Wednesday, June 1, 2011

They Drew Fire (1999)

Monday was Memorial Day, so with that in mind I’m shifting our "Creator's Wednesdays" series to cover the story of some truly special individuals, the military war artists who were sent to give their impressions of what was happening across the globe during the Second World War.

This is the story of seven artists who were assigned to paint and draw what they saw, and thereby turned out some of the most lasting and moving images from the war. The idea behind sending artists to war was that several generals thought that the only way to make an accurate record of what battles were really like would be to have it recorded by more than just pictures. Photographs could accurately show you what something looked like, but through art it was hoped that something more could be revealed. This was a grand undertaking, and they sensed that the only way anyone could ever hope to fully understand the war was to do more than just take pictures and movies.

As you watch the documentary run out it’s too-short 54 minutes you realize the wisdom of doing just that. Listening to the men’s stories of life in the front lines and how they translated that into paintings and drawings, it’s clear that while a photograph can document coldly and cleanly what happened, they are not as good at expressing the emotion of moment. One of the artists also tells the story of how he missed going to a movie with the rest of the guys, only to have that being a close call when the makeshift theater was shelled and everyone in it was killed. We see how that experience was translated into a haunting painting involving a tree.

In other cases the artists explain how some of their paintings of ships at night show what no photograph ever could simply because of the darkness and the distances between ships.

One of my favorite sequences in the film is the discussion about whether one could or could not draw under fire. One of the artists said that you could, while another argued to the contrary, and he shows you his sketch book full of weird scribbles that look like nothing except lines. As he said, he had no idea what he was thinking.

I really like this film a great deal. It’s pretty much the men and their stories with a bare minimum of narration by Jason Robards. Who needs extra words when the artists themselves manage to be as skillful with words as they were with images. If I could complain about anything concerning the film it’s that it’s too short. This is choice time with some good storytellers and I’d have loved to hear more.

Produced for PBS, I think the film has gone out of print on DVD but I know it can be had from an e-seller, which is how I picked it up.

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