Hollywood Commandos: (AMC 1997) During the second World War, military history and Hollywood history intersected in a small studio in Culver City, California. This was the home of the Army Air Forces First Motion Picture Unit, an elite, highly-skilled force of motion picture professionals who served their country in the way they knew best.
They were jokingly referred to as "Hollywood Commandos". Their weapons weren’t bombs or bullets or bayonets, but the greatest propaganda/training weapon the world had ever seen--motion pictures.
"Hollywood Commandos" is the documentary portrait of the Army Air Forces' First Motion Picture Unit during World War II. It is the story of the Hollywood writers, directors, actors, cameramen and craftsmen who donned the uniform of the United States Army Air Force and served their country with distinction in the production of military training films.
Never before in modern warfare had motion pictures played such an important part in educating and motivating troops. Incorporating all the skills, talents and techniques of a major Hollywood studio, the First Motion Picture Unit ("FMPU") produced elaborate training films for every Air Force need.
These films--written and directed by some of Hollywood's greatest craftsmen and featuring performances from many of the actors of Hollywood's Golden Age--had been locked away unseen and forgotten since the end of World War II. Now, many of these “forgotten” films and the stories behind their creation have been revealed in this one-hour documentary for American Movie Classics.
Founded in the months preceding the attack on Pearl Harbor, the First Motion Picture Unit was initiated by General Hap Arnold who saw the need for innovative training films that could help educate as well as motivate his growing Army Air Force. By war's end nearly 300 training films and documentaries were produced by this mini-Hollywood in uniform.
Amongst those reporting for duty were writers Norman Krasna and Irving Wallace, directors Richard Bare and John Sturges, actors Sergeants Alan Ladd, Arthur Kennedy, Lee J. Cobb, Van Heflin, Craig Stevens, George Montgomery, Captains William Holden, Robert Sterling and a future President of the United States, Ronald Reagan. Major Clark Gable made an appearance as did Colonel Frank Capra, all doing what they did best--making movies.
Some of the applicants were past middle age and normally would have been rejected for active duty, but the skills they brought from the sound stages of Hollywood would prove invaluable to the tasks ahead.
Working under strict military guidelines and rules of secrecy, the First Motion Picture Unit occupied the Hal Roach Studios in Culver City, California. Informally dubbed "Ft. Roach", the facility was leased to the Army Air Corps and was organized as a military post with many enlisted men eating and sleeping in barracks on the premises. Security was tight for inside the sound stages and production offices work was underway to expose on film the business of war.
Project titles included such diverse subjects as: "Land and Live in the Jungle", "Recognition of the Japanese Zero" and "Operation & Maintenance of the Electronic Turbo Super-Charger-Regulator". Lighter subjects included the ever-popular "Three Cadets"--a graphic sermon on the dangers of venereal disease. Some of the unit's films earned Academy Award nominations.
By war's end FMPU had produced nearly 300 titles, including the top secret "Project X"--a series of films using miniatures and special effects to detail the bombing routes over Japan.
The unit also trained and equipped combat cameraman who would join the fleets of bombers on their missions over Europe and the Pacific. The footage these cameramen shot was rushed back to headquarters and analyzed for intelligence and training purposes and often incorporated into the unit's latest production. Many cameraman did not return from these dangerous missions, but their efforts survive in the harrowing footage of combat in the air.
Included in the program are interviews with many of the unit's participants, including former President (then Captain) Ronald Reagan, actors Craig Stevens, DeForrest Kelly, George Montgomery and director Dick Bare. Other participants include many of the craftsmen whose talents lent the films of the First Motion Picture Unit a quality equaled only by the major Hollywood studios.
Also featured are excerpts from many of the films produced by the unit. Some of the films are technical in nature, but a sizable number are dramatic in style and feature performances from well-known actors of the day. There's even a collection of outtakes and flubs.
It was on the eve of war that General Hap Arnold, commander of the United States' Army Air Force, contacted Warner Bros. vice-president in charge of production Jack L. Warner and asked for his help.
The Army Air Force needed pilots, thousands of them. Jack Warner--whose studio was the first to condemn Nazi Germany with such films as "Confessions of a Nazi Spy" and "Action in the North Atlantic"--directed his studio to work twenty-four hours a day to produce a recruiting film entitled "Winning Your Wings". (The film was produced--from inception to the shipping of prints--in a record eleven days.)
Starring a young Air Force Lieutenant named Jimmy Stewart, "Winning Your Wings" played in movie theaters and on college campus across the United States. The result: over 100,000 enlistments were directly traced to seeing the film.
With the success of "Winning Your Wings", the Army Air Force commissioned other films. It soon became apparent that Jack Warner and his studio could not continue to meet the growing demands of the military, so a decision was made to create the First Motion Picture unit.
On July 1, 1942 the unit was activated. Jack Warner was given a commission as a Colonel--studio tailors created his uniform which he wore everywhere--while writer/producer Owen Crump, who had made "Winning Your Wings", was made a Captain.
Unique in the military, the unit was allowed to draft personnel directly into its ranks--after a hectic ten day basic training course.
Ronald Reagan was already a Reserve Officer in the U.S. Cavalry when he was ordered to report to FMPU. In a story told at a reunion of the unit, Reagan remembered being disappointed to find himself going back to Hollywood after expecting to see action overseas. (Captain Reagan was made the unit's Adjutant and helped organize the new recruits.)
While the new recruits were away learning how to march and salute, Captain Owen Crump scrambled to find a facility to house the unit.
Warner Bros. donated their vacant Vitagraph Studios on Talmadge Avenue in Hollywood, but it proved unsuitable. A new sight was needed immediately, one already equipped to house a movie studio. (Recruits were reporting for duty and having to sleep on cots in the drafty, old Vitagraph sound stages.)
While production began on the unit's first film, a short documentary called "Desert Maneuvers" shot in Indio, California, Colonel Crump spotted the Hal Roach studios in Culver City. (Hal Roach had been producing low-budget comedy films since the silent days, but had suspended making pictures for the duration of the war.)
Unlike the Vitagraph studios, the Roach studio was fully equipped for film production. The only addition would be barracks and a mess hall for the enlisted men who would live on the post.
On October 1, 1942 the six hundred men of the First Motion Picture Unit marched from Hollywood to Culver City and occupied the Hal Roach Studio which they quickly dubbed "Ft. Roach". Twelve days later work began on the unit's first true training film, an epic mini-drama called "Learn and Live".
"Learn and Live" starred Warner Bros. character actor Guy Kibbee as the angel St. Peter. Set in "Pilot's Heaven"--complete with fleecy clouds and a group of recently deceased young pilots--the film used humor, special effects, animation and good acting to make its point that thoughtlessness in the air often led to pilot fatalities.
With production gearing up, the unit grew, bringing on more specialist from the movie world--including quite a few past middle age (Sidney S. Van Keuran, an executive at the Hal Roach Studios, was persuaded to join the Air Force upon which he found himself back in his old office at the studio where he became the Budget and Fiscal Officer--the job he had held in civilian life.)
While the barracks were being built, the men slept and ate on the sound stages. Since many of the early productions worked around the clock, the men of FMPU had only to walk a few feet to begin work.
Other problems involved rank. Because some of the technicians were commissioned and others were enlisted men, the natural chain of command didn't always apply. A Director-Sergeant might have to order an Actor-Lieutenant to carry out his orders in shooting a scene. If the officer resisted, movie rank ultimately won out.
The work of the First Motion Unit involved many "firsts". Never before in the history of war had film been used so extensively to teach and motivate troops. Before the creation of FMPU, training films had been the responsibility of soldiers of the Army Signal Corps, most of whom were unskilled in the dramatic arts.
Finding the right combination of entertainment and education was left to the FMPU writers who had to "sell" a training film's concept. After researching the subject, the writers would draw on their Hollywood experience to involve the audience and to engage their emotions as well as their minds.
Many of FMPU's best films were little dramas which made their points by involving the audience in a story. One such example was "Resisting Enemy Interrogation", often cited as the best educational film to come out of the war.
The film featured a group of downed flyers who are captured by the Germans and brought to a chateau. They are separated from each other and are eventually tricked to reveal Air Force secrets. The film was so accurate and involving that a group of flyers, who had seen the film and were in fact later shot down and captured, revealed that life had imitated art. They too were brought to a chateau and when the Germans began their interrogation, it so resembled the film version, the airmen burst out laughing. The Germans' interrogation attempts proved unsuccessful.
A wide range of films were made at Ft. Roach during the war. Besides short dramas, the unit produced basic "nuts and bolts" films such as "Operation and Maintenance of Electro Turbo Super Chargers". These often included animation sequences produced by Walt Disney Studios.
One of the most entertaining animated shorts was "Position Firing", an instructional film on aerial gunnery. It's central figure was a character called Trigger Joe, a stupid type who had troubling learning how to operate a machine gun and shoot down attacking enemy fighters. Joe ran the gamut of emotions and the audience laughed, but in the end Trigger Joe learns his lessons--as does the audience.
Another effective animated teaching film was called "Camouflage Cartoon". Leading characters were Private Drip, who was always in the wrong, and Mr. Chameleon, who taught the personnel how to properly camouflage themselves and their equipment while in combat areas. Private Drip, on frequent visits to the latrine, disregarded the fundamental laws of camouflage and walked across instead of around the airfield. A Japanese reconnaissance flyer spotted his footsteps. Enemy intelligence, thinking there must be an important ammunition dump there, sent bombers over the latrine and blew it to bits. Through humor, a valuable lesson was conveyed.

Propaganda-information films intended for both military and civilian audiences were also produced on the base. "The Memphis Belle", the story of a B-17 bomber crew was edited and directed by William Wyler and employed documentary combat footage. Shot in color, the film is a gripping tale of danger and comradeship and years later became the basis for a feature film of the same title.
Other films of this type included "Target Tokyo", "China Crisis", "Target For Today" and "Fight For the Skies". Each of these films carried strong emotional themes of patriotism, love of home, and the reality that war is hell, but it has to be fought and fought to win.
Looking at these films today, we understand the mood of the country during the war and feel the fighting man's sense of camaraderie, his faith in his leaders, his equipment and his mission.
Another innovative project was that of the aerial gunnery films made for the Waller Gunnery Trainer--a simulated gun turret that allowed students to practice their aim on enemy aircraft projected onto a movie screen--five screens actually, arranged in a semi-circle. The system used five movie projectors and provided a horizontal visual coverage of a hundred and fifty degrees. (After the war the system was developed into Cinerama).
Perhaps the most important and challenging effort to come from the First Motion Picture Unit was the development of the B-29 Briefing Film series, known as "Special Film Project 152".
In 1944 plans were being made for incendiary and high explosive bombing of the major industrial cities of Japan as preparatory measures to the atomic bombing that would force the enemy’s surrender. The Twentieth Air Force, based on the island of Saipan, had all the material and men needed for the job. What they lacked was definite information about the targets to be destroyed.
Colonel William J. Keighley, the chief of the Army Air Forces motion picture services, assigned the First Motion Picture Unit the seemingly impossible task of making motion pictures that would accurately show the exact route to every major Japanese target. Included in the films would be every landmark, check point, initial point and bomb release point. Also to appear would be every radar center, every Japanese naval vessel in a harbor, every railroad, building and forest and rice paddies that would appear on a bombing mission. The objects had to appear not only as seen on a clear day by the naked eye, but also as viewed by a radar screen through an overcast.
Because Japanese industrial development had always been a very closely guarded secret, the job seemed impossible. There was very little information available concerning the terrain of the Japanese homeland.
The Unit was given forty days to build an exact, large-scale miniature of Japan, photograph it, edit and finish film and then have it delivered by officer courier to Saipan.
Briefing films had been made before, but never like this. For the low-level bombing of Ploesti's oil refineries a briefing film, "Operation Soapsuds", had been made which greatly aided the bombing crews. But "Special Film Project 152" had to be much better.
Special Effects experts from the Unit were called to Washington, DC There they gathered available information and studied the assignment. At "Ft. Roach" the Research Department gathered newspaper clippings, books, pamphlets, travel folders, anything which might give a clue to the Japanese landscape.
Drawing on the personal pre-war experiences of one of the men of the Unit, ex-aerial photographer Captain Clifford Herberger, it was found that from the air a coastal portion of California looked topographically similar to much of Japan. By photographing these portions of the California coast from the air, Herberger and Sgt. C.W. Lemming, head of the Unit's Research Department, were able to piece together a giant aerial photomap of what seemed to be about eighty percent of the Japanese homeland.
The next task was to build in sections a huge sand table, ninety by sixty feet, for construction of the miniature island. The sections were later joined for photographic work. Some of Hollywood's best special effects men, including Warrant Officer John R. Glass and Technical Sergeant Joe Westheimer, were working under the direction of Major Roy Seawright, head of the Unit's Special Effects Department.
The film was to show, from the bombardiers viewpoint, Japan fifty miles from landfall, up to the Initial Point, then to the target. To make the sea the huge table was flooded and filled with plaster. The wet mixture was blown on by a wind machine to make naturalistic ripples. After the plaster had dried it was painted the varying colors of the water as indicative of depth.
Mountains were made of cellotex cut in contours. Ground up foam rubber was used for trees and bushes. Rice paddies were printed cut outs. Clouds were made of spun glass. Buildings were constructed with matches and toothpicks and railroads were simulated by using piano wire. Every visible detail was reproduced including the Emperor's stables.
The bomb run to the first target, the Nakajima Aircraft Engine Woreks in Ota, seventy-two miles inland, was to give the Superfortress crews a view of 2,700 square miles of Japan from an altitude of 30,000 feet. Later a model was prepared to show 5,000 square miles.
To photograph the approach and bomb run a special device was developed to permit the camera to simulate altitude and speed that the bombers would effect. The run was photographed as it would appear on a clear day and then again through another device simulating radar.
Twenty prints of each film were rushed to the Twentieth Air Force in Saipan. The films, made in color, were so effectively done that aircrews, upon returning from their missions, felt that someone had been there before to show them the way.
The work of the First Motion Picture Unit came to a close with the end of World War II. Producer Hal Roach reclaimed his studio and some years later sold it. Today a Japanese car dealership occupies the site.
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