Several hundred (mostly German) people were harmed in the making of this film

by John Holbo on January 23, 2007

Last night Belle and I watched a classic war flick – 12 O’Clock High [wikipedia], with Gregory Peck as the stoical General Savage. It contains extensive and rather impressive real combat footage: formations of flying fortresses vs. German fighters with lots of planes going down in smoke and flames and frantic little stick figures trying to bail out safely, with apparently mixed results. Then dropping of bombs and large explosions. It suddenly struck me that it’s sort of weird to use real war footage in Hollywood entertainments.



jonst 01.23.07 at 7:10 am

Well, what we once called news programs on TV are, IMO, ‘entertainment’. With real war (albeit, probably, enhanced) footage. So, if we accept what I take to be your premise, it would be “weird” to user “real war footage” on what is now called the news. Which begs the question, “ok, where DO we use it?” What trappings of solemnity must be present when viewing “war footage”? My response would be to use “war footage” only when narrating it in Latin. Latin has a real solemnity about it, does it not? And Latin is spoken by so few people these days that the requirement would almost ensure that’s its use would be limited. Sorta like using the ‘good china” on holidays only.

I keep, in my own mind, going back to Roger Water’s CD, released in the wake of the so called “First Gulf War”…..we are Amusing ourselves to Death


John Holbo 01.23.07 at 8:02 am

I should probably clarify, before someone runs out and rents the thing, that there aren’t actually any people on fire, falling out of the skies. You just see a couple guys bailing out and you don’t see whether they make it. (This film was shown in 1949, after all.) Plus some explosions in what obviously used to be a bunch of buildings, probably with some people in them.


"Q" the Enchanter 01.23.07 at 8:48 am

“It suddenly struck me that it’s sort of weird to use real war footage in Hollywood entertainments.”

But it’s not just entertainment. It’s art. And exploiting tragedy for art is like totally okay.

(Bonus economic rationale: Filmmakers are extracting value from otherwise sunk costs.)


ajay 01.23.07 at 10:05 am

Is it, necessarily, any weirder than using real historical events in a novel? The execution of Charles I in “Vingt ans apres”, for example?


Henry (not the famous one) 01.23.07 at 10:40 am

This was something that filmmakers did in the 1940s, but then largely stopped, as far as I can tell. While I can think of some other movies of that era that spliced in real footage (Sands of Iwo Jima, Battleground), I can’t think of any Korean War or Vietnam movies that used this footage as part of the action, rather than in the credits. May have something to do with later audiences’ exposure to tv or the fact that audiences of that earlier era were used to seeing newsreels.
And as far as I can see, only those WWII movies that celebrated victories used it; those that showed defeat (Wake Island) and retreat (They Were Expendable) didn’t. Not that Twelve O’ Clock High or Battleground were simple flagwavers, the way that Sands of Iwo Jima was, but apparently audiences and studios did not want to reinforce the reality of loss in this fashion. I’ve only seen bits of Blackhawk Down, but I assume that this still holds.


FS 01.23.07 at 11:13 am

Phenomenon also commented on in this episode of MST3K.


Peter 01.23.07 at 1:48 pm

One of my favorite movies (John Wayne! Penguin! Patricia Neal!), In Harm’s Way, was filmed in the 60s in B&W to use some actual WW2 footage.

While reading The Man Who Saved Britain, I was struck by a reminisence that I hadn’t thought of for a while. WW2 movies were a high proportion of British movie production up into the 70s. Winder, who is close to my age, pointed out that he and all his friends stopped watching WW2 movies when Star Wars came out. I got the idea to read it from this post.

So, like Winder, I think war movies were a generational thing. My father’s family fled Germany in 1940 to get away from the sort of people that he and his brothers grew up to become, so watching WW2 movies was forbidden fruit at home, or you’d hear shouts of that is your cousin dieing right there!

I dated a Russian gal, and she remarked that probably 50% of Soviet films had to do with WW2. Some of the ones we watched used actual WW2 film footage also. I suspect the quantity was due to the utter destruction that happened, and perhaps some need to process/resolve those issues. And I think that using actual footage made certain scenes far cheaper than using model.

Using actual war footage wierd? No, I think the issue is that war movies are now considered wierd.


Randy Paul 01.23.07 at 1:50 pm

In the 1980’s I worked for a film distributor called Films, Inc. Twelve O’Clock High was one of our films and was widely used by management classes and businesses for management seminars, as was the original Flight of the Phoenix.


JRM 01.23.07 at 3:28 pm

Memhis Belle (1990) used war footage very effectively. FWIW


Greg 01.23.07 at 4:02 pm

On the topic of Soviet war films, I note that at least one (“Idii, Smotrii”, or “Come and See”, from some time in the ’70s) used actual munitions in the filming. You should see the bombing sequence: I have to imagine that the young boy playing the film’s central character was actually in some physical danger with these hugel, concussive explosions — not Hollywood fireballs by any means, but real bombs uprooting trees — going off a few hundred yards away.


Anderson 01.23.07 at 5:00 pm

I think I saw somewhere that the rough cut of Star Wars, which Lucas showed to Fox execs, had WW2 dogfight footage inserted where the X-wing/TIE-fighter dogfights were, because those weren’t finished yet.

The impression it made on the execs was not a good one, IIRC. Not that this is relevant to the post or anything.


RobW 01.23.07 at 8:28 pm

As well as Invasion of the Neptune Men (MST3K link above), there’s also the rather egregious use of the famous film of the destruction of the HMS Barham (861 dead) in Earth vs the Flying Saucers.


Henry (not the famous one) 01.24.07 at 1:30 am

Well I was wrong about footage going out of fashion after the 1940s. I forgot “Midway,” which has some real action spliced in too.

Now, on the other hand, Hollywood can create footage that is realer than the real stuff; Private Ryan and Band of Brothers are the benchmarks. And then there’s the hyperreality of Black Hawk Down, which Three Kings parodies, if it’s possible to parody something before it exists. Never saw the BBC’s version of the Battle of Culloden, so I don’t know where it fits in this rambling discussion.


dr ngo 01.24.07 at 2:03 am

IIRC (and perhaps I don’t), the AMerican TV series “Baa Baa Black Sheep” (AKA “Black Sheep Squadron” – US fighter pilots in the Pacific) was relatively unusual in incorporating color footage of WWII dogfights as part of the “action.”


Mark 01.24.07 at 1:16 pm

In the 1980’s I worked for a film distributor called Films, Inc. Twelve O’Clock High was one of our films and was widely used by management classes and businesses for management seminars

Yes, I remember watching Twelve O’Clock High in my undergraduate management class in the mid-80’s.

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