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D-Day: Secrets of the Frontline Heroes review – the courageous men who filmed the Normandy landings
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D-Day: Secrets of the Frontline Heroes review – the courageous men who filmed the Normandy landings

We haven’t merely read and heard about the Normandy landings of 6 June 1944, when allied troops arrived on the coast of northern France to begin a push across occupied Europe that would help to defeat the Nazis. We can see exactly what that day looked like: the barges crammed with soldiers, the jagged log posts and asterisk-shaped steel barriers sticking out of the low-tide water, the men wading, stumbling and running up the beaches under heavy fire from the clifftops. The images are available, but somebody had to capture them. D-Day: Secrets of the Frontline Heroes, a straightforward but rewarding documentary about the American film-makers and photographers who sailed with the armed forces, tells us who to thank.

It follows four men. John Ford, the celebrated Hollywood film director (Stage Coach, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), was employed by the Field Photographic Branch of the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence-gathering forerunner of the CIA. George Stevens, who made pictures starring Fred Astaire and Cary Grant and who won Academy awards for best director twice in the 1950s – for Giant and A Place in the Sun – was with Gen Dwight D Eisenhower’s Special Coverage Unit. Jack Lieb was a photographer and reporter for newsreel company News of the Day. Sgt Richard Taylor was a combat photographer with the 165th Signal Photographic Company of the US army Signal Corps.

The footage shown here performs two functions. The first is to crystallise the pictures of D-day that most people have in their mind’s eye, which are likely to be an amalgam of blurry still photographs by Robert Capa – for years, they were the images best known to the public – and fictional representations such as Saving Private Ryan. But here is the real thing, in moving pictures, crisp and up-close. The most stunning film is that shot by Taylor, who was hit in the arm by a German bullet on his way from the water to the top of Omaha beach. Having reached the relative safety of the bottom of the cliff, he ignored his injury, turned on his camera and faced back towards the sea, capturing men being shot down as they ran, then tracking right to show the extent of the operation, with soldiers landing as far as his lens could see. Equally arresting are the images filmed using fixed-rig cameras placed inside the boats delivering scores of men at a time to Juno beach. We know what they must have known: many of them were not going to survive the next two minutes.

And the second worthy task that Secrets of the Frontline Heroes performs is to look these men in the eye, to reclaim them as individuals who had hopes and dreams and who meant everything to somebody back home, but whose story was very possibly about to end. Here there are priceless moments, where someone stands out from the crowd, suddenly existing again as a singular human, not merely part of the mass of soldiers whose collective achievement was so great. Someone gazes hopefully and fearfully down the lens. Someone else, outrageously, smiles at us. One man pats another on the back to reassure him, just before the gates at the end of their boat open and they jump together into the lethal unknown. Most haunting of all is a soldier who has made it, staring blankly back towards the sea, stunned by what he has just survived and oblivious to the camera’s presence.

That is more or less it. The pictures are bookended by a quick guide to the circumstances that made D-day necessary and the secret manoeuvres that preceded it – Lieb’s written memories, accompanied by vivid colour footage, of a war-ravaged Britain are particularly transportive – as well as the story of how images were sent to people who needed to see them. Stills telegraphed to newspaper offices were in daily papers in the UK and the US by 7 June; Ford’s half-hour video presentation, edited at blinding speed by exhausted people, aided urgent efforts to reassure the Soviet Union that their travails on the eastern front would soon pay off.

As the 80th anniversary of a pivotal day in modern history approaches, Secrets of the Frontline Heroes takes us back with scintillating immediacy. It’s an awesome reminder of the power of a camera – that world-changing events are all the more so if someone is on hand to hit “record”, but that images that become essential could so easily not exist if the film-maker were not present and alert at the crucial time. As one of the historian contributors to the programme puts it, describing Taylor being mindful enough to put aside his own near-death experience and compose his shot: “Whatever he does in that moment will be for ever.”

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Source: theguardian.com