Christian Bauer’s engaging “The Ritchie Boys” captures the excitement, ironies and “good war” feel of World War II. While documaker’s unsettling “Missing Allen” investigated a man who went missing in America, Bauer’s new production rediscovers stories about the war on Fascism that are missing from history books. “Boys” explores European refugees who came to the U.S. and were recruited for an elite intelligence force that used its collective knowledge about Germany to fight against Germany itself. A semi-finalist in the Oscar documentary race, pic should rouse considerable aud and distrib enthusiasm before launching a brawny cable invasion.
Describing the film as a combination of talking-head interviews and wartime archival footage seems to diminish its worth as a great human tale flecked with a delicious sprinkling of sweet revenge.
Bauer’s real achievement — and great luck — was to recruit a wonderful cadre of veterans, almost all of them brilliant, witty and fine raconteurs. Many of them went on to first-rate careers in academia, the arts and business after the war. Hearing their memories is like listening to a loved one’s wartime tales around the campfire.
Before the U.S. joined the war in 1941, Europeans fleeing Fascism found refuge Stateside, but they were considered security risks. Somewhere along the line, however, the D.C. bureaucracy concluded these same suspicious emigres could be uniquely valuable in the war effort.
The Military Intelligence Training Center at Fort Ritchie, Md., an anonymous row of barracks in bucolic farmland (but crucially close to the capital), was set up to train men fluent in at least one major Euro language in the skills of everything from interrogation to slitting the enemy’s throat.
Because many of the men were both German intellectuals and Jewish, explains vet Guy Stern, “a spirit of missionary zeal filled the outfit.” The men describe a bond that formed, both because of their intense drive to rid their homeland of Hitler, and a sense, as cohort and artist Si Lewin terms it, that they were all misfits in a macho all-American army. Some, like Stern and Fred Howard, remained paired together to the end of the war — and remained friends in the peace.
Training is vividly described, and filled with amusing details (shown in archived footage) of “the Boys” participating in surprise war games with fellow Yank troops dressed up as Nazis — the costumed troops inadvertently scared the pants off unsuspecting civilian neighbors.
This is just the tip of a treasure-trove of anecdotes that should have savvy screenwriters and producers scrambling to devise a dramatic feature version of these Euro-Americans’ adventures.
Bauer’s camera loves these guys. As they relate their first contacts with battle (some at Normandy on D-Day), however, the easy smiles and jokes fade and fear becomes visible on their wizened faces . Werner Angress’ account of his first-ever parachute jump over Normandy and his betrayal by a French farmer is worthy of an episode of “Combat,” just as Victor Brombert’s tale of going AWOL to see his hometown of Paris just after liberation is the stuff of a Hemingway novel.
“The Ritchie Boys” conveys all the emotional contrasts of terror and comedy shown in good war movies . Lensing is pro, while the corny synth music is distinctly not.