When the British warship HMS Belfast fired the shot that launched the D-Day landings, it was carrying an unlikely passenger – Hollywood film director George Stevens. He was on board making a unique documentary for US Army archives.
His work at that time is the subject of the film ‘George Stevens: D-Day to Berlin’ made 50 years later.
It is an important historical document in several ways, not the least of which is the chance to see colour film from this era.
Termed the ‘Stevens Irregulars’, the film crew shot official footage on 35mm monochrome film, but Stevens also shot 14 cans of 16mm colour Kodachrome as he and the crew followed the Allied campaign across Europe.
After the war however, the images were forgotten until Stevens’ son, George Stevens Jr, discovered them after his father’s death, and was amazed. He then put the documentary together, narrated it and added excerpts from audio interviews with surviving veterans.
George Stevens Jr explained how it felt discovering the film: “I had this feeling that my eyes were the first eyes that hadn’t been there who were seeing this day in colour. And I watched this film unfold and on this ship and all of these men with their flak jackets and anticipation of this day – and around a corner on the ship comes this man – helmet, jacket – walks into a close-up, and it’s my 37-year-old father – which is so moving.”
His finished documentary was released in 1994 and showed the D-Day landings, the destruction of French villages; the liberation of Paris, and the arrival of the US Army at Dachau concentration camp on 29 April 1945.
George Stevens Jr said the footage gives an entirely new perspective to the conflict: “We thought at the time this was the only colour film of the war in Europe. As it turned out, there was some German film that had not yet been discovered. But it is the greatest body of colour film and World War II was a black-and-white war. That’s how we see it. That’s how we saw it. And suddenly to see it in colour, it just took on a whole other dimension.”
The documentary, which won three Emmy Awards, is now available on DVD.