“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”…