Rare colour footage brings D-Day mem­o­ries alive

The Prince George Citizen - - News - Jef­frey SCHAEFFER, Ju­lian STYLES

WASHINGTON — Seventy-five years ago, Hol­ly­wood direc­tor George Stevens stood on the deck of the HMS Belfast to film the start of the D-Day in­va­sion.

The re­sult­ing black-and-white films – fol­low­ing Al­lied troops through Nor­mandy, the lib­er­a­tion of Paris, Bat­tle of the Bulge, the hor­ror of the Dachau con­cen­tra­tion camp – form the ba­sis of Amer­i­cans’ his­tor­i­cal mem­ory of the Sec­ond World War, and were even used as ev­i­dence in Nazi war crimes tri­als.

But the direc­tor was also shoot­ing 16-mil­lime­ter colour film for him­self of the same events, cre­at­ing a kind of per­sonal video jour­nal of his ex­pe­ri­ences.

As vet­er­ans and world lead­ers mark the 75th anniversar­y of D-Day today, Stevens’ sur­pris­ing colour im­ages bring an im­me­di­acy to wartime mem­o­ries, a pow­er­ful re­minder of the war’s im­pact and its heros as those who wit­nessed the war are dy­ing out.

“You’ve seen it in black and white. And when you see it in colour, all of a sud­den it feels like today,” his son George Stevens Jr. said. “It doesn’t seem like yes­ter­day. And it has a much more mod­ern and au­then­tic feel­ing to it.”

Today’s D-Day com­mem­o­ra­tions are about hon­our­ing the thou­sands killed and wounded on June 6, 1944 – and peo­ple like Stevens Jr.’s fa­ther.

Then 37, Stevens was al­ready a fa­mous Amer­i­can direc­tor who had made Hol­ly­wood clas­sics like Gunga Din and Swing Time.

“My fa­ther was be­yond draft age. And he had a de­pen­dent child. So there was no chance of him be­ing called up,” Stevens Jr., a film­maker in his own right, said. But his fa­ther felt com­pelled to en­list in the U.S. mil­i­tary af­ter see­ing the power of Nazi pro­pa­ganda films in­clud­ing Leni Riefen­stahl’s Tri­umph of the Will.

“The next day he started call­ing up to find out how he could get into the ser­vice. He couldn’t sit on the side­lines in Hol­ly­wood, and wanted to make his con­tri­bu­tion,” his son said.

Gen­eral Dwight Eisen­hower as­signed Stevens to head up the com­bat mo­tion­pic­ture cov­er­age. From D-Day on, Stevens and his team stormed through France and across Europe fol­low­ing U.S. forces.

George Stevens Jr., now 87, was a child when his dad left to cover the war.

Only af­ter his fa­ther’s death, decades later, did he dis­cover reels of the colour film in stor­age.

They could have been any­thing – his fa­ther used the same cam­era dur­ing the war that he had used to film his son’s birth­day par­ties.

But what his son found that day in 1980 was no nor­mal home video.

“I was sit­ting alone, and on the screen came im­ages of a gray day and rough seas and a large ship and bar­rage bal­loons up in the sky. And I re­al­ized it was D-Day.

“And I re­al­ized that my eyes were prob­a­bly the first other than those who were there to see this in colour,” he re­called. “I’m watch­ing this footage and see­ing the men on the ship... and around the cor­ner walks into the frame a man with a hel­met and a flak jacket. It’s my 37-year-old fa­ther on the morn­ing of D-Day.”

Stevens Jr., a writer, direc­tor and founder of the Amer­i­can Film In­sti­tute, later made a doc­u­men­tary with the footage, George Stevens: D-Day to Ber­lin.

“My fa­ther re­ferred to his ex­pe­ri­ence in World War II as hav­ing a seat on the 50-yard line. And see­ing men at their best and at their worst,” his son said.

Long be­fore so­cial net­works and smart phones, the out­side world had lit­tle visual ev­i­dence of the Nazis’ at­tempted geno­cide of the Jews.

His fa­ther’s unit “went into Dachau, the con­cen­tra­tion camp, and no­body had an­tic­i­pated what they were go­ing to find there,” Stevens Jr. said. “It was this har­row­ing sight of these ema­ci­ated pris­on­ers and ty­phus and dis­ease and dead bod­ies stacked like cord­wood . ... Rather than just be­ing a recorder of events, he be­came a gath­erer of ev­i­dence, and he him­self took a cam­era and went into these box­cars, with snow on the ground, with frozen bod­ies.”

Stevens doc­u­mented the scenes both in black and white and in colour, and im­ages he shot at Dachau were among those shown at the Nurem­berg war crimes tri­als, ac­cord­ing to his son.

He also filmed Al­lied war gen­er­als work­ing to­gether dur­ing the war to de­feat fas­cism. Now, 75 years on, the trans-Atlantic al­liance is fray­ing and Europe’s ex­treme right is resurg­ing, mak­ing remembranc­e of the war es­pe­cially im­por­tant.

“I think that com­mon in­ter­ests and pur­pose will keep us to­gether,” Stevens Jr. said. He praised the U.S.-led post­war ef­fort “to em­brace the de­feated and help them, help Ger­many be­come a great na­tion,” call­ing it a “very Amer­i­can idea... that will serve us far into the fu­ture.”

Schaeffer re­ported from Paris.


LEFT: Hol­ly­wood direc­tor George Stevens stands on the deck of HMS Belfast off the coast of France on D-Day – June 6, 1944. Colour film taken by Stevens dur­ing the D-Day land­ings, Nor­mandy cam­paign and lib­er­a­tion of Paris were re­dis­cov­ered years af­ter his death. BE­LOW: French re­sis­tance fighter Si­mone Se­gouin, car­ry­ing a cap­tured Ger­man sub­ma­chine gun, watches U.S. troops drive past af­ter the lib­er­a­tion of Paris in Au­gust 1944. Se­gouin was awarded the Croix de Guerre for her role fight­ing the Ger­man oc­cu­pa­tion with the Francs-Tireurs et Par­ti­sans re­sis­tance group. She took part in the lib­er­a­tion of her home town of Thivars and the lib­er­a­tion of Paris.


ABOVE: Sol­diers and land­ing craft are seen on the beach dur­ing D-Day op­er­a­tions on June 6, 1944 in France. BE­LOW: Bri­tish naval gun crew­men wear­ing pro­tec­tive hoods and gloves are sur­rounded by empty shell cas­ings on the deck of a ship off the coast of France on D-Day, June 6, 1944. BOT­TOM: U.S. troops drive through a French town dur­ing the Sec­ond World War.

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