Film

Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Apocalypse '45 (2020) (trailer screengrab)

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".

Apocalypse '45
Erik Nelson

Discovery

August 2020

Other

On more than one moment in Erik Nelson's Apocalypse '45 viewers will likely find themselves gaping in awe at the splendor of what you are seeing. The next moment their stomachs may heave. Somewhere in between they will hear the voices of men who were witnessing and acting out the absolute worst that humanity has to offer, and sometimes even after 75 years still don't know what to make of it all. It's just that kind of documentary.

Timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the end of fighting in World War II's Pacific Theater, Apocalypse '45 is a spectacle event film, in its way. There are widescale battle scenes that Hollywood would only ruin by trying to imitate. The mostly unseen National Archives footage, much of which was shot by embedded combat photographers, has been restored by Nelson's team to yield a rich but raw panoply of color and drama. But at the same time, the documentary maintains a closeness that brings an often uncomfortably personal coloration to what we see.

Nelson is paying homage to a vanishing generation of soldiers and includes their yearning for a time when it seemed the US could still unify around a cause. Still, this is not a burnished Veterans Day nostalgia reel. "Golden Gate in '48, bread line in '49" is how one Marine remembers their attitudes about how long it would take for the war to end and what would become of them immediately afterward. "Greatest generation," humphs another when asked about the label, "Goddamn propaganda."

The snippets of Nelson's interviews with two dozen American veterans play behind a series of montages that sketch out a fairly brief overview of the war in the Pacific. It primarily covers the last few months of combat, from Manila to Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and the fire- and atomic-bombing of Japan. One of Nelson's more spectacular finds, haunting footage of wrecked ships shot by John Ford in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack sets the stage for the butchery to come. (Ford's 1943 documentary, December 7th, was mostly censored by the government for being bad for morale.)

(Discovery Channel)

There's a disconnect running through much of what follows. Nelson pieces together images of the Americans' island-hopping campaign, a close-fought slog in which soldiers died in waves for rocks in the ocean they had never heard of. Some shots carry a shivery grandeur: mountains of smoke billowing out the sides of battleships as they fire salvos, tracer bullets lacing a brilliant azure sky speckled with clouds of flak, cable cars rolling through Hiroshima's post-atom bomb moonscape.

Elsewhere, it's the odd details that stick out: a dog incongruously wagging his tail while perched on the barrel of a battleship's cannon, Marines going into battle on sun-blasted beaches wearing a kind of white-blue sunscreen. But these glimpses of beauty or incongruity are always brought back to Earth by what we hear.

"I felt heartsick," says one Marine about the grinding slaughter of the island fighting whose cost is almost impossible to appreciate now. Almost 7,000 Marines and 22,000 Japanese died at Iwo Jima alone, just so that the Americans could base bombers there to firebomb Japan. "They were not nice people," says another about their enemy in what an on-screen title terms a "war without mercy." "I didn't mind" killing them," he adds.

The men are a mixture of matter-of-fact, thoughtful, pained, and defiantly cold-blooded, sometimes wrapped up in the same reflection. "I strafed trains, water buffalo, anything that moved," says a fighter pilot while gun-camera footage shows Japanese fishermen running for cover as bullets slam into the beach around them. The fighting itself is shown as less a contest of strategy and more a grinding annihilation in which Marines advance across shell-shattered islands with flamethrowers and grenades.

(Discovery Channel)

None of the interviewees seem to have any John Wayne notions of heroics, even the man who won a Medal of Honor for taking out seven Japanese positions on Iwo Jima. A Marine who lost his foot is described as "the happiest guy in the world" because it means he can go home. "You just had to be lucky," says another about surviving.

The civilian toll is given a higher profile than this type of war anniversary documentary typically provides. Nelson includes one man talking about the Japanese women on Saipan who would leap into the ocean with their babies strapped to their backs rather than surrender to Americans. One short but crushing sequence shows nothing but Japanese children with horrific wounds being treated by American medics.

A soldier first notes the old cliché about war being hell, as the screen shows a thin child with hollow eyes who cannot stop shaking, before adding "I never visualized hell being that bad." A documentary like Apocalypse '45 makes that kind of discomfiting visualization resonate for a lifetime.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" Is an Ode for Unity in Troubling Times (premiere)

Alright Alright's "Don't Worry" is a gentle, prayerful tune that depicts the heart of their upcoming album, Crucible.

Music

Tim Bowness of No-Man Discusses Thematic Ambition Amongst Social Division

With the release of his seventh solo album, Late Night Laments, Tim Bowness explores global tensions and considers how musicians can best foster mutual understanding in times of social unrest.

Music

Angel Olsen Creates a 'Whole New Mess'

No one would call Angel Olsen's Whole New Mess a pretty album. It's much too stark. But there's something riveting about the way Olsen coos to herself that's soft and comforting.

Music

Masma Dream World Go Global and Trippy on "Sundown Forest" (premiere)

Dancer, healer, musician Devi Mambouka shares the trippy "Sundown Forest", which takes listeners deep into the subconscious and onto a healing path.

Music

'What a Fantastic Death Abyss': David Bowie's 'Outside' at 25

David Bowie's Outside signaled the end of him as a slick pop star and his reintroduction as a ragged-edged arty agitator.

Music

Dream Folk's Wolf & Moon Awaken the Senses with "Eyes Closed" (premiere)

Berlin's Wolf & Moon are an indie folk duo with a dream pop streak. "Eyes Closed" highlights this aspect as the act create a deep sense of atmosphere and mood with the most minimal of tools.

Television

Ranking the Seasons of 'The Wire'

Years after its conclusion, The Wire continues to top best-of-TV lists. With each season's unique story arc, each viewer is likely to have favorites.

Film

Paul Reni's Silent Film 'The Man Who Laughs' Is Serious Cinema

There's so much tragedy present, so many skullduggeries afoot, and so many cruel and vindictive characters in attendance that a sad and heartbreaking ending seems to be an obvious given in Paul Reni's silent film, The Man Who Laughs.

Music

The Grahams Tell Their Daughter "Don't Give Your Heart Away" (premiere)

The Grahams' sweet-sounding "Don't Give Your Heart Away" is rooted in struggle, inspired by the couples' complicated journey leading up to their daughter's birth.

Music

Gloom Balloon Deliver an Uplifting Video for "All My Feelings For You" (premiere)

Gloom Balloon's Patrick Tape Fleming considers what making a music video during a pandemic might involve because, well, he made one. Could Fellini come up with this plot twist?

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Brian Cullman Gets Bluesy with "Someday Miss You" (premiere)

Brian Cullman's "Someday Miss You" taps into American roots music, carries it across the Atlantic and back for a sound that is both of the past and present.

Music

IDLES Have Some Words for Fans and Critics on 'Ultra Mono'

On their new album, Ultra Mono, IDLES tackle both the troubling world around them and the dissenters that want to bring them down.

Music

Napalm Death Return With Their Most Vital Album in Decades

Grindcore institution Napalm Death finally reconcile their experimental side with their ultra-harsh roots on Throes of Joy in the Jaws of Defeatism.

Film

NYFF: 'Notturno' Looks Passively at the Chaos in the Middle East

Gianfranco Rosi's expansive documentary, Notturno, is far too remote for its burningly immediate subject matter.

Music

The Avett Brothers Go Back-to-Basics with 'The Third Gleam'

For their latest EP, The Third Gleam, the Avett Brothers leave everything behind but their songs and a couple of acoustic guitars, a bass, and a banjo.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 1: Rett Madison, Folk Devils + More

The first PopMatters Picks Playlist column features searing Americana from Rett Madison, synthpop from Everything and Everybody, the stunning electropop of Jodie Nicholson, the return of post-punk's Folk Devils, and the glammy pop of Baby FuzZ.

Books

David Lazar's 'Celeste Holm  Syndrome' Appreciates Hollywood's Unsung Character Actors

David Lazar's Celeste Holm Syndrome documents how character actor work is about scene-defining, not scene-stealing.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.