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They Drew Fire:
Combat Artists of World War II

They Drew Fire:
Combat Artists of World War II

Home Vision Entertainment
1999 / Color / 1:78 flat letterboxed / 56 min. / Street Date December 16, 2003 / 19.95
Starring Franklin Boggs, Howard Brodie, Manuel Bromberg, William Draper, Richard Gibney, Robert Greenhalgh, Edward Reep
Cinematography Michael Chin, Jon Else
Researcher Todd Wagner
Film Editor Victor Livingston
Original Music Marco D'Ambrosio
Produced by Bonni Cohen, Brian Lanker, Nicole Newnham, Jamie Stobie
Directed by Brian Lanker

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Brian Lanker's hourlong documentary is a terse ode to a strange breed of artist, painters who actually went to the front lines in WW2, and later, to cover the war up close. As explained in the docu, besides combat photographers and newsreel men various canvas artists worked at the front lines as well, commissioned by branches of the military and private concerns (companies, magazines etc.) to create art to help promote the war effort back home.

The docu was clearly inspired by thousands of seldom-displayed artworks held in vaults by the U.S. Government. The paintings were shown in special traveling galleries and duplicated for display in patriotic window displays in storefronts across the nation.

They Drew Fire is sort of a too-clever name for the docu, but it does describe the content clearly enough; the best part of the show are the intimate interviews with the surviving artists named above. There were some famous painters among those who went to the front lines to paint. We spend the hour with a series of now-elderly men and their sharp memories of their experiences. Some were recruited especially for the duty and others were talent discovered in the ranks. They often went into combat just like the other men, carrying art supplies in addition to packs and weapons. Forget about Monty Pythonish images of artists trying to paint with oils in a battle; they usually just witnessed events and conflict, and did their painting while in rear areas. One artist shows the stained and weatherbeaten sketch pad from his tour with the Marines - the one page he tried to work on right in the middle of battle is a jittery mess.

We're given a special insight in what it means to go into battle with these men. Several paint vivid memory pictures of being terrified but compelled to go see it all for themselves, first-hand. There are gory fighting pictures, and art glorifying ships, planes and men in combat, but a lot of the art focuses on other aspects of the war experience: time spent behind the lines, medical units, the contrast of the beauty of the battlefield with the war being fought over it. One artist shows his little khaki sketch pack, now falling apart, and recalls when he came upon some mangled, dying men. It was horrible and not what he wanted to paint at all.

The tone of the piece is appropriately respectful and reverent, but not jingoistic. The artists were given total freedom as to the subject and treatment in their paintings, something obviously denied their German and Italian counterparts. One artists reads his own letter from 55 years before and gives forth an amused chuckle. These men have their own minds and opinions and one even voices the thought that the world today seems more war-crazy than ever.

The docu is well-made and doesn't beg for attention through fancy graphic gimmicks. Many of the paintings and sketches are shown in full color. Newsreels about the exhibits during the war are shown, one of them with Eleanor Roosevelt. Other newsreels in excellent condition give glimpses of the fighting in various theaters. One artist tells about skipping the movie Going My Way being shown in a dugout theater on a Pacific Isle. The screening was interrupted by an enemy artillery shell that killed everyone attending. It all seems very real - the stories and memories of these guys are terrific. The plain- spoken narration is by Jason Robards.

Home Vision's DVD of They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II is a handsome presentation. The image is letterboxed flat, which is a disappointment as enhancement would have improved the detail in the paintings. But they still look great. Unlike some art-oriented shows, we get a good look at individual works without having to hit the still button too frequently. And the quality of the newsreels is excellent. The docu covers its subject so well that the lack of other extras does not disappoint ... but a gallery of the artwork would have been more than welcome.

Mostly we remember the faces and words of the artists as they give their testimony. Some remind me of my own father, talking over an open G.I. footlocker in the garage as he goes through his keepsakes. This is a thoughtful alternative to the typical blood 'n thunder war docu.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
They Drew Fire: Combat Artists of World War II rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Very Good
Sound: Very Good
Supplements: none
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 27, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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