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‘Apocalypse ’45’ Review: A Momentous Documentary Presents Never-Before-Seen Footage of the Grisly End of World War II

Erik Nelson's archival documentary uses revelatory color footage to bring us closer to what WWII was.

Apocalypse 45 Discovery Channel
Courtesy of Discovery Channel

In “Apocalypse ’45,” we see images of World War II — the last six months of it, when our forces were engaged in a grisly death-throes battle with the Japanese in the Pacific — that are more colorful, raw, and deeply naturalistic than the images we’re used to seeing. And that footage hits us with the shock of the new.

American soldiers blast their flamethrowers into caves, the oily fire whipping around like something out of a dragon’s mouth. We’re shown the bombing of Tokyo from a mile over the city, the bombs exploding like clusters of orange dots on the map-like green landscape below. On Okinawa, grenades burst into mounds of curling black smoke, and we see a Japanese woman on the Mariana Islands jump off a cliff rather than allow herself to be taken alive. As for the city of Hiroshima, filmed seven months after the atomic bomb was dropped there, it’s a flattened, debris-strewn hellscape of desolation that looks like it could have been filmed yesterday. (We see haunting footage of the bomb’s survivors, who are like mangled ghosts.) The documentary is also filled with the faces (and sometimes the dead bodies) of American soldiers, most of whom look eerily contemporary.

When I was growing up, WWII documentaries were grainy, mottled affairs, often with a stentorian narrator, that I’d catch a snippet of on television, usually because my father watched them obsessively. After a few minutes, I would turn away, bored by a conflict that looked like it was taking place in some black-and-white netherworld from another century. Such is the callowness of youth. Yet I was also reacting to how distant, scratchy, and old-fashioned the stock images looked. The ships and planes, the soldiers and bombs didn’t seem entirely real, because to my eyes they were part of an antiquated landscape that looked like it literally existed inside a newsreel.

I’ve often felt that way watching old war footage. Yet TV documentaries like “World War II in Colour” and Ken Burns’ “The War” have revealed World War II with far greater immediacy, and “Apocalypse ’45,” which is being released today (the 75th anniversary of V-J Day), continues that mission, with momentous results.

Directed by Erik Nelson, the film was drawn from 700 reels of archival color footage, never before seen by the public, that have been sitting in a vault in the National Archives and have been digitally restored to 4K. Why is this material being released now? Just a guess, but my sense is that the graphic power of the footage is something the U.S. government was only too happy to keep a lid on. The standard black-and-white images that bored me as a child were a way of keeping the WWII narrative restricted to something stuffy and official.

As you watch “Apocalypse ’45,” the story of what war is only becomes deeper. The film takes the liberty of a technological enhancement that, I think, pays off spectacularly. The documentary images, including footage of the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack shot by John Ford, were originally silent, but now they’re accompanied by sounds: explosions mixed to just the right exacting levels of intensity, the roar of airplanes, the hum of an aircraft carrier, the crackle of lingering bomb fire, the din of machine-gun fire, the scary whir of missiles. The musical score, by Mark Leggett, flows in and out of these sounds. It’s engulfing and organic; it burnishes the footage without falsifying it.

All of this creates a kinesthetic effect akin to that of the extraordinary restoration of World War I footage that Peter Jackson devised for his revelatory 2018 documentary “They Shall Not Grow Old.” Like that film, “Apocalypse ’45” is an immersive archival experience that never forgets the human side of war. The film is narrated by 24 World War II veterans, most of them in their 90s, and what they tell is the story of fear and survival, bravery and chaos that every veteran knows, and that the rest of us can never know, but that a movie like this one can bring us closer to.

By the spring of 1945, the war in the Pacific had, in a sense, already been decided. The Japanese had their backs against the wall; they couldn’t win, and knew it. The Americans, invading islands like Iwo Jima and Okinawa, were looking for footholds from which they could launch an attack to conquer the Japanese mainland. But the Japanese, famously, would not surrender. It was a matter of cultural-spiritual pride, of fanatical devotion to their cause, and of a desire to make the U.S. pay for its victory. And so whether the Americans were facing those kamikaze pilots (whose suicide missions killed thousands) or the forces who tricked them by letting them arrive at Okinawa unopposed, only to craft a deathtrap in the middle of the island, they were grinding out a victory by paying for it, every day, in blood.

The aging soldiers we hear on the soundtrack, who aren’t identified until the end of the movie, don’t express a monolithic view. They play off and contradict each other, which is as it should be. One tells us that he felt invincible, like he could never be killed. Another says the only way you could avoid being killed was through “sheer luck.” After 75 years, these survivors are haunted less by how close they came to death than by the men whose lives they took. A number of them speak openly of their feelings about the Japanese — the antipathy they felt for the enemy. Yet one man appears to speak for many when he says, “There’s no joy, no glamour in killing someone. I don’t give a damn who he is. And I’m 94 years old. That means [he chokes up] I’m going to be standing in front of God, and I have to answer for that.”

The bombers were all equipped with gun cameras, so the pilots were taking pictures of what they were firing at. We see vertiginous combat footage shot from way up in the sky, as well as startling images from low-flying planes that echo the iconic gliding shots in Vietnam of napalm being dropped on acres of green countryside. (At one point, we also catch an eerie glimpse of Mount Fuji out a bomber’s window.) There’s a sequence of Japanese planes being shot out of the sky, each bursting into flame, that has the cumulative power of a gripping action sequence. Yet the horror is never far away.

The debate over the dropping of the A-bomb, which continues to this day, is woven into the carnage of the final months of WWII. As the film tells us, the bombing of Tokyo actually killed many more people (100,000 were incinerated on a single night) than died in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Yet the horror of those two decimations changed the morality of war. Here, that story is told literally from the inside, in memorably chilling fashion, by Ittsei Nakagawa, who was 15 when the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. He says that there was an air-raid siren, which then stopped; there didn’t seem to be an attack in the works. Then a plane dropped something with what looked like a parachute attached. Then he describes what happened. “Everything went black.” And then: “Dust. You can’t see anything. I didn’t know it was a bomb. Nobody knew what it was.”

“Apocalypse ’45” reminds us that the war we see in movies — even the greatest war movies — has the same relation to actual war as the shadows on the wall of Plato’s Cave have to reality. The footage in this movie is sometimes spectacular, yet when you see a dead body, the face half submerged in the sand, or a man with a hole in his leg — not a wound, a hole — it gives you a shudder. Even the phrase “war is hell” has a drama to it, a suggestion of a heightened reality. The hell we see here isn’t heightened; it’s graphic and terrifying. Yet the greatest terror may be that it was necessary. “Apocalypse ’45” is a haunting document of men who fought their way through hell to save all of us.

‘Apocalypse ’45’ Review: A Momentous Documentary Presents Never-Before-Seen Footage of the Grisly End of World War II

Reviewed online, Aug,. 13 2020. MPAA Rating: Not rated. Running time: 103 MIN.

  • Production: An Abramorama, Discovery release of a Creative Differences production. Producers: Peter Hankoff, Elisabeth M. Hartjens. Executive producers: Clark Bunting, Nancy Daniels, Dave Harding, Howard Swartz.
  • Crew: Director: Erik Nelson. Editor: Paul Marengo. Music: Mark Leggett.
  • With: George Boutwell, Ittsei Nakagawa, George Vouros, James Blane, William M. Braddock Jr., Abner Aust Jr., Delbert Treichler, George Puterbaugh, Charles Schlag, Nazareth Sinanian, Ivan Hammond, Harold Wheatley, Joseph Wing, Duane Tunnyhill, Al Nelson, Johnny Dean Page Jr., Kenneth Erger, Hershel Woody Williams, Richard Spooner, Monroe Ozment.