WASHINGTON — Most of the documentary footage of the 1944 Allied invasion in Normandy, better known as D-Day, was shot on black and white film by a group of Army cinematographers led by the late Hollywood director George Stevens.
But Stevens was also filming a personal diary, using color film, which at that time was still rare. A documentary using his color images gives a new dimension to the campaign to drive Nazi forces from France.
At dawn, June 6, 1944, a group of American cinematographers aboard the British light cruiser HMS Belfast was getting ready to film the opening salvos of the invasion.
Their leader, Hollywood director George Stevens, 37, was also filming, but with his personal 16-millimeter camera, using Kodachrome color film.
Stevens developed but never used his footage. It was found many decades later by his son, George Stevens Jr., also a film director, who restored it and produced a stunning documentary in 1994, the 50th anniversary of the invasion.
Thanks to his father, we can now see the color of the sky, the sea, soldiers’ uniforms, smoke from the big ships' guns and even the ships’ camouflage paint.
“I had this feeling that my eyes were the first eyes that hadn't been there who were seeing this day in color, and I watched this film unfold and on this ship - and all of these men with their flak jackets and anticipation of this day,” said Stevens.
The color film also brings the scenes of destroyed French towns to life, with French citizens greeting Allied soldiers.
The footage contains rare color shots of the liberation of Paris and French resistance leader and later president, Charles De Gaulle.
Stevens was fascinated with the faces of young French girls cheering the American soldiers.
There are also shots of U.S. General George Patton, with his pearl-encrusted revolver, and the British forces commander, General Bernard Montgomery. German war prisoners seem almost relieved that they survived the carnage.
“It is the greatest body of color film, and World War II was a black-and-white war. That's how we see it. That's how we saw it,” said Stevens.
The allied soldiers soon were preparing behind enemy’s lines, some flying in gliders decorated with graffiti typical of that time.
Upon entering Germany with Allied forces, Stevens did not cringe from filming the horror of Nazi concentration camps, with piles of emaciated human bodies next to still burning crematoriums, having a strong sense that those colors too should be preserved for later generations.