that it was not Japan’s destiny to take over the world. As the spiritual leader of Japan it is believed that he was kept both alive and in his leadership position to insure a smoother transition for the Japanese people following the war. This was a rare case of cultural sensitivity by a country filled with anti-Japanese sentiment at home. Boyeur presents this secondary theme regarding the cultural differences between the East and the West through footage of contrasting daily life. He presents scenes of the ordered and ritualized culture of the Japanese, showing women in their traditional dresses attending spiritual services juxtaposed by American women heading off to factories to make up for losses in the male workforce. Militarily the Japanese are presented as proud of their long tradition of honorable Samurai and of their deep rooted sense of honor and face. A sense of honor preserved by the decision not to execute their Emperor for war crimes. 

The DVD is part of a much longer series originally broadcast on French television and now being released in the US by Koch Vision. Unfortunately, Koch Vision does nothing to let you know about the others in the series since the DVD comes with no trailers or supplemental material of note. At the very least some notes as to the various sources of the footage would have been nice. All that is available is a DVD-ROM link to www.kochvision.com. Why DVD companies continue to put DVD-ROM links to sites accessible to the general public remains unknown.   

With or without supplements, Koch Vision deserves credit for bringing these unique films to DVD. There have been scores of documentaries produced on the subject of the Second World War. Just turn on the History Channel at any random time for shots of Hitler or Churchill.  While this one is not exactly the best of the bunch, covering too much ground to go into any real depth in just 91 minutes, Boyeur transcends this problem by shifting his focus. He instead presents the familiar in a new light with this priceless footage, letting the pictures take center stage. Indeed, there is something hypnotic in watching images that seem secret and lost. By breaking the black and white barrier, the war seems less distant, more relevant, fulfilling FDR’s original goal far beyond its original purpose.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/they-filmed-the-war-in-color-the-pacific-war-2005/