One of the pleasures of little-known documentaries is learning about something wholly new and unexpected. After Ken Burns' exhaustive documentary on World War II, I figured there weren't too many more WW2-related yarns waiting to be unearthed for the general public. The Ritchie Boys happily proved me wrong.
This straightforward doc tells the story of a group of young Jewish men who had immigrated to the United States from Europe during Hitler's military buildup in the 1930s. America's entry into World War II, however, provided an opportunity for these men -- most of whom Uncle Sam had designated "enemy aliens" because they were German -- to do their part in the battle against Nazism. "I despise all wars," says one of the Ritchie Boys, "but this was different."
Dubbed "the Ritchie boys" for the secluded Maryland military camp where they were trained, this motley collective didn't fit the stereotypical mode of the Willie-and-Joe GI. The Ritchie Boys were predominantly intellectuals and artists, but their intelligence, ingenuity and, yes, ability to speak fluent German made them uniquely suited for the interrogation of German prisoners of war.
German filmmaker Christian Bauer opts for a no-frills approach, letting the surviving Ritchie Boys relate their experiences, interspersing their tales with vintage newsreel footage. The interview subjects cover a lot of ground, from their training at Camp Ritchie to the D-Day invasion and beyond.
The stories are engaging, poignant and often captivating. The Ritchie Boys recall how the U.S. Army inexplicably marked their dog tags with an "H" for "Hebrew" or "J" for "Jewish," information that surely would have ensured them particularly horrific treatment in the event of their capture. One of the Ritchies, Si Lewen, vividly remembers the stench of dead bodies at the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp. "If people would just smell it, they would become pacifists," says Lewen, an artist whose works attest to the grisly images he witnessed in the war.
Many of the anecdotes also happen to be very funny. Guy Stern and Fred Howard, a real-life Mutt and Jeff team, tell how their interrogation of German POWs typically played on the prisoners' fears of Russian military. Guy would play the part of a fierce Russian commandant at the American camp, a ruse that allowed Fred to take on the "good cop" role to elicit information.
The experiences of the Ritchie Boys would make for an enthralling dramatic film. As things stand, it has already made for an enthralling documentary.
The Ritchie Boys' picture quality varies considerably. The modern-day interviews, which are shot on digital film, are sharp and detailed. The newsreel clips are predictably grainy and scratchy, although some of the color footage is remarkably well-preserved.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 isn't showy, but the sound is clean and clear with no discernible problems.
Included are 43 minutes of additional war stories, the text of a filmmaker bio and trailers of other Docurama pictures.
The Ritchie Boys is a marvelous documentary about a slice of World War II that you likely haven't heard before. History buffs -- or just buffs of accomplished documentaries -- are well-advised to seek it out.