Colour footage of D-Day filmed by Hollywood director turned into movie

The drama of war: Never-before-seen colour footage of D-Day filmed by a Hollywood director reveals life on the front line for US troops

  • George Stevens was assigned by General Dwight Eisenhower to lead special film unit to document the war
  • But the Hollywood director took his own 16mm personal camera to capture behind-the-scene coloured shots
  • They went undiscovered for decades but his son has turned them into film in time for D-Day 75th anniversary 

The son of a revered World War II filmmaker has turned never-before-seen colour footage of D-Day into a movie.

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

Stevens had been assigned by General Dwight Eisenhower to lead the ‘special coverage combat unit’ during the war. 

The resulting black-and-white films followed Allied troops through Normandy, the liberation of Paris, Battle of the Bulge and the horror of the Dachau concentration camp. 

But the also director took his 16mm personal camera to capture behind-the-scene coloured shots, which went undiscovered for decades.

US troops wade ashore on a beach at Normandy on the morning of June 6, 1944. The never-before-seen footage was captured by a Hollywood director and has been turned into a film for the 75th anniversary of D-Day

Empty shells lay on the deck of an American ship off the coast of France on D-Day. The footage was captured by George Stevens, who’d been assigned by General Dwight Eisenhower to lead the ‘special coverage combat unit’ during the war

Stevens, pictured shooting footage of the invasion off the coast of France on June 6, 1944, took his own 16-mm colour film to create a personal video journal of his experiences

Ships and blimps sit off the coast of France on D-Day. The blimps, or barrage balloons, were used to protect ships from German aircraft bombing from above

Naval soldiers stand on deck of one of their vessels during the invasion. The allied forces brought seven battleships, twenty-three cruisers, ninety-three destroyers, two monitors, and two gunboats to fight the Germans

George Stevens Jr., now 87, was a child when his father left to cover the war. It wasn’t until 1980 that he unearthed 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.  

Stevens Jr said: ‘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 realised it was D-Day.

‘I realised that my eyes were probably the first other than those who were there to see this in color. 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.

A French woman holding an MP40 sub machine gun watches U.S. troops drive past after the liberation of Paris in August 1944

U.S. soldiers drive through a town in German-held France in 1944. They pass homes that have been ruined by German bombers

A German officer is escorted by U.S. soldiers after the liberation of Paris in 1944. Stevens captured the footage after being assigned by General Dwight Eisenhower to lead the ‘special coverage combat unit’ during the war

Soliders sit on a tank holding a sign warning of a nearby mine field during World War II in France on June 6, 1944

Charles de Gaulle, President of the Provisional Government of the French Republic, prepares to take back control of France

U.S. military vehicles and soldiers march down the Champs-Elysees after seizing back the French capital from the Germans

Hollywood director George Stevens, holding his camera, talks after filming a military parade to celebrate the liberation of Paris. He kept the colour film reels in storage, and they went undiscovered until 1980

‘You’ve seen it in black and white. And when you see it in color, all of a sudden it feels like today. It doesn’t seem like yesterday. And it has a much more modern and authentic feeling to it.’

Next week’s D-Day commemorations will honour the thousands killed and wounded on June 6, 1944. At that time Stevens, 37, 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., 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.’

U.S. soldiers in Paris with the Eiffel Tower in the background during World War II after the liberation of Paris in August 1944

Gen. Phillippe Leclerc, foreground second right, stands with a captured German officer, left, after taking back control of Paris

U.S. Gen. Omar Bradley salutes as Charles de Gaulle, background left, speaks before for a military parade down the Champs-Elysees after the liberation of Paris

U.S. Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower attends a ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Solider in Paris

‘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. 

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. 

His father’s unit ‘went into Dachau, the concentration camp, and nobody had anticipated what they were going to find there,’ Stevens Jr. said. 

French women cheer-on U.S. soldiers at a military parade after the liberation of Paris in 1944

Gen. George Patton, with a pearl-handled pistol, works with French soldiers to defeat the Germans

George Stevens Jr. reveals he discovered his father’s films in 1980, long after his father had passed away 

Charles de Gaulle, arrives for a military parade down the Champs-Elysees after the liberation of Paris

‘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 color, 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.’  

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