Friday, May 24, 2024

The Cold Blue, on TCM

The Memphis Belle is one of the most famous planes in both American and movie history, right up there with the Spirit of St. Louis and Air Force One. William Wyer captured the B-17’s flight crew in action in his classic The Memphis Belle documentary, which has since been preserved on the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry. However, Wyler and his cameraman shot a lot more footage of B-17s than he included in his 45-minute doc. Fortunately, those outtakes survived in the National Archives, waiting to be rediscovered, restored, and incorporated into Erik Nelson’s The Cold Blue, which airs Sunday on TCM.

Frankly, there might be more interest for
The Cold Blue now, thanks to the success of Masters of the Air and its companion doc, The Bloody Hundredth, than when it first released. The title is no joke. Both the sky and the sea in Wyler’s previously unseen footage appear eerily blue. This color film has that vintage 1940s look, much like that of the Oscar-winning Marines at Tarawa. The Flying Fortress could also be a brutally cold, sub-zero ride. In fact, several of the surviving vets providing context for Wyler’s film clips have stories of crewmates who lost hands or fingers to frostbite.

Even if the commercial timing was not ideal. It is a good thing Nelson made this film when he did, because the Army Air Force veterans were not getting any younger. Sadly, Gunnery Sergeant Paul Haedike, one of Nelson’s funniest and most colorful commentators just passed away this March. His contributions are priceless.

Thanks to him and the rest of the Airmen, viewers really get a sense of what it was like to serve on the Flying Fortress. The iconic plane emerges as a bit of a contradiction. In many ways, it was a death-trap, particularly with respects to the freezing temperatures crew experienced and the thin aluminum fuselage that offered no meaningful protection from enemy fire. Yet, they also praised the B-17 for being a tough old bird that could withstand tremendous damage and keep on flying.

In retrospect, there is so much incredible new footage, it seems strange the War Office did not find some use for it at the time. It would be hard to believe the creative team behind
Masters of the Air did not take a good look at The Cold Blue and the original Memphis Belle for inspiration—that would speak well for both Masters and the Wyler films.

Of course, Wyler did not shoot this footage alone. Tragically, Harold J. Tannenbaum, one of his cinematographers and a WWI veteran, was killed in action during filming on April 16, 1943.
The Cold Blue is dedicated to Tannenbaum and 28,000 Airmen of the Eighth Air Force, who died serving their country, which was a classy touch. They really were the Greatest Generation. Highly recommended for the history and aerial photography, The Cold Blue airs Sunday night (5/26) on TCM (and it streams on Max).