It was the largest seaborne invasion in history, involving over 156,000 troops. But how did it really feel to take part in D-Day?
Based entirely on historical fact and veterans' stories, this two-hour drama tells first hand the untold and extraordinary tales of the everyday men and women who made D-Day possible. Using archive footage, drama reconstruction, profiles of key historic figures, in addition to interviews with surviving English, American, French and German veterans, the film maps the events that led up to the most historic invasion in history and allows viewers to experience something of the courage, terror and carnage of the battle itself.
Each character featured has a part to play in the narrative - their individual stories merging as the assault on the Normandy beaches begins - thereby piecing together the vast jigsaw of planning, events, tragic heroism and lucky coincidences that encompass D-Day.
D-Day brings to life not only key military leaders such as Eisenhower and Rommel, but also the ordinary men and women caught up in the drama of the invasion - from Allied intelligence deception operations and the daring master plan, codenamed Operation Overlord, to its execution, the assault on the beaches of Normandy.
The men of the 9th Parachute Battalion knew their mission would be crucial but had little idea how crucial. Their orders were to disable the Merville gun battery, which was pointed directly at key D-Day landing beaches. If they had failed, Allied causalities would have been catastrophic. This heroic attack is told by three key men who lived through it.
Leading the Battalion was Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway. One of his officers, Lieutenant Alan Jefferson, was in charge of a platoon of men that included 18 year-old Private Sid Capon. On landing in Normandy Otway discovered that 80 percent of his men were missing. "I had a choice, didn't I? Give up or go on. Could you face your friends? Could you have them pointing at you saying, 'Oh he gave up'. No. So I decided to go and we went."
Bill Farmer and Bob Littlar were firm friends from the King's Shropshire Light Infantry who found themselves making their way to Sword beach in the second wave of the attack. They knew they may not survive but vowed to stay together. They survived the beaches, but experienced a counter offensive from the German 21 Panzer division on the way to liberate Caen. They remained at Bieville outside the city for a month, enduring terrible conditions. Their story is one of the everyday solider and the unbelievable hardships they suffered.
"... You've become a man all of a sudden," states Bill Farmer, "and it's a nightmare, an absolute nightmare."
As a member of the French Resistance, Andre Heintz had been waiting for D-Day for many years. Once the Allied bombing began he made his way to the hospital in Caen to see how he could help. Fearing that the hospital would also be bombed, he dipped bed sheets in pails of blood and created a giant red cross to warn Allied aircraft to steer clear. He no doubt saved hundreds of lives with this one act of incredible foresight and bravery. His account of D-Day gives a new insight into the work of the French Resistance, allowing the viewer to experience what it was like to be in occupied territory when the landings began.
Franz Gockel was a 20-year-old German gunner deployed on Omaha beach. At 5.30am on the morning of D-Day approaching ships began shelling his position; once the invasion began he stayed at his post firing his machine gun for six hours. To him, the wave upon wave of Allied troops was a terrifying sight; he was sure he was going to die. "I've told people I was praying a lot during the attack and one of the Americans that I am now friends with today said 'we were also praying'. We were praying and killing each other at the same time." These and many more incredible true stories combine with special effects and original locations in both France and the UK to enhance the realism of the drama.
Interviews, audio galleries and moving personal testimonies from the veterans featured in the drama can be found online at bbc.co.uk/ww2 and via the red button on the interactive service. D-Day is a Dangerous Films production for BBC ONE.
There is a book to accompany the programme, together with a DVD and VHS tape. (EF/CC).
D-Day To Berlin (BBC ONE)
In the months leading up to D-Day, General Eisenhower made a £5 bet with Field Marshal Montgomery that the war would be over by Christmas. D-Day To Berlin is a new three-part series recounting the Allies' struggle from the beaches of Normandy, to their ultimate victory in Germany nearly one year later. It is the story of how, and why, Eisenhower lost his bet.
In the days following the D-Day landings, Allied troops carved a tenuous foothold on the coast of Normandy. But as occupied Europe waited expectantly, the Allies still faced the real possibility of defeat and even annihilation. Monty was a highly experienced soldier, the hero of the battle of El Alamein; Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander with ultimate authority to direct the vast resources of the allied war machine.
D-Day To Berlin uses testimony from veterans, archive footage and drama reconstruction to throw new light on the tensions between the two men, the highs and lows of life of the soldiers who fought for them and the strategic decisions they took which were to alter the very fabric and shape of post-war Europe.
D-Day To Berlin comes from the team responsible for the award-winning BBC series The Nazis and The Battle Of the Atlantic. It is shot on location in Europe and America.
From the moment that Allied forces established the first beachhead in Normandy on D-Day, the end of the war in Europe was in sight. But although many soldiers joked about being in 'Berlin by Christmas', tenacious German resistance soon brought home the realisation that there were to be no quick victories.
It was a nearly a year before the defeat of Nazi Germany was complete and Hitler's Third Reich lay in ruins - a year of murderous struggle in the hedgerows of the bocage, exhilaration at the liberation of Paris, tragedy in the ill-fated Operation Market Garden and panic as the Wehrmacht stunned the Allies with a full-blooded offensive in the Battle of the Bulge.
Amazon.com Most helpful customer reviews
By Michael W. Perry "Michael W. Perry, author of... (Author of Untangling Tolkien, Seattle, WA) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)
This is an excellent and well-funded documentary with the usual B&W footage from the war enhanced with modern dramatic re-enactments. It's also one of the few war documentaries to explain how WWII became the Cold War. The Americans and British had fought to free Europe from dictatorship. The USSR fought to replace one dictatorship with another.
Almost every aspect of the fighting is covered, except that no mention is made of the extremely wet weather that summer, weather than hindered the Allied advance almost as much as the supply shortages, which are mentioned. Since one major theme of the documentary is Gen. Montgomery's claim that, if given the great bulk of the supplies and men, he could win the war in 1944, that's a curious omission.
Keep in mind that this is a British documentary. Americans are accustomed to seeing Gen. Patton getting most of the attention. This documentary focuses far more on Gen. Montgomery, although it does not attempt to conceal his monumental vanity. Unfortunately, those who made it failed to mention the chief reason that Eisenhower rejected Montgomery's demand for enough resources to make a concentrated but narrow drive straight for Berlin. It's almost impossible for a narrow front to penetrate deeply. Mongomery's own attack into Holland (Market Garden, portrayed in the film, A Bridge Too Far) failed for that reason, as did the German attack in the Battle of the Bulge. To be successful, the Allied advance on Germany had to take place on a broad front. Eisenhower was right; Montgomery was wrong. It really is that simple. Any Montgomery fans who disagree with me are free to explain why.
--Michael W. Perry, editor of Chesterton on War and Peace: Battling the Ideas and Movements that Led to Nazism and World War II
D-DAY TO BERLIN
GEORGE STEVENS, JR. AND MARK FEENEY
DEBORAH LEFF: Next Monday evening, same time, we are having three people who served on PT boats, all of whom witnessed the night of PT 109, Irishmen who tell great stories about President Kennedy. It should be a wonderful Forum. I’m Deborah Leff, for those of you I haven’t met yet, I’m director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum. And on behalf of myself and John Shattuck, who is the CEO of the Kennedy Library Foundation, we’re really glad to welcome you. We’d like to thank our Forum sponsors. That’s Bank of America, Boston Capital, the Lowell Institute, Corcoran Jennison, and our media sponsors, The Boston Globe, who was kind enough to give us tonight’s Forum moderator, WBUR, and boston.com. Those of you who have seen the museum’s new exhibit on JFK and World War II have seen some remarkable artifacts, ranging from JFK’s dog tags to the actual coconut on which he carved a message that led to the rescue of PT 109’s crew. You’ve seen some remarkable documents: a letter JFK wrote to his parents that I saw George Stevens, Jr., reading, a letter from World War II, JFK’s own, very personal scrapbook of photographs of him and his buddies in the Solomon Islands.
People put together these black-and-white images because all that they said about World War II, the images of battles and the images of men. We think of World War II in black and white. But in fact, during World War II, the United States Army pulled together an extraordinary roster of Hollywood veterans, led by George Stevens, who later directed such Academy Award winning films as A Place in the Sun and Giant.
They were pulled together to go to the front lines in Europe and film, in color, the Normandy invasion, the Battle of the Bulge, the horrors of the concentration camps, and the liberation of Paris. About a decade ago, George Stevens’ son, George Stevens, Jr., who was director of the motion picture service of the USIA under President Kennedy, took his father’s remarkable World War II footage and produced the film that you will see tonight George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin.
The film won three Emmys and you can’t take your eyes off it. After we show it, George Stevens, Jr., long a friend of this Library, somebody who gave great thought to what this Library should be and producer of the documentary Years of Lightening, Day of Drums about President Kennedy, will join in a conversation with Mark Feeney, a reporter, editor, and reviewer of The Boston Globe and the author of (dare I say this name here?)
Nixon at the Movies: A Book about Belief.
Ladies and gentlemen, George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin.
GEORGE STEVENS, JR.: I just thought, first of all, you are a wonderful audience. And it’s a pleasure for me to see this film again, with all of you. My father and I were very close and we had worked together on films through the years. And he had this storeroom -- you saw a glimpse of it, the interior of it, on Ventura Boulevard in North Hollywood -- where he kept things. And we used to go there from time to time. And he was just…. He kept all kinds of things.
He kind of lived modestly. He didn’t have a big house. And he would put things in this Bekins storeroom. And there were the scripts from Laurel and Hardy, photographs from all of his films, a German Schmeiser machine gun, souvenirs of the war, his documents, and records of his pictures, and prints of his movies and these cans and boxes of war footage. (I hear music and there’s no one there.)
And I remember driving with him one day. We had been out there. And he kind of looked over at me and he said, “You know,” he said, “this stuff is such a burden to me.” He said, “Don’t ever let it become a burden to you.”
And it was kind of prophetic, because when he died there was this enormous question: What do you do with all of this?” Well, what we did, principally, was to give it to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. And it forms the George Stevens’ collection, which is one of the best collections of any film director. And among that collection was this footage. And their job was to photograph the war in black and white. And they had those 35-millimeter small cameras and bigger cameras that you saw in the film.
But my father had taken along a 16-millimeter camera that he had used to shoot behind the scenes footage on Gunga Din. And I was in a restaurant in Los Angeles about three or four years ago and a fellow came up to me and said, “You know, I was in London during World War II just before D-Day and I ran into your father.” And this fellow said to my father, “Would you like to take some color film along?” And dad said, “Sure.” So he said to me, “I gave him these crates of color film.”
So it was really as a hobby or as a personal little biography of home movies that they were shooting this color film, which then sat in that storeroom for nearly 40 years. And I think by the time I came onto it, it was kind of much more valuable and intriguing than if it had been something that three years after the war you would have unveiled. So that was just by way of a little introduction.
MARK FEENEY: Well, how much footage all together was there, both the official black-and-white footage and the unofficial color footage?
STEVENS: There’s about four hours of it or four or five hours. And I gave it all to the Library of Congress. It is now in the Library of Congress and people are able to use it -- documentarians the world over are always asking for it -- because I really felt it belonged in the public domain.
FEENEY: And you show us at the end of the film that the Dachau postmark…. Do you still have that or what’s become of that?
STEVENS: I have that.
FEENEY: And then just one other collectible question. Any idea what happened to the jeep, Taluka.
STEVENS: No. I think it is probably is in the graveyard of the hundreds or thousands or millions of jeeps. We lived in a little place in North Hollywood called Taluka Lake. And that is the reason for the jeep being called Taluka.
FEENEY: You say in the film in your narration, “I remember my father saying August 25, 1944, was the greatest day of his life.” Did he talk to you about the war much, both when you were a boy and then later when you worked together?
STEVENS: Yes, he talked about the war a lot. And much of it was kind of storyteller memories. He had a great gift for storytelling. And the voice with the English accent that you hear is Ivan Moffat, who was an American raised in England and drafted into the American Army and assigned to my father’s unit. And he rode in my father’s jeep through most of the war. And then…. He was beautifully educated, brilliant young man…. And then he came back to Los Angeles and went to work for my father and worked with him through most of his pictures after the war. And Ivan was the best man at my wedding. And Ivan, too, would always talk of that day. Watching this…. Every time you watch a film you see new things in it. And I think my father must have been 36 when he went into the service. And he was well beyond draft age and had a son. I mean he was….
FEENEY: He didn’t have to do it?
STEVENS: Exactly. And I had these feelings, of course, for all of them, those men we saw in the gliders that were going to parachute over the Rhine, but that these people who spend this time over there and, you know, it occurred to me, look at my father in the mud and the grit and all of that, that you could just sense that he had no wish to be anywhere else. He could have been on a sound stage making pictures with Irene Dunne. But it was clearly where he wanted to be. And you get a sense of really…. I think of the great adventure that it must have been. You know, when you see them looking at the surrendering Germans. For those of us who are old enough to remember the mood of World War II, the fear that the German Army struck in people, the Panzer divisions. This was the mightiest army ever put together. And here these sort of American GIs, draftees, have turned the tide. It’s quite remarkable.
FEENEY: Well, you were 10, 12, 13 during the war. How vivid are your own memories of it? Were you concerned about your father? Was he constantly writing home?
STEVENS: Yes, we have…. In his collection there are wonderful letters. He sent me emails [sic]. And he kept the letters that I sent him and my mother sent and vice versa. One of the treasured items I have…. When you asked how we felt…. I don’t know if you remember a film called The Human Comedy in which Mickey Rooney played, as a boy, the delivery boy for Western Union. I haven’t seen it for many, many years. But there was kind of the drunk that ran the Western Union office. And he’d give Mickey Rooney these telegrams to take to notify mothers and wives that their son or husband had been killed in battle. And there was that, we had a star in our window. And there was always that thought, is the Western Union man going to come to your door? And I received a package. It must have been some time shortly after D-Day and unwrapped it. And it was a copy of The Human Comedy. And it’s inscribed with the most eloquent Saroyan-esque inscription about…. And it is dated June 2, 1944. So they both knew they were going to a different place. And he writes to a 12-year-old, just the way you would think of Saroyan writing, he said, “When I’m in your father’s world, I’m in a better world.” This kind of romantic and affectionate, and that, “We have a great adventure ahead of us.”
And, of course, Saroyan was part of that unit. And, as you pointed out, in one of those later scenes at the very end, the person having that cognac across the table from my father is Robert Capa.
FEENEY: In Berlin.
STEVENS: In Berlin. And then, of course, you saw Irwin Shaw. It was quite a collection of irregulars.
FEENEY: He kept good company.
FEENEY: Do you remember…. You mentioned in the beginning, sending home the packages of colored film. Do you remember them coming in the mail?
STEVENS: I don’t think I do at the time. But they were addressed…. Now that I can look at the boxes, some are addressed to our house, 4300 Forman Avenue, North Hollywood. And others were addressed to Lt. Col. Frank Capra, who had his photo unit in Culver City.
FEENEY: It’s one of the great truisms of Hollywood history that the war had a profound effect on your father. You imply this at the end. As many people, I’m sure, remember, he made a number of marvelous light films before the war: Swing Time, the Astaire-Rogers musical, Gunga Din, and as you mentioned, the great classic adventure film The More the Merrier, that wonderful comedy. And then, after the war, the belief was, the conventional wisdom was that the war affected him. He became much more serious and he made films like Shane and A Place in the Sun, The Diary of Anne Frank. Do you think that is true? Is that too simplistic? Did the war affect him that much? Did it affect his art that much?
STEVENS: Well, the war did affect him. It’s a convenience for critics and people who want to try and get to the truth of things. He certainly didn’t lose his humor. He made one…. He directed one sequence in a picture without credit. The picture was called On Our Merry Way and it was one of those sketch pictures with three or four segments. And he did a piece with Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, which is so funny. I mean he had the ability to do funny stories. But I think his interests…. He was a different person and his interests were deeper. It was less a loss of humor than enlarged understanding about the world and different things to express.
FEENEY: And, in fact, you worked with your father towards the beginning of your career and along towards the end of his. What was that experience like?
STEVENS: Well, gosh, I worked with him. My first job in life was one summer I had two assignments. One was to break down Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy. I mean list every scene and sequence and character.
FEENEY: Which, of course, is the basis for A Place in the Sun, the Elizabeth Taylor, Montgomery Clift classic.
STEVENS: Right. And the other was to read books that came from the studio and scripts. And as I look back on it now and raised and nurtured my own sons, I realize now that it was probably a little more of a make-work project than the fact that the thought I was going to have any particular insight into whether these scripts that came from the studio were any good. But I did read a book that came and I went one night to his bedroom. He was in bed reading. And I came over and I said, “I think this is really…. This is an interesting story. I think you ought to read it.” And he, again…. Now I perceive it, the cultivation motive…. “Why don’t you tell me the story?” So my assignment…. I walked around this bedroom trying to tell him the story of Shane. And, of course, he made the story into really a classic film and saw much more in it than his 16- or 17-year-old son did.
FEENEY: Even if it is a make-work job, I think it is fair to say you earned your salary.
STEVENS: Yeah. Thank you.
FEENEY: Your father is one of the master filmmakers. You’ve mentioned various classic films he made. If you could somehow set the time machine and bring him to Hollywood today at the height of his powers, how do you think he would fare there now?
STEVENS: Well, I’m sure whatever hand he was dealt he would play very well. It’s hard for me…. It’s too tough a question, so I’ll dodge it and give you kind of a related answer. I’m finishing a book, which is called Great Filmmakers of the Golden Age: Conversations at the American Film Institute. I’ve edited seminars that we did with great filmmakers starting with Harold Lloyd, King Vidor, Raoul Walsh, my father, William Wyler, Huston, Hitchcock, and on. And in an introduction to it, I write of how I think for so many of these people, the Second World War gave them a second act. It’s hard to know what kind of films they would have gone on to make, John Huston, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, had it not been that they saw combat. And, ironically, Frank Capra, who was also a colonel and was the first to go into the service but stayed in Culver City heading…. Frank didn’t see war and had trouble after….. He had a harder time finding a second act. So I think…. I can’t see any of these men ever having made American Graffiti or films that kind of serious filmmakers…. George Lucas has gone on to be a very accomplished…. I knew them, John Huston, my father, Ford, Wyler, they were serious people and wanted to do serious work.
FEENEY: Well, let me ask that question in a different way that might be easier to answer. In a sense, through your father, you’ve been exposed to Hollywood almost back to the silent era, right down to the present. You are still a working producer and involved in the industry. Is it possible for you to say what, over that time, has been the single biggest or the several biggest changes in the industry?
STEVENS: The biggest change, as it effects what’s happening in film today is that, for whatever reasons, whether it’s that conglomerates now control the filmmaking process or whether some people are finding their entertainment at home on video or DVDs…. But all of the financial interests of the motion picture industry right now are directed at making films that will attract 18- to 24-year-old males. And it’s very hard to get the kind of films that the men I’ve been referring to made today. I mean, you look at what’s coming out and week after week, it’s Batman, Mr. and Mrs. Smith. It’s designed for that audience and it really kind of excludes the adult audience.
FEENEY: Do you hold out any hope for the future?
STEVENS: I do. I think that people will find a way. I guess what I don’t like about it is that I think it has become a magnet, taking promising filmmakers, like the one that did Batman and Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and they are getting drawn into this vortex of making these puffed up, $100 million pictures that have to score in a certain way. But I think that creative people will continue to find ways to make important films, even if it is only for HBO.
FEENEY: To get back to your father again. Did he ever talk to you about what he was proudest of? He had such a varied career, including his documentary work during the war and these many films. Was there any one thing that meant the most to him or….
STEVENS: He didn’t really talk that way. But I guess being around somebody, you can pick up. I don't know whether I’m speaking for myself of for him when I say, I think he would probably have valued his integrity that he kind of did the right thing professionally and personally. And kind of the choices he made in terms of making films, the choice to go to war, the choice…. and a story that is too long to get into….
But during the McCarthy period when DeMille and Ronald Reagan and the right in Hollywood wanted to oust the president of the Directors Guild, it was dad who took them on and stemmed the tide as it were. So he made a lot of good choices. And I think he…. Shane was kind of the part of the west that he cared about. The Diary of Anne Frank was important to him. He called it his war film. He never made a real war film.
And, of course, that was a great experience because he and I worked together on that. I was involved. I had gone on and was directing television: Alfred Hitchcock and Peter Gunn and shows like that. And he came to me and said, “Would you like to come back and work with me on The Diary of Anne Frank?” And I became his associate producer. And at the end, when he got very far behind schedule, he asked me to go and I shot all of the footage in Amsterdam, all the location footage that he had intended to shoot. So, it was a wonderful collaboration.
And to connect it a little bit to our experience tonight, in the preparation of it, he and I went to Dachau, the first time he had been to Europe since the war. And that was just a very moving experience. I had not seen this film at the time. But for him to go back there, you just can’t imagine what you’ve seen and returning to that place. And then we went to Normandy and went onto the beaches and the graveyard.
And I remember, dad had a, you know, kind of a light touch. And he’d pick up the terminology of the war. Those guys kept using it. And we drove through the town of Caen in Normandy. And it had a lot of kind of modern buildings. And dad said, “You know, we touched Caen up pretty good.” And, of course, that was the town you saw, that was just so devastated. And then we went from there, we went to Amsterdam, and went one morning to a little office in the town of Amsterdam to meet Otto Frank, Anne Frank’s father. And he was a remarkable man, tall, straight, gray hair, I mean balding but with gray hair. He had been in the German Army in the First World War as a German officer. And then during the Hitler time, finally fled to Amsterdam and started this spice business. And it was above their little spice factory that the Frank family and another family hid. And Mr. Frank greeted us, served us coffee in his modest little office. And then he went to a filing cabinet and pulled open the filing cabinet and took a package out and unwrapped it. It was wrapped in paper. And put in front of us this little plaid book that was his daughter’s diary. And he wanted to help in any way he could to make this film of her life be true. And we went from there with his wife. He had lost his wife and two daughters at Belson. He had been at Auschwitz. And he had subsequently married a woman, Fritzi, who had lost her family.
And so he and his present wife took us to the Prinsengracht on the Canal, which is where we shot the exteriors, if you seen The Diary of Anne Frank. And he took us up into that building. It was so moving to go up. And I don't know if he’d been up there recently. And that he wanted us to know and he told us about the day the Germans came and how they lived. That is one of the…. When you ask what’s important in my father’s life…. There are so many kinds of rich experiences, but for both of us to work together and to be part of that piece of history. And dad realized in the course of this that he had been 60 miles from where they were hiding at the time of the Battle of the Bulge. I mean it is kind of a small world. You have a 36-year-old guy who never left the United States to suddenly get to Bastogne not that far from Amsterdam.
FEENEY: We’re talking about your father, of course. What was it like for your mother during the war? Was it a real wrench for her to have him go? Was she fully supportive of it?
STEVENS: I guess so. I don’t think…. It’s not for me to talk about the sacrifice of our family. I mean my father came back. He had his experience. So many millions or so many thousands died. And so many people were in that situation that my mother was in. Sure, she was a woman alone raising a boy. But she was a nurse’s aide. You know, people coped.
FEENEY: Since we are at the Kennedy Library….
STEVENS: I should note that July 31st I will be going to Los Angeles for my mother’s 100th birthday.
FEENEY: Let’s hope you get her genes. You worked in the government in the Kennedy administration. And we were talking before the screening that, in fact, you met President Kennedy. Might you talk a little bit about him and your experiences of him?
STEVENS: I would be pleased to. And sitting in this theater brings to mind that I had been involved in the planning for this Library. I had gone to work for Edward R. Murrow, who was running the USIA for President Kennedy. And after the events of November 1963…. And I had become close with many in the administration and the Kennedy family, when the planning for what was to be done for the Kennedy Library…. Mrs. Kennedy, Jacqueline, was very involved and Bill Walton, a great friend of the president’s, an artist who was also a World War II colleague of my father’s in Europe. And one of my kind of pushes was that they should incorporate film, that it was a real opportunity to use film to tell the story, like no previous presidential library. And one of my little missions was persuading Mr. Pei, I. M. Pei, that we needed a film theater. And I think we are sitting in it.
FEENEY: And, in fact, you went on to do one of the most celebrated documentaries about President Kennedy, which Deborah mentioned at the beginning. Might you talk a little bit about that?
STEVENS: Yes. First of all, it was such a great experience to be part of that. And Ed Murrow had come to me -- I was involved with my father on his next picture -- and Ed asked me to come and run the motion picture division of USIA. And I first said no, I couldn’t because I just felt I couldn’t let my father down. We were like partners by then. And a few days later I mentioned something about Ed Murrow and told my father. And dad said, “I think you have to do it.” And he saw that for me it would be a life-changing experience. And, again, in the ethical world he lived in, that my life was more important than his at that point.
FEENEY: Did his path ever cross Murrow’s when they were in London?
STEVENS: I think just…. Not closely, but they, of course, knew of one another. And it was a great experience working with…. And I had come to Washington and I was invited…. As a bachelor, you get some good invitations to the Schriver’s, Sergeant Schriver who was then head of the Peace Corps, and Eunice, President Kennedy’s sister. And I went out. It was black tie, wonderful sit-down dinner. And I remember I met Newton Minnow at dinner.
FEENEY: Head of the FCC.
STEVENS: Head of the FCC, the “vast wasteland,” and we had a lot to talk about. And afterwards we were having drinks. It was when they used to pass scotches and cognac. They don’t do that any more after dinner. A winter night…. I remember I had driven out in a little car, rental car, and wasn’t used to driving in the snow. And the front door blew open it seemed and in, coatless, walked the president of the United States. And it was before you saw…. It was before colored television. And, you know, now you see somebody on television. You think you know them. If you run into Larry King, you think, “God. Oh, yeah.” It was just seeing the president and in color, somehow struck me. And he kind of walked around the circle of people and he came within two or three feet of me and that was great. And then I’m standing, talking to Minnow and I’m going on about something.
And Minnow said, “Have you met the president?” I said, “No, I haven’t met the president.” And then I realized it was not a…. And I looked around and he introduces me to President Kennedy. And he starts, “Ed Murrow has asked George to come back and make the motion picture.” And the president, “I know about that. There is something I want to talk to you about,” and I thought, “Jesus.” And then…. But first he said…. And then he said to Minnow…. This is so typical of President Kennedy. They had just broadcast, I guess CBS or NBC, Jacqueline Kennedy’s tour of the White House. And he looked at me and he said, “How come CBS didn’t broadcast Jackie’s tour of the White House in color? They made $450 [thousands?] last year and they can’t afford to broadcast in color?” It was so typical of Kennedy.
And then he was being taken away. He said, “I’ll be in touch with you.” And what he wanted to talk to be about was PT 109, which was then in the process of becoming a movie. And he thought I might have some advice. And so then I had the privilege of working with him and saw him on many occasions. And now we are going Kennedy Library stuff. This is not about D-Day to Berlin but since we are on that tack…. I’m sure much of the lore or the history in this place is about how President Kennedy inspired the people in his administration. And there were the stories that the desk officer for Haiti would be in his office and the phone would ring and it is President Kennedy. He didn’t want to ask Dean Rusk, to ask the assistant secretary for Latin America, if he liked to….
And it had the effect…. I don’t think any of his cabinet officers minded it, because it had the effect of just lifting an organization, a department…. That he appreciates what we are doing and is interested and knows that individuals are doing it. And there were several occasions where, once I was in Murrow’s meeting of all of his area directors and media directors…. And my deputy comes and hands me a note, “President Kennedy is on the phone, calling.”
So I excused myself and he takes my place and I go down and on the phone is Mrs. Lincoln, and “Just a minute. I’ll put the president on.” “George,” he said, “I saw this film The Five Cities of June Saturday night.” He said, “That’s the best government documentary I’ve seen.” He said, “Where is it being shown?” I said, “Well, it’s over at….” “How many countries?” He kept overlapping my dialogue with successive questions because he was ahead of me. But there was that interest that he took. And I remember (and this will be the end of this passage) I was in California one time and being single and wayward, I’d stay out very late at night. And one morning about 7 o’clock the phone rang and I was having a hard time getting awake. And it was my assistant in my office in Washington. She said, “President Kennedy just called Mrs. Lincoln…. And I gave her the number there. He is going to be calling you.”
And I’m trying to get awake and do I have time to splash water on my face. I just go up and the phone rings. And I said, “I can’t go splash water on my face and let the phone ring if it’s the president.” I answer the phone and she puts President Kennedy on. And he says, “Have you entered The Five Cities of June in the Academy Awards?”
FEENEY: I want to ask one more Kennedy question. But as those of you who are familiar with the Kennedy Library Forums know, the programs will consist, the first half of discussions here and then questions from the audience. So while I’m asking my last question, if anyone does have a question of their own, there’s a microphone there. And if you would like to head over there you can ask Mr. Stevens your own questions.
This is a question you may be uniquely qualified to answer as one who had dealings with President Kennedy and who grew up at the epicenter of Hollywood. Did he have star power? Obviously, he was a master politician. But we often hear about his charisma. He was such a good-looking man. Did he have the extra certain something? When he came to the room, when that door blew open….
STEVENS: Yeah. It was magical. You look at these pictures in the lobby of him as a young Navy lieutenant. He had it. He had charm, intelligence, curiosity, and energy.
FEENEY: And we already have some people lined up so, sir.
AUDIENCE: Mr. Stevens, for the 40 years that this film sat in your father’s storeroom, did you know what was in there? Did he mention the Dachau film while he was making Anne Frank? Or did he talk to you about the birthday present opening? Did you have any idea what was there?
STEVENS: No, not the birthday present. We did talk about the Dachau footage. At one time, there was a famous lawyer in San Francisco called Vincent Hallinan, who I think even ran for president on the socialist ticket or something. But he was a great, brilliant Clarence Darrow, Edward Bennett Williams defense attorney. And he and dad were friends. And Hallinan was there one time and dad told me that they took out this film because he wanted to show it to him, the Dachau footage.
And they ran five minutes of this and dad said, “I just can’t look at this. I can’t go back.” So we really…. I had wanted to show and I had asked him, because I knew of the liberation of Paris. And Bill Walton, who I mentioned earlier, wanted to see it. And we wanted to run it for President Kennedy. And while that was, all things came…. November of ’63 came before we got around to that. But I really didn’t have any detailed knowledge of it. And you mentioned the birthday footage. You can imagine how moving that was when I came upon it. But I was watching it tonight and, what’s the expression, “You can’t make it up?” Here he is by his jeep, the Taluka, a movie director’s life in combat with the guys. And they decide to open their Christmas presents with snow on the jeep and take pictures of it, homemovies style. And if you notice at the end, he points up and there’s a German dive-bomber has come and they get in the car and drive off. You can’t make it up. Sir.
AUDIENCE: Yes. While I was watching the credits of the film float by it struck me that part of the significance of this film is that you couldn’t afford to put together a staff of moviemakers that were represented in this film.
AUDIENCE: The question that I have here is that, I was about your age when this film was shot. And my recollection was that during World War II on the home front, we were fed a very sugarcoated version of World War II. And I was wondering, did you ever talk to your father about that? Is my recollection wrong, in the first place? And were they under direction not to show much of the horror that was reflected in this film?
STEVENS: That’s a good question. I’m trying to remember. I think there were some rules. I never discussed it with my father. But I’ve read about it. I think we were not supposed to…. They didn’t show much of dead American soldiers, if I recall. They would give you a sense in the newsreel theaters when we would go to theater, as I’m sure you did…. You know, they’d have the News View Theater on Hollywood Boulevard and my mother and I would go down. And you’d have an hour of newsreels. And I’m sure people all across this country went to those, looking to see if they were going to see their husband or brother or father in the footage. And I just never discussed with him…. And he really had not much sense of how the film was seen back home. He made the choice. He said, “I didn’t want to be somewhere in an editing room cutting together war documentaries.” In a letter he wrote to my mother about the liberation of Paris, he just expressed the exhilaration. And he said, “I know. We hadn’t changed our clothes for two weeks.” And he said, “We had a ride that day,” referring to the great stunt man, Yakima Canutt. He said, “Yakima Canutt would have earned $200 for the ride into Paris.”
AUDIENCE: So they would shoot the footage and then just send it off to the Signal Corps or whatever.
STEVENS: Yeah. You would see them dropping it off and it would come back. And then it would be edited. Much of it exists today in what…. There were two newsreel primary companies in the day, Fox Movietone and Hearst Metrotone. One was MGM and one was 20th Century Fox. And they would make the newsreels and put them in theaters.
AUDIENCE: I’m just curious about a detail of those cartons of Kodachrome. I grew up as a kid. My dad had a 16-millimeter film camera. And we had pictures of his victory garden and us as kids and so on in color. Were those films sent home not processed and they just languished for a long time or were they processed and nobody wanted to look at them or…. STEVENS: You know what I think happened, now that you mention it…. The way it worked was, you would buy a box of film. And they were cassettes. And then you would put it in your Cine Special, expose it. You would put it back in the box and send it to Kodak. That same piece of film, it’s called reversal, and it has tremendous quality. This video is not a pure representation of it but it so vivid, the quality. So I think what was probably done is that it was sent to Kodak and then our address was the send-back address. And I hadn’t thought of that before but I think that’s the answer.
AUDIENCE: And your father really never did want to see any of those reels?
STEVENS: Not really. No. You know, I think if you…. While you were interested in it, you didn’t want to look back. I think he kept it, if he was making a certain kind of a war film one day, that he would use it. And I think that Steven Spielberg and Janusz Kaminski, his cinematographer, really went to school on it for Ryan’s Daughter.
FEENEY: Saving Private Ryan.
STEVENS: Saving Private Ryan. I would never accuse David ...
FEENEY: But one thing that did strike me, and as a somewhat younger person who is with digital and all, the richness of the color is just extraordinary.
STEVENS: It’s that Kodacolor. It’s the best. There’s been no better film made.
AUDIENCE: Believe it or not, that was going to be my question. The footage looked a lot like Saving Private Ryan and then also the HBO series Band of Brothers is in the very grainy footage. And I was wondering if they had ever consulted with you or saw the footage?
STEVENS: Yes. Steven asked to get the whole batch of it and I arranged for him to get it. And I’m sure that…. Because he was involved in Band of Brothers as well. So, I think the answer is yes.
AUDIENCE: I did a book on the Foreign Security Administration and some of their photographers were also over there. I wondered if you…. I guess it’s two questions. I wondered if you ever…. You mentioned the immediacy of the power of the color, the dyes are absolutely extraordinary, even after the passage of years. And in the Library of Congress…. I wonder if you had even seen some of the stills that they had shot in color, Russ Lee or some of the other people?
STEVENS: Of World War II or of the Foreign….
AUDIENCE: No, they shot both…. They used it as the tale end of the FSA because that started earlier. But they also used it…. They also took it over. I wondered if you had ever seen any of that?
STEVENS: No, I have not.
AUDIENCE: Just for everyone in the audience, it is extraordinary and it’s in the public domain and you can get copies of it in slide or color.
AUDIENCE: Yeah. You can also get copies of all the…. Dorothea Lang and Walker Evans, all that is available to the public. And it’s online. It’s hundreds of thousands of images. It is really extraordinary. But the other thing, in terms of the other person’s comments about what they shot and how they shot it, I think probably Mr. Feeney knows that’s a small industry in our local universities, the ideology of image making. But I was just wondering whether or not you had come across and you knew of any of the copies of any of the directives you father might have gotten? And the reason I ask that is because for the FSA there was a guy names Roy Striker. And he was extraordinarily detailed about what he wanted people to shoot and how he wanted them to shoot it. And it was annoying to people like Walker Evans but it was okay with people like Russ Lee or Mary Walcott. I wonder if your dad got those kinds of directives maybe from somebody else.
STEVENS: Well, my father…. sort of the governing instinct throughout his life in the movie industry was to get to the point where he controlled the making of his pictures. He produced his pictures as well as directed them. And he had this understanding with General Eisenhower that his unit would have orders. They would not be attached to anybody’s army because if you were in somebody’s army, they could tell you what to do. I’ve seen his orders and they were free-floating. They were an organization of their own and they could go pretty much wherever they wanted. And I don’t think he had any very detailed directives.
You guys are a great audience, thank you very much!
FEENEY: Thank you, George Stevens Jr.!
Source: John Fitzgerald Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum