At the same time that the American soldiers were preparing to fight the Nazis, a corps of Hollywood cameramen were training to enter the battlefield. Their work is the focus of the exhibition “Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens: From Hollywood to Nuremberg,” opening Thursday 22 at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. Curator and documentary filmmaker Christian Delage spoke to us about how the star-studded moviemaking world and the theater of war intersected during World War II.
How did the U.S. military convince Hollywood directors to enlist?
John Ford was in the Navy Reserve. As soon as 1932 he made a proposal to create a team of photographers and cameramen. So when World War II began, [Colonel William J.] Donovan immediately thought of John Ford.
How did that differ from George Stevens and Samuel Fuller’s experiences?
Stevens really wanted to be a part of the U.S. Army during the war. In 1943, when he was in London, [General Dwight D.] Eisenhower asked him to create a special team to film the landing and the advance of the U.S. Army in France and Germany. Sam Fuller was really a soldier and a member of the Big Red One, the famous infantry division. But he had not yet made movies. During the war, he asked his mother to send him a camera, and he received it in 1945 when he was in Germany. The first films he made were with this camera.
What instructions did the military give these directors?
They told Ford, “Your task is to make images that can’t be denied to be true. You will see military actions, you will see dead people, you will see atrocities, and you have to take images that everybody will believe.” The military was aware—even if they didn’t know exactly what it was yet—that the crimes being committed by the Nazis were new in scale.
Who else from Hollywood went to war?
Ford had to create a team of cameramen, so he called people who were famous photographers and cinematographers, like Gregg Toland, who worked on Citizen Kane and The Grapes of Wrath. The people working for Ford were professionals and trained, so you will never be able to say that when they arrived in the camps and came to see war crimes, they were not prepared, this is not true. They were prepared. It does not mean that they were not shocked by it.
What happened to the film that they shot?
A one-hour documentary film was shown a few days into the Nuremberg trials in November 1945.
In your research, what was the most powerful image you discovered?
The most poignant are the images taken by Sam Fuller of a German soldier dying. [Fuller’s regiment] shot him, but he was not killed, so they didn’t know what to do, and Fuller filmed this moment without interruption. At the end of The Big Red One [which Fuller directed and released in 1980], he reenacts this moment. In the reel the soldier dies, but in the movie he survives. Sam closes his movie by saying the only glory of the war is to survive.
ROLL IT! “Filming the Camps: John Ford, Samuel Fuller, George Stevens: From Hollywood to Nuremberg,” Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, 36 Battery Pl at 1st Pl (mjhnyc.org). Mon, Tue, Thu, Sun 10am–5:45pm; Wed 10am–8pm; Fri 10am–5pm. $7–$12. Thu 22–Oct 14.