John Ford was one of the greatest directors of fiction Hollywood has ever produced. And that includes his documentaries on the D-Day invasion of Normandy.
Was John Ford a liar, as well as a drunk? The director who made Stagecoach, How Green Was My Valley, The Grapes of Wrath and many other great pictures also ran the team that filmed the D-Day landings, but his account of what he did on June 6, 1944 appears to be largely invented.
The photographic operation was as grand in its way as the landings themselves, certainly the biggest documentary project that had ever been undertaken. Almost 20 years after the war, Ford gave an interview in which he claimed to have been on Omaha Beach with the second wave of allied troops. Most of his biographers disagree. ‘There’s no question that Ford did not get ashore that day,’ says Ken Bowser, a New York-based director and Ford scholar. So was it just an old man’s faulty memory or a deliberate falsehood? Or worse, the result of the major bender he went on a week later?
The first footage of the D-Day landings premiered in American newsreel theatres on June 15, 1944, seventy years ago today. The footage was sanitised for public consumption, with few images of dead and dying GI’s. The only people who saw the raw footage of the landings were Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt. Each leader was sent a rough 100-minute assembly of compiled footage. If that footage still exists, it has never been made public.
Ford was one of the first directors to volunteer, three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. He had been preparing for war for some time. He even started what he called the Field Photographic Unit, composed of Hollywood volunteers he trained personally. Gregg Toland (who shot Citizen Kane) was one of his camera instructors. By 1944, the Field Photo Unit was a part of the OSS, the forerunner to the CIA. The D-Day landings were to be the unit’s biggest undertaking of the war. An extraordinary amount of work went into obtaining the footage that ended up in that ten-minute newsreel. It exists today in at least two variations, a Pathe newsreel for the British public and a Movietone version for the US, both viewable online.
Ford’s team attached 500 automatic 35mm cameras to ships heading for Normandy. Each camera shot four minutes of film and ran without an operator. Some were attached to tanks and landing craft. There were at least 20 American and a smaller number of British cinematographers. In his new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris writes that there were also ‘almost 200 still photographers’ assigned to the landings. Ford called in George Stevens, who was working under Frank Capra at the Army Pictorial Service, to shoot for the British from HMS Belfast. Ford was on the USS Plunkett, a 350-foot destroyer.
The Plunkett anchored off Omaha Beach just before 6am. Mark Harris writes: ‘Although Ford later recalled the Plunkett as having abruptly moved during the Channel crossing from the rear of its huge convoy of vessels to the front, so that he ended up ‘leading the invasion with my cameras’, it was not a landing ship, and in all probability Ford himself did not set foot on the beach until a few days later…’
The Plunkett landed $1 million worth of photographic equipment for Ford’s men. Ford then transferred to the USS Augusta, General Omar Bradley’s headquarters. ‘For the first couple of days, Ford would attempt to coordinate Field Photo operations from aboard ship, and hope for the best,’ writes Harris. It appears that Stevens, rather than Ford, reached Omaha Beach a few hours after the first wave of troops. How then to reconcile Ford’s account, given to a journalist in 1964?
‘Once I was on the beach, I ran forward and started placing some of my men behind things so they’d have a chance to expose their film… I saw very few dead and wounded men. I remember thinking, that’s strange, although later I could see the dead floating in the sea.
‘My memories of D-Day come in disconnected takes like unassembled shots to be spliced together afterward in a film… To tell the truth I was too busy doing what I had to do for a cohesive picture of what I did to register in my mind. We stayed on our job and worked that day and for several other days and nights too. When you concentrate on a job the way we did, there was no time for sightseeing…’
Harris writes that much of the footage was unusable. The cameras jammed, were damaged or captured little of interest. The better footage was edited in London, after conversion to black and white. ‘Very little was released to the public then,’ Ford said later. ‘Apparently the government was afraid to show so many casualties on screen.’
When he was working on the documentary John Ford/John Wayne: The Film-maker and the Legend, Ken Bowser asked the US National Archives if they had any unreleased D-Day footage. They told him that some footage was still under lock and key, but he doubts that the 100-minute assembly still exists. “I think it is probably mythological… I think by 1966, Ford had no idea of what the truth was. Those guys were all liars, we know that. They were just tall-tale tellers, and the tales got bigger every year.’
In John Ford’s The Man who Shot Liberty Valance, a film about the nature of truth, a newspaperman says: ‘This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend’.