It’s time for another Shamedown, and another invitation to pay the Cinema Shame folks a visit if anyone’s curious about this whole Shame thing. And now, onward…
Last year’s Shamedown #7 was my review of the William Wyler documentary, The Memphis Belle, in which he flew several missions with a bomber crew, documenting their reactions and the workings of a Flying Fortress. Memphis Belle wasn’t the only film Wyler made for the Signal Corps, however; another was 1947’s Thunderbolt.
This time, Wyler documented an American P-47 squadron in Italy, the 65th Fighter Group, and the film opens with an explanation by narrator Lloyd Bridges and Eugene Kern of all of the cameras some of the planes would carry. Basically, any part of a plane could be photographed if it had a camera on it. Then James Stewart gives us a few words of introduction, namely, a reminder that what happens to the Thunderbolt squad took place in 1944 and could happen to anyone.
Next we’re in Italy, which has been ravaged by war. Buildings are rubble, the people are living by the side of the road, and the scene is bleak. The film states children are the ones who have been most affected by war, and we see two smiling little boys before a brief shot of a burned out corpse. The narration marvels that from the air Italy looks so unspoiled and untouched in some places, but devastated in others, and it’s all because of airborne warfare.
The film then zeroes in on the island of Corsica. It’s been liberated, and is therefore the place from which the Allied planes launch. The 65th calls Alto Field home, affectionately nicknaming it “The Country Club.”
While the planes are being readied for the day’s mission, the men wash up. They live in tents and sleep on cots, so pretty much everything happens outside. All of them are in their early twenties–even the oldest one in the group, who calls himself “The Old Man,” is only twenty-four.
Today’s mission, Operation Strangle, is fraught with misgiving. The Americans are cautious about any air action because they’ve misfired in the past and they don’t think they’ve utilized their aircraft’s abilities properly. As if to punctuate their mistakes, the footage shows the rubble of Monte Cassino, a centuries-old abbey that was mistakenly bombed by the Allies on February 15, 1944. The film erroneously cites the bombing of the abbey as happening in March, and glosses over its being a misstep.
Fighter pilots have ranks within their ranks according to combat experience. No matter how many flying hours one has, if one hasn’t been in combat, they’re called a “sprog.” Those with some experience are “sports,” and if they’ve had more experience bordering on a lot, they’re “old sports.” The most experienced are called “wheels.”
Once a squad takes off, they head north through the mountains, flying wingtip to wingtip, making every movement as one plane. The common thinking is usually that grouping up is bad because a direct hit kills more, but for a fighter squadron, staying together is the main thing when heading for a target.
The group’s objective, and the objective of Operation Strangle, is to disable Nazi supply lines and troop movement. Ergo, they bomb bridges, trains, anything that looks suspicious and Nazi. Even a lighthouse might get a few rounds of ammo. The film mentions that by April, every major German rail line was blocked, and that no train could move south. The Germans tried using the roads, but the Americans shot up the roadways, too. The planes dip in so close they can scare the local sheep.
On average, the American forces flew eight or nine missions per day, and the French did about the same. Once the Nazis had been stifled, it took three weeks for American ground forces to reach Rome, and they made the most of it, shooting German soldiers wherever they found them.
While the missons are going on, the men at the base are left to their own devices, and they use their time wisely. They do laundry. They boat. They swim in the Mediterranean. They hang out with their pets. One guy writes a letter home with a crow sitting on his shoulder.
American forces had a very DIY approach to life when out in the field. Need a washing machine? Build one. A canteen? Start hammering. A swimming hole? Dams work. Want to sleep in a house instead of a tent? Well, then, the answer is obvious. These men didn’t know when or where they’d be asked to move to once troops started advancing, so they found ways of making themselves comfortable wherever they were. They were in danger for a couple of hours a day, the narration said. The rest of the time, they had to live.
It’s not all smooth sailing, though. Some men go missing for whatever reason, or the worst happens. The film includes footage of a plane crash and states how important it was to let it burn because the fire would make the plane’s ammo explode. There’s very brief footage of a burned body being dragged from the plane and carried away on a stretcher. The film doesn’t mention how high the casualty rate was for the 57th Fighter Group, so it may not have been all that much at that stage of the war.
Wyler flew along with the men in a special B-25 that had been rigged for cameras. Unfortunately, faulty cabin pressure caused him to black out one day, and resulted in Wyler’s going deaf in one ear. He pressed on, however, and Thunderbolt was finished six weeks after the war ended.
Since Thunderbolt was produced much later in the war, it wasn’t treated with the same amount of care as its predecessor. The public was tired of hearing about the war, and once it was over, were very quick to forget it. Ergo, the film was shelved until 1947, when Wyler decided to dust it off and release it to the public. In spite of an intro from James Stewart, Thunderbolt doesn’t look or sound as polished as The Memphis Belle, but that’s hardly its or Wyler’s fault. Public reaction amounted to “meh.”
Today, there’s nothing left of the Alto base. Most, if not all, of the men in the squadron have died. Thunderbolt is not only a document of what they did in 1944, but a keepsake of their ingenuity in a place that is now vanished.
All righty, another Reading Rarity is coming up in a few days. Thanks for reading, all…
Thunderbolt is available on DVD from Amazon.