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'The Cold Blue' review: HBO's superb tribute to powerful World War II film

HBO's "The Cold Blue" debuts on Thursday, the

HBO's "The Cold Blue" debuts on Thursday, the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Credit: HBO


WHEN|WHERE Thursday at 8 p.m. on HBO

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In the spring of 1943, Maj. William Wyler had set aside his already celebrated Hollywood career to produce a film for the First Motion Picture Unit of the United States Army Air Force, ostensibly to help sell war bonds. Wyler (1902-81) — a three-time Oscar winner ("Ben-Hur," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Mrs. Miniver") — wanted to chronicle the 25th and final mission of the Memphis Belle, a B-17 Flying Fortress, the workhorse of the Army Air Force, flying day missions (while the RAF flew nights). He and three cinematographers collected battle footage while aboard the Belle and other B-17s, creating a brisk 43-minute film, "The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress." Released in 1944, the film provided the first look most Americans got of the 8th Air Force campaign, with its staggering casualty rates. Belle was one of the first B-17s to complete 25 missions, while 75 percent of all other B-17s had been shot down by that point.

"The Cold Blue" has restored some of Wyler's unused footage (as well as footage from the film). It also offers recollections from veterans, like Al Villagran, 94, John Ketzner, 96, V.G. Alexander, 95, and Mort Kimmel, 94. They flew in other planes; none of the original Belle crewman is still alive.


MY SAY Before watching "The Cold Blue," check out Wyler's original film on YouTube. While the film was superficially wartime propaganda, Wyler almost seemed to sense that a hard-core sales job would devalue the contributions of the crewmen, as well as his own "Belle" cinematographers, including one — Lt. Harold J. Tannenbaum — who was shot down in a B-17 over France on April 16, 1943. So instead, he gave the folks back home hard information, virtual frostbite and portraits of true grit. At 40 degrees below zero and five miles straight up, contrails were both harbingers and agents of death — easy markers for the flak gunners below. His narrator eschewed hyperbole but once or twice (flak fields so dense you "could walk on them.") Mostly there was real information — specifics about bomber group formations, approaches to the target (for the 25th, Bremerhaven), the number of bombers per mission, even specifics about support wings. If the Germans had watched, they would have learned something too.

Above all, Wyler's accomplishment was brutally contextual: Here are the boys from back home at 27,000 feet, a Messerschmitt or Focke-Wulf coming in at 6 o'clock, and over there — in the cold blue — is a B-17 spiraling out of control. One parachute appears, then another. That's it. One plane down, eight men dead. People watching in the dark silence of some theater stateside must have dissolved into tears. They knew those men, or men like them.

"The Cold Blue," for all its technical wizardry and beautifully restored blues, can't improve on this and has no intention of trying. Seventy five years later, emotions once so visceral and raw have given way to memories, while those memories have receded to a vanishing point. Americans have other things to worry about these days, certainly other stuff to watch on TV. But "The Cold Blue" effectively says, wait — put that stuff aside, and watch for a moment and listen. A 75th anniversary seems like reasonable pretext to set it aside, and "Blue" — like Wyler 75 years ago — promises not to waste anyone's time.

It does not: In these sharply restored frames, haltingly recalled by the few surviving B-17 nonagenarian crewmen director Erik Nelson could assemble, "The Cold Blue" is both homage to the Wyler film and to those few survivors who have gone on to live full lives. In the closing dedication, it will also leave you with a pointed reminder of the 28,000 who did not.

BOTTOM LINE Fine tribute film to a Wyler semi-classic and the men of the Eighth Air Force.

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