“The most traveled, the most colorful, the most efficient, the most highly decorated bomb group of WWII.”
Michael Cudlitz, Band of Brothers
The 93rd Bomb Group, part of the Eighth Air Force, executed some of the most daring missions of WWII. Their base camp was in Hardwick, England, a hamlet just north of London and south of Norwich. They completed 396 missions, were instrumental in Operation Torch and have been celebrated for their bravery and ingenuity. Every year the 93rd Bomb Group reunites in the U.S. to reconnect, share memories and keep their history alive. Some years they trek to where it all started and Hardwick embraces the 93rd with open arms. Locals share stories, meet with the surviving members and there is even a small museum that exists in their honor. The reunions also serve as an opportunity for family members to learn more about their loved ones who have since passed on. The annual 93rd reunion is an important example of how we must keep history going and how it is imperative that we preserve these memories so they are never forgotten.
Directed by Michael Sellers and narrated by Band of Brothers star Michael Cudlitz, Return to Hardwick: Home of the 93rd Bomb Group is a loving tribute to one of the most extraordinary strategic bomb units of WWII. The documentary includes interviews with historians and family members but most importantly the surviving 93rd members themselves. We hear from a dozen different pilots, waist gunners, tail gunners and navigators. Their stories make this film an important time capsule.
As a documentary, Return to Hardwick is nothing groundbreaking. In fact it’s fairly rudimentary. One interesting thing it does it superimposes computer imagery over footage of Hardwick to demonstrate how the 93rd would have used the airbase. Military history buffs will love the extensive information about the 93rd’s missions. Casual history buffs like myself might find themselves a bit overwhelmed by this. However, this documentary really checks off all the boxes of what a good film that preserves the history of WWII can really do. I hope it will be shown in museums and that future historians will refer to it as the valuable source of information it is.
Return to Hardwick: Home of the 93rd Bomb Group is available on VOD.
Amos Carlen and Aline Robichaud’s new documentary Shadows of Freedom tells the story of the organized Jewish resistance movement in Algiers during WWII and its involvement in Operation Torch, an Allied invasion of French North Africa in 1940. Over the years more information about Jewish resistance has come to light. But the Algerian story is not one that is often discussed. It’s been swept under the rug because this event, an attack on the Vichy French in an effort to support the Free French, is considered low point in French history. The history of Operation Torch has also been eclipsed by other more celebrated invasions including the one on Normandy. However, Operation Torch, which was part of the Anglo-American alliance, was key to giving Allied forces an advantage in future battles with Nazy Germany.
Shadows of Freedom serves an important role in enlightening and informing its audience about Jewish persecution in Algiers as well as the staged coup that successfully ousted Vichy Admiral François Darlan. The resistance movement was made up of young Jewish French men, motivated by persecution to fight back. The documentary offers archival interview footage of various key players in the movement. Several experts, professors, policy makers and historians, offer key insights into this little known movement. The history of Jews during WWII often focuses on the Holocaust and rightly so. However, it’s important to know, understand and appreciate how Jews fought back against oppression.
Shadows of Freedom is informative and enlightening but doesn’t offer anything beyond the usual documentary fare. Archival footage, talking heads, narration and talking head interviews make up the basic structure. The history of Operation Torch itself is convoluted and hard to follow. If you’re interested in WWII history and want to learn something new, Shadows of Freedom will be worth a watch.
Shadows of Freedom is available on VOD through iTunes, Google Play and other platforms.
“Helping other nations build the strength to meet their own problems, to satisfy their own aspirations, to surmount their own dangers. The problems in achieving this goal are towering and unprecedented. The response must be towering and unprecedented.”
President John F. Kennedy
The Ugly American by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, published in 1958, demonstrated how Americans working abroad failed to integrate with local communities allowing Russians, who did in fact integrate, to spread Communism. President John F. Kennedy read the book and was spurred to action. His goal was to have Americans volunteer to combat hunger, fight for civil rights and promote world peace by working within the communities they were helping. On September 22nd, 1961, Congress voted to make the Peace Corps a permanent agency.
“To help young Americans understand the rest of the world is vital to American leadership. How can you lead a world you don’t understand?”
Directed by Alana DeJoseph and narrated by Annette Bening, A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps is a soup to nuts exploration of the history of this government sponsored volunteer program from 1961 to present day. Viewers learn how the agency has evolved over several presidential administrations with notable high and low points. The documentary features extensive interviews with Peace Corps staff, former volunteers and experts. Notable talking heads include former president Jimmy Carter, Maria Shriver, U.S. representative Joe Kennedy III and former Peace Corps director Carrie Hessler-Radelet. There is plenty of archival footage and photographs of those early days of the Peace Corps. The phrase “A Towering Task” is reference to a document that Sargent Shriver, who was assigned by JFK to put his idea into action, and his task force wrote laying out the plans for the Peace Corps.
Perhaps the documentary’s most significant impact will have is through the voice of the volunteers. The story of Peace Corps volunteers in the Dominican Republic today (helping develop an ecotourism business) and during the revolution in the 1960s is very inspiring. My mother’s family lived through that revolution and received help from Peace Corps volunteers. I was particularly moved by one Dominican woman’s account of how a volunteer brought her rice and beans when she would have otherwise starved.
At first I felt the documentary might whitewash the history of the Peace Corps. However, it does explore some of the issues that have plagued the agency including its reputation as a haven for draft dodgers as well as the inaction on the part of higher ups to address sexual assault. It also discusses whistleblower Kate Puzey, a volunteer murdered in Benin. The film addresses the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa but was made before the current Coronavirus pandemic in which the Peace Corps, for the first time in its history, pulled all of its volunteers from service.
A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps is a comprehensive look at the history of an agency born out of both patriotism and altruism in an effort to good for mankind.
The War in Afghanistan is the longest war in American history. While the war itself began in 2001, a direct response to the September 11th attacks, the conflict between the two nations had been building up for many years. The U.S. government had a vested interest in a nation that saw its golden age slip away in the 1970s with the Islamic Revolution and the Soviet occupation. The U.S. stepped in to help the Afghans defeat the Soviets. Doing so proved to be a big mistake. This left Afghanistan with a wealth of armament and money and left to their own devices the country resulting in chaos and an ensuing civil war. Internal strife in the nation led to the creation of the Taliban, led by Osama Bin Laden, which grew in power over the years and ultimately culminated in a war that is still going on today.
“History teaches that aggression unopposed becomes a contagious disease.”
President Jimmy Carter
Directed by Greg Barker, The Longest War is a detailed exploration of the U.S. government involvement with Afghanistan from 1979 to the present day. Interview subjects include former CIA officials, war correspondents, Afghanistan experts and nationals. Barker’s documentary is comprehensive and informative and offers some hard-hitting revelations. This film leaves no stone unturned in the quest educate its viewers about Afghanistan and U.S. relations.
The Longest War recently premiered on SHOWTIME. It is currently available to stream or to watch on the channel. Visit the official website for more information.
Prosecuting Evil: The Extraordinary World of Ben Ferencz
dir. Barry Avrich
99-year-old Ben Ferencz is the last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor. At the tender age of 27 and at the very beginning of his career as a lawyer, Ferencz went head-to head with some of the most notorious Nazi criminals of WWII. Born in Romania to Hungarian Jews, Ferencz and his family fled Transylvania for asylum in the United States. Raised on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, teachers quickly took noticed of the gifted young Ferencz. He went on to study in the City College of New York and Harvard Law School and during WWII where he served abroad in an anti-aircraft artillery unit before he was transferred to Gen. Patton’s Third Army where he investigated war crimes and visited concentration camps to collect evidence. Horrified by what he saw, he made it his lifelong mission to give back to humanity by prosecuting international crimes.
Director Barry Avrich’s newest documentary Prosecuting Evil, covers the whole scope of Ferencz’s life and career through interviews with colleagues, Ferencz’s son and Ferencz himself. It also includes archival footage from the Nuremberg trials and disturbing images from the Holocaust. Ferencz has been a tireless champion for humankind and even at the age of 98, when this doc was filmed, there were no signs of stopping. Ferencz has an important message from the past to deliver to the future. This can and is happening again. We must fight for humanity.
Prosecuting Evil is a beautiful and poignant documentary about one of the most important living figures from WWII. My heart swelled with emotion and I left the theater very moved. Ferencz is fierce and fearless. He’s a sweet man but not someone you want to mess with. If you have any interest in the history of WWII or humanitarian efforts of if you’ve heard of Ferencz and want to learn more about him, this documentary is essential viewing.
I attended a press and industry screening of Prosecuting Evil at the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival.