History on the Big Screen: Erik Nelson Brings New Life to One of Cinema’s Greatest Directors in The Cold Blue

“Big-screen history.” That’s the identifier director Erik Nelson gives to a new wave of docs that have found success in theaters over the past several months. These films ditch the stereotypical trappings of the “educational” history doc—think History Channel, even though it feels like they haven’t aired an actual history documentary since 1999—in favor of a more immersive experience. 

These films have as their guiding principle the idea that “that history should be resurrected,” explains Nelson. “You don’t have to have narrators telling you what to think. You can make something more impressionistic.” The big-screen history documentary “transcends the traditional kind of history documentary, where you have narrators and you’re being told very explicitly what to think and how to think. These films put it out there and let you find your own way into the material through the voices of the people who were there.” Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old brought this approach to World War I. Todd Miller’s Apollo 11 took on the NASA mission of its title. New to that list is Nelson’s The Cold Blue, which has its big screen premiere courtesy of Fathom Events on Thursday, May 23. 

The big-screen history trio of Jackson, Miller, and Nelson “had very much the same vision, driven from the same passion for history. For whatever reason, we got to the same place,” albeit with different subject matter, Nelson notes. “We have Jackson in World War I, Apollo 11 in 1969, and The Cold Blue in 1945. The only edge I would have over those films, which are both tremendous, is that I got to use footage that was directed and brought to life by one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.”

That would be William Wyler, who’s directed too many great films to list them all here. But let’s just start with The Best Years of Our Lives, Roman Holiday, and How to Steal a Million. With the coming of World War II, Wyler was one of a handful of Hollywood directors to volunteer his time and expertise to document the Allied war effort. Specifically, Wyler went to work with the United States Air Force, flying with bombers on actual missions. Some of the footage he shot would become The Memphis Belle, which documented the 25th and final mission of the crew of the eponymous B-17 heavy bomber.

Nelson didn’t set out to make the film he did. His initial goal in going through the National Archives was to find out “what color footage existed of any kind of World War II airplanes. Within the first few days of looking in the Archives, we came across all of the raw footage for The Memphis Belle. It was hiding in plain sight. When my researcher said, ‘Well, of course, we have the 15 hours of The Memphis Belle outtakes,’ I said ‘What? Excuse me?’ I knew exactly what that meant and what it was.”

What the footage became was The Cold Blue. Far from a remake of The Memphis Belle, it pairs Wyler’s footage with voiceover narration from veterans, most of them now in their 90s, who served on heavy bomber crews in the Eighth Air Force during World War II. (None of the actual crew of the Memphis Belle is still alive.) 

Wyler’s film was propaganda, designed to show American audiences “what people’s sons and husbands were dying for overseas. It was very carefully constructed to speak to that audience, to justify the carnage and what these guys were going through.” That careful construction wouldn’t allow for expressions of doubt or even cursing. (In one scene, a crewmember’s “sonofa—“ gets cut off quite abruptly.) 

In The Cold Blue, veterans speak with more nuance: about, for example, the emotional conflict of bombing civilian areas or the fear they felt going on missions. The film is meant to be a “time capsule” that allows viewers to experience “what it was like to be in these cylinders 30,000 feet high and 60 degrees below zero with artillery shells exploding all around you and very determined Germans trying to shoot you down. It’s less about justifying what they went through than reminding people what they went through and the universality of war.” 

In one moment of The Cold Blue—definitely not included in The Memphis Belle—we see a moment, both humanizing and amusing, when one of the Memphis Belle’s crew members flip William Wyler off through the cockpit window. “The editors said, ‘We should cut that, right?’ And I said, ‘Absolutely not,’” recalls Nelson. “[The moment shows that] these are 23-year-old, 22-year-old guys who are just like us.”

Throughout The Cold Blue, the audiences learn about “the granular, quotidian details of combat: How cold it was; how they all had dogs; how they would have fresh eggs in the morning, and that was a bad sign [because it meant they’d be going on a dangerous mission]; how they worked with their crew chiefs… It’s a way of really reconnecting us with reality that gets unfortunately lost in Hollywood depictions. The Memphis Belle’s an amazing piece of work, but it was speaking to a different audience and [had[ a different priority than our film.”

That priority required that Nelson and his Cold Blue collaborators craft every detail of the sound and look of the film in order to make it as immersive as possible. And it required the big screen.

But the first step in making The Cold Blue was getting Wyler’s footage into better shape. Much of it “was one generation off the negative,” Nelson says. Deteriorating with age, it still looked better than existing prints of The Memphis Belle. Nelson therefore “felt obligated to William Wyler’s legacy and his estate to restore his film, as well,” taking the unusual step of recutting The Memphis Belle from the raw footage once it was restored. “The actual Memphis Belle looks better now than it ever did, and that includes when William Wyler finished it and showed it to Franklin Roosevelt in 1944,” says Nelson. “Wyler had scratched the negative in London, so there were these blue scratches through a lot of the footage, which we digitally removed from all versions.”

(Incidentally, there was a potential close call when it came to the original footage. Nelson was already “deep into The Cold Blue” when Netflix premiered their documentary series Five Came Back, about Hollywood filmmakers—including Wyler—who made propaganda films for the U.S. military during World War II. “If you don’t think at 12:01 when that thing dropped I wasn’t scanning through it…! And I’d already had a hunch that Spielberg was going to be the one to take us through The Memphis Belle. So when I got to that part of Five Came Back, I said ‘Oh my God! They didn’t find it! They didn’t get the outtakes!’ They just used the best available, crap print of The Memphis Belle, blue scratches and all.”)

The colors from Wyler’s original footage were meticulously updated, always with a careful eye towards accuracy. The footage was already in Technicolor, and “we didn’t get in the way of that. But we did match the colors, [making sure that they] were accurate to the time. We would take the yellow of the propellor tip or of the olive drab—we know what colors those things were, so we could adjust the color [on the footage]. We tried to have a very light touch, with the exception of moving all the dirt and the blue scratches and cleaning it up.” 

The sounds of war—the engines, the flak hitting the plane, the firing of machine guns—were all shot by The Cold Blue‘s sound designers from scratch, as Wyler and his cohorts shot The Memphis Blue without sound. “We were really scrupulous” about getting those sounds right, Nelson explains. It’s a process that is detailed in an exclusive behind-the-scenes video paired with The Cold Blue’s Fathom screening. Fathom audiences will also see another short, this one made from Nazi film reels detailing Germany’s defense against the Allied bombing effort; essentially, The Memphis Belle from the other side.

From a technical standpoint, “the only liberty we took was [taking] the three-by-four footage and making it sixteen-by-nine widescreen, which Wyler couldn’t have done at the time because he didn’t have the technology,” says Nelson. “This is key to our restoration. Because we went from raw film to 4K, [we could go] to sixteen-by-nine with zero—repeat, zero—loss. If you watch a bad History Channel World War II documentary, you’ll always see that either they squash it into widescreen or they blow it up, and it all looks very murky. By going into 4K, it allowed us to keep all the crispness and clarity.”

The result of The Cold Blue’s immersive sound design and footage restoration—plus its score, composed by singer/songwriter Richard Thompson, regarded by many as one of the best guitarists of all time—is a film that’s at times utterly transporting. “The bigger the screen, the better it looks,” Nelson argues—which was always the point. “When I was doing The Cold Blue in 2017, I’d seen Dunkirk, which stuck with me. It kind of reinvented the World War II movie. And people that year weren’t going to documentaries. I felt that if somebody put a film out—a big screen, immersive, Dunkirk-Meets-Koyaanisqatsi-Meets B-17—that would be a potent thing to get people into theaters.” 

Getting people into theaters for documentaries is something Nelson has experience with; his extensive credits as a producer include Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, the first 3-D documentary. (He’s collaborated with Herzog several times, including on Grizzly Man and Into the Abyss.) Utilizing 3-D to bring the ancient Chauvet Cave paintings to life, Cave of Forgotten Dreams became the fourth highest-grossing documentary of 2011, after only Justin Bieber: Never Say Never and two nature documentaries, one of which was also released in 3-D.

Give people a documentary that demands being seen in a theater, Nelson argues, and they will see it in a theater. It’s an opinion certainly bolstered by the recent theatrical success of They Shall Not Grow Old, which was so successful in its Fathom Events screenings that Warner Bros. transitioned it to a limited theatrical release, and Apollo 11, the rare documentary to screen in Imax. Notes Nelson, The Cold Blue “was very carefully constructed to take people back in time on a big screen. That’s why we’re very excited about the Fathom [Event screening], because this is an event. It needs to be seen in the dark, in a room with the surround sound blasting. You really need to have that concentration.”

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