“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.

“Gods of War”

One of the “fringe benefits” being a professional researcher is the possibility of stumbling over fascinating images or footage while looking for something quite different. While looking for photos of a different war correspondent, I came across this image of ur-combat photojournalist Robert Capa and novelist and journalist Ernest Hemingway, following an armored advance in France in the summer of 1944. This image, shot by an Army Signal Corps photographer, is described in the National Archives Catalog, but no digital image was included with this record.

This is far from a rare pattern. The still photo collections at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) consists of millions of images shot by military or other government photographers, as well as a healthy complement of donated images. Right now, less than 10% of the special media content available at NARA are available on-line at all. Given the Agency’s budget constraints, it may be many years before more of this content is made available in a digital format. That means that professional archival media researchers are an important resource for clients looking to leverage rarely seen images and footage from these world class collections. Under Federal law, “Federal Works, or the work product of government employees or “work-for-hire” contractors, is not eligible for copyright protection. Professional researchers can help your production or publication shine, with PUBLIC DOMAIN special media material that won’t break your budget!

Oak Ridge Nuclear Lab footage from the Early 50’s

Oak Ridge National Laboratory Stock Footage

This footage, shot in the early 1950’s, was found in the National Archives under the Records of the Atomic Energy Commission. It shows the early work done at Oak Ridge, including scenes of testing “exposed” workers for radiation. My favorite scene, toward the end, shows a museum exhibit modeling the “Gaseous Diffusion” process that was used to collect and concentrate Uranium 238, the method used to accumulate enough material for the first Atomic Bombs. It looks a lot like the high tech equipment used each night to pick lottery winners!

I captured this video using a mirrorless digital camera directly from a 35mm film work print displayed on the flatbed film viewers available for use in the National Archives Research Room. It was captured at 23.976 frames per second, close to the native 24fps film frame rate, so no film “flicker”. Of course, much better quality is available from a high quality scanner using archival film elements, but this produces a perfectly serviceable “screener” for editorial purposes.