Release Date(s)2018 (April 7, 2020)
Studio(s)Vulcan Productions/Creative Differences/USAAF First Motion Picture Unit (Kino Lorber)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: B+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
In 1943, amid the US Army Air Force’s campaign to bomb Germany during World War II, director William Wyler (Wuthering Heights, The Best Years of Our Lives, Ben-Hur) set out to make a documentary film about the twenty-fifth and final mission of the B-17 “Flying Fortress” Memphis Belle and her crew. Wyler and three cinematographers flew aboard the Belle and other B-17s during at least six active combat missions over Germany, capturing some 34 reels (90 hours) of 16mm Technicolor film (with a bit of 35mm footage shot on the ground). One of the cameraman, First Lieutenant Harold J. Tannenbaum, was actually killed along with the crew when the plane in which he was flying was shot down over France. But from that footage, Wyler completed his 45-minute documentary, Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, which was released in 1944 to widespread acclaim.
In the years since its original release, however, every existing print of the documentary had faded. Thankfully, in 2016, all of Wyler’s original camera footage was located in the US National Archives. Filmmaker Erik Nelson (himself a producer of many Werner Herzog documentaries), with the support of Paul Allen and Wyler’s daughter Catherine, oversaw a painstaking 4K scan and restoration of those reels. The first result of this effort was a complete image upgrade of Wyler’s Memphis Belle, rebuilt from the now pristine footage. The second result was The Cold Blue, a new 72-minute documentary that looks more widely at the bomber crews of the US 8th Air Force, assembled using previously unseen footage shot by Wyler and his cameramen.
To accompany the footage, Nelson and his own crew commissioned a soundtrack by British folk rock guitarist Richard Thompson. They also interviewed nine surviving veterans of the 8th Air Force, each a member of a B-17 crew, and all in their 90s by that point. They provide the words and the stories that bring the images to life. And for an added measure of realism, Nelson teamed up with The Collings Foundation (which is dedicated to preserving aviation history) to fly aboard one of the last remaining operational B-17s in order to record the real sounds of the aircraft in flight.
The Cold Blue is extraordinary. You are almost literally transported back to Europe in 1943 with the real air crews aboard the real planes on real combat missions over Germany. The footage is breathtaking—certainly it’s not quite up to modern standards, but I daresay you’ve never seen this imagery in such clarity, detail, and vibrant color before. You’re simply along for the ride, starting from the morning mission all the way back to wheels down, privvy not just to combat but to supporting moments as well—maintenance crews at work, munitions teams loading ordinance into the bomb bays, guys left behind waiting around the airfield to see if their friends would be returning home or not. So much of what’s captured in this footage is just young men being young men in the middle of a terrible, dangerous, tragic, and heroic situation. The resulting film is a unique combination of history lesson, personal testament, and pure cinema.
Kino Lorber presents The Cold Blue in 1080p HD on Blu-ray in its original 1.78:1 aspect ratio (blown up from the 4K scan of Wyler's 16 and 34mm Technicolor film). Don’t expect perfectly crisp detail at all times—some of these shots are optically soft, some of them are shaky. But keep in mind, much of this footage was shot in actual combat conditions. Occasionally, the quality is startling. Colors are lush and vibrant, and contrast is remarkable, with deep blacks.
Audio is included in English in DTS-HD Master Audio format in both 5.1 and 2.0. Both are quite good, but the 5.1 is impressively immersive. This isn’t head-spinning surround sound, but the clarity and ambient environment is wonderful, with light panning and movement, and firm bass. Optional English SDH subtitles for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing are included.
And you’ll be pleased to know that the Blu-ray includes not only The Cold Blue, but Wyler’s complete and restored film too, along with additional extras. Here’s a complete list:
- Audio Commentary with director Erik Nelson and executive producer Catherine Wyler
- The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) (HD – 1.33:1 – 73:13)
- Into the Cold Blue: Restoration and Reinvention (HD – 22:47)
- The Flying Fortress Experience (HD – 2:06)
- Trailer (HD – 1:42)
Of course, Wyler’s The Memphis Belle remains not just an interesting documentary film but an important piece of history in its own right. It’s amazing to have it here in this kind of quality on Blu-ray, fully restored in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio (and it’s why this disc has an A grade for its extras). Beyond this, the rest of this material is just gravy.
The commentary features Nelson and Catherine Wyler talking about various aspects of the project, the real historical details, the surviving pilots they interviewed, and more. Frequently, they’re responding to the images on screen. The only problem with the commentary is that it’s mostly Nelson talking, with Wyler chiming in just occasionally, and he sometimes interrupts her as she’s about to say something. The track might have worked better if the director had asked questions of her and then listened to get her involved more often, perhaps encouraging her to talk more about her father and the like. It’s still worth a listen regardless.
Into the Cold Blue offers a look behind-the-scenes on the project—how it came to be, how the film was restored, how the sound and music were recorded. More importantly, we meet many of the pilots we’ve listened to while watching the film and we learn more about them. The Flying Fortress Experience is a quick piece of HD video taken by the sound crew as they flew in a real B-17 to get their recordings—you get to hear the engines starting up, the whole plane rumbling down a runway, and a little bit of it rattling in flight. The trailer for The Cold Blue is included as well and completes the package.
For fans of aviation and World War II history, The Cold Blue is a revelation. My recommendation is to throw the Blu-ray image up on the biggest screen you can, crank up the surround sound, and sink into the experience. It’s highly recommended.
- Bill Hunt