“John Ford’s” D-Day Film – UPDATE!

Nine years ago this September, I authored a post on the National Archives and Records Administration’s “Unwritten Record” blog about a mysterious film I found in NARA’s research rooms. I uncovered the fact that this artifact was likely the first “documentary treatment” of the Operation Overlord assault on the beaches of Normandy, D-Day, June 6th, 1944. The film is influential because the shot selections largely duplicate the footage provided to the newsreels around the same time. Those selections have largely imprinted the imagery of D-Day in our collective imagination.

The story going around at the time I found the film was that Hollywood “A list” director John Ford, wartime head of the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services (“OSS”), recalled his wartime experiences, recounting that his unit compiled an overall report on the invasion that was shown to FDR, Churchill, and Stalin. Ford recalled his experiences on D-Day interview from “American Legion” magazine from June 1964 on the twentieth anniversary of D-Day. Having trained and equipped hundreds of photographers, Ford watched the first few days of the assault from the decks of the U.S. Navy Destroyer, the USS Plunkett. In my post I made a strong circumstantial case that the film I found at the National Archives matches this description. A letter in the OSS personnel folder for Captain John Ford recommends him for the Distinguished Service Medal on the strength of his activities documenting the D-day invasion, specifically mentioning:

“The returning film was assembled under his directions, and an overall D-Day report, complete with sound, was competed on D plus 5, and was shown to Mr. Winston Churchill. Copies were also flown to President Roosevelt and Mr. Stalin.”

I was unable to verify these claims or make the link to my “found” film at the time of this earlier article. Thanks to some additional research I’ve undertaken at NARA, I’ve now made that link. Below, find an image from an OSS project log found in its London Field office files.

I was able to re-confirm this information in an “officer biography” found in the Official Military Personnel File for Frederick A. Spencer, Ford’s Chief Deputy at Field Photo.

These documents confirm that the production was intended for presentation to chiefs of state FDR, Churchill, and Stalin, adding that a print was delivered to FDR on D-Day plus 8, or June 14, 1944 and that the film was commissioned by the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (“SHAEF”) Public Relations Division (matching the film found at NARA). They contribute additional detail, too: that the original production was no more than “approx 4,000 ft”, or about 44 minutes (the finished production at NARA comes in at 33 minutes) and that the production elements (cut work print, sound negative, and composite duplicate negative were turned over to SHAEF. Finally, the project log gives the last names of OSS Field Photo personnel responsible for what had to be an epic 72 hour edit session that assembled this edit within days of the Operation Overlord assault.

Some details remain a mystery: those film elements remain to be found, the copy found at NARA appears to come from four work prints of uncertain provenance, also no production file from Field Photo has been found to date. The Field Photo assignment log also notes a copy was intended to be made available to Canadian Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, but the Spencer biographical note lists only FDR, Churchill and Stalin. Hopefully, records of the presentation of these film reels to the “Big Three” will be found in the future.

Without further adieu, this is the “mystery film”…

Aftermath of the Battle of Aachen

This reel is taken from a work print, a film element intended for editing purposes, and shows evidence of its age and a hard life. The film is one of hundreds of thousands at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) that remain unavailable digitally. For this particular roll, all that exists in the National Archives Catalog is a scan of an Army Signal Corps shot card. I shot this film from a flatbed film viewer in the public research room using a mirror-less digital camera.

The footage, dating from October 1944, shows the destruction wrought on the city of Aachen after many days of air and artillery bombardment followed by house-to-house street fighting. Civilian refugees struggle with their handful of possessions in suitcases through devastated streets. Sadly, such scenes of urban devastation seem very relevant today.

Only a professional researcher can provide timely access to such unseen archival footage and stills, adding impact to your production or publication.

Yalta Conference outtakes

British newsreel outtakes

In honor of the 75th anniversary of the Yalta Conference, I’m sharing these outtakes of British newsreel coverage of the summit meeting between President Franklin Roosevelt, Soviet leader Josef Stalin, and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Under the laws existing at the time, copyright in these materials lapsed in the United Kingdom around 1995. There is no evidence that this film was ever registered for copyright in the United States.

This video came from a U.S. Government agency collection in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration. The series is described in general terms in the Archives on-line catalog, but no description of the footage is included, making specific films essentially inaccessible. Only a knowledgeable free-lance archival media researcher working out of the National Archives research room could find and identify this footage. Don’t depend on a production assistant or intern to find the perfect footage for your next production! A professional researcher adds value!

Heavy iron!

Found at the National Archives and Records Administration, this footage consists of pristine 35mm black and white outtake footage for a New Deal documentary on unemployment directed by the great documentary film maker Pare Lorentz and shot by Oscar winning cinematographer Floyd Crosby. The footage shows vintage 1930’s heavy industry to emphasize the productive capacity of the U.S. economy, even while recovering from the Great Depression. Based on a radio documentary entitled “Ecce Homo” (Latin for “behold the man”), the production was later named more prosaically “Name, Age and Occupation.” Work stopped on the film when House Republicans de-funded New Deal film making.

As the work product of a U.S. Government employee, this footage meets the definition of a “U.S. Government work” in U.S. law, making it ineligible for copyright protection. A full production file for this film exists at Columbia University, but almost all of the outtake footage is at the National Archives. This footage, and hundreds of rolls like it, is not described on the Internet and has no content description available in the National Archives Catalog, effectively rendering it available only to those willing and able to do a “deep dive” into the available material. Don’t depend on a production assistant or intern to find the exact footage to add impact to your production or exhibit. A professional media researcher adds value!

Flying Tigers!

From the National Archives’ Record Group 306 (The Records of the United States Information Agency), this footage was found in a collection called “Library Stock Shots”. Apparently no logging exists of the thousands of rolls in this collection. It includes pre-war footage of various domestic U.S. scenes, inherited from the wartime “Office of War Information”, as well as wartime footage from multiple sources, including the U.S. Armed Forces, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union and Italy. These rolls may exist in multiple other collections and archives, but without detailed description, locating imagery is a matter of hard work, and sometimes, serendipity!

This particular roll contains footage of the “American Volunteer Group” operating out of Kunming, China. Note the distinctive “tiger teeth” livery on the aircraft and the lack of U.S. emblems on the uniforms of the volunteers. After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the volunteers were folded back into the U.S. Army Air Forces, becoming known as the 23rd Fighter Group. Their commander, Capt. Claire Chennault, appears in the film.