Interviews · Movies

‘The Cold Blue’ is ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ with B-17 Bombers

We chat with documentarian Erik Nelson about his tribute to the Mighty Eighth Air Force and the cinematographers who risked their lives to capture their experience.
The Cold Blue Poster
By  · Published on May 27th, 2019

The Shallow Pocket Project is a series of conversations with the brilliant filmmakers behind the independent films that we love. Check our last chat with Karen Maine and Natalia Dyer (Yes, God, Yes). Special thanks to Lisa Gullickson and the other Dorks at In The Mouth of Dorkness.

At the start of 1943, the US Air Force tasked William Wyler with capturing the bravery and heroism of the men inside the Memphis Belle. The Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress was well on its way to becoming the first heavy bomber to accomplish twenty-five missions over Europe, and as a reward, the crew was to return to the United States on a cross-country promotional tour. The Air Force wanted to make the most of their victory and needed the director of Mrs. Miniver and 31 previous features to craft a film to further rouse homefront morale.

Constructed from six combat missions, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress was the work of three camera operators shooting 16mm on multiple bombers. Wyler’s unit pledged their lives to document this footage, and cinematographer Harold J. Tanenbaum perished for this pursuit when his B-17 went down over France on April 16, 1943. Playing in theaters across the country, their work achieved the necessary empathy and transformed the Memphis Belle into an American icon. The film was placed into the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2001.

Today, the film plays very much like it was intended: propaganda to rally the citizenry around their military might. Documentarian Erik Nelson (Dreams with Sharp Teeth, A Gray State) saw an opportunity to not only restore the footage that had greatly deteriorated since its production but to recontextualize Wyler’s stunning imagery for a contemporary audience. The surviving members of these missions are mostly in their nineties now, and their stories are on the verge of erasure. Nelson’s new HBO documentary, The Cold Blue, aims to translate the terror confronted inside Axis airspace as well as pay tribute to Wyler’s footage.

Speaking to Nelson over the phone, the director expressed his desire to pull World War II away from its cliche depiction in pop culture. “I want people in the most direct, hardwired way, to connect with the experience and the men who actually had the experience,” he says. These men are reaching their end, and if we remain satisfied with their story as we know it from the fictitious points of view, then we will lose the reality of their emotion. “These guys aren’t going to be around in a year or two. These are the last surviving links between that experience, the great fracture of World War II and today. So, we need to preserve that in its purest form.”

The Cold Blue does not dare to lecture from the screen. The last thing Nelson wanted to do was place survivors in front of a camera and assault his audience with the usual talking heads. He had Wyler’s footage. It was important to allow the images to express the humanity of the scene. “I wanted to make Koyaanisqatsi with B-17s,” he says. “I wanted to make an impressionistic art film that was forensically accurate, but not a documentary that told you who, what, where, but told you more what it felt like.”

Nelson had the survivors, and he had Wyler’s footage. He put his faith there and didn’t consider conventional techniques. Nelson has produced many films that have taken that route (Grizzly Man, Into the Abyss), but with no Werner Herzog to explain/educate his audience, The Cold Blue nabs your empathy through sensory immersion. The marriage of a veteran’s recollection with the pristine, restored photography is undeniably provocative and effective.

“When you’re in the presence of guys who are haunted by the experience after 75 years, you realize how indelible it was for them,” explains Nelson. The men of the Eighth Air Force were barely out of their teens when they were driven to war. Such a call of action remains a vivid memory, and even a narrator as descriptive as Herzog could not do them justice. “It’s important to have them in their nineties talk about it.” They have to tell their story.

The authenticity contained within Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress was already impressive, but rescued from destruction by The Cold Blue, Wyler’s film speaks like it never has before. The original cinematographers obtained these images by mounting cameras at the tail, nose, radio hatch positions, and right waist. The POV is that of the trapped men within the B-17s, and the invitation given by Wyler’s team is sacred. Here we see panic, terror, and bravery. Our job is to appreciate and contemplate their endeavor.

“This entire film, it sort of pays it forward with what those guys experienced in World War II, ” says Nelson. “The idea was to take footage that Wyler risked his life to film, and Harold Tanenbaum lost his life to film, and propel it forward into a new century and a new audience.”

Wyler shot fifteen hours of film to construct Memphis Belle. That sounds like a lot, but compared to the amounts of archival footage Nelson restored for A Gray State, the task for The Cold Blue was much less daunting. Besides, Nelson did not need to repair fifteen hours for his film, but a much more manageable seventy-two minutes. “If you have the right idea going into the project, and it breaks properly, it can be very easy,” he says. No doubt there is a challenge in re-editing the original from scratch and replacing over 500 edits, but with the major creative decisions regarding how he would reframe the narrative already decided, the restoration process was obviously achievable. It was just a matter of getting it done.

When watching The Cold Blue, you fall into a palpable auditory and visual recreation of the Mighty Eighth Air Force. You’re lost in history. The film is a memorial to the men sacrificed in the air and the men who left a piece of themselves with their comrades. At the same time, in a less obvious manner, The Cold Blue is a celebration to a creative genius that was willing to give everything he had to bring the Eighth Air Force’s stories back to the homefront.

“William Wyler went out of his way…to be sent to the front lines during the same year that Mrs. Miniver wins an Oscar, and he wins an Oscar for best director,” says Nelson. “As the awards are being given out in Hollywood, he’s in the air flying these near-suicidal missions. He didn’t have to be there. The fact that a great filmmaker, an artist like William Wyler risked his life to bring in this footage, to me, makes it mandatory that we preserve it.”

The Cold Blue premieres on HBO on June 6th at 5:00 PM PT.

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Brad Gullickson is a Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects and Senior Curator for One Perfect Shot. When not rambling about movies here, he's rambling about comics as the co-host of Comic Book Couples Counseling. Hunt him down on Twitter: @MouthDork. (He/Him)