Soldiers’ Stories is, as its Oscar-winning producer Nicholas Reed likes to put it, the world’s oldest 3-D film. It’s also one of the newest. The 30-minute film pairs century-old stereoscopic photos taken in the trenches by World War 1 soldiers with narration by Mickey Rooney and voiceover from recent American vets whose personal stories suggest that war never changes for those in the middle of it: loneliness, loss, intense camaraderie, bad food, bad weather, the adrenaline rush of combat.
“It’s original 3-D,” Reed said. “People think (the images) are fake, they’re converted. But it’s a real original film, using up-to-date modern technology to take old, old 3-D technology and bring it to the big screen.”
The film debuted with a screening in Beverly Hills this summer on the 100th anniversary of the start of World War 1, what producer/director Jonathan Kitzen calls the first industrial war. By the time Germany surrendered on Nov. 11, 1918, the war had killed 9 million people, torn apart the Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires, ended the colonial era and led to a punitive peace treaty that set the conditions for the even more devastating Second World War two decades later.
Reed and Kitzen are hoping Soldiers’ Stories makes the shortlist for the Oscar documentary short film competition, a cut that happens Oct. 10. Reed, a former ICM agent who produced this year’s documentary short Oscar winner The Lady in Number 6, knows he has a challenge getting in, simply because it’s hard for voters to see the movie. The best way to see Soldiers’ Stories is in a theater with a 3-D projector and a large screen. Most films, certainly most documentary shorts, most conveniently are seen on a DVD or online connection in the comfort of an Oscar voter’s home or office. Getting seen by enough decision makers will make or break the movie’s Oscar prospects.
The filmmakers have had four screenings of the film in Los Angeles, New York and London, and Reed says if the film makes the Oscar shortlist, he’ll schedule many more. In the meantime, though, he’s also busy making sure as many soldiers and their families get a chance to see the film ahead of Nov. 11, what is now variously called Veterans Day, Remembrance Day or Armistice Day, depending on the country.
The film now screens regularly at the National Infantry Museum, which has an IMAX theater and is located just outside Fort Benning, Ga., where tens of thousands of U.S. Army recruits go through basic training every year. Veterans groups are also embracing the film, working with Reed to show the film to their members around the country.
“The veterans listening to the movie realize they are not alone,” said Reed. “They say they haven’t spoken about the war in years. It’s becoming this incredibly cathartic experience for the veterans, forming this doorway between them and their families and the public.”
Part of what the veterans are responding to are the incredibly engrossing 3-D images created from the photos everyday soldiers took in the trenches and parade grounds and field hospitals of the war. By the time the war erupted, stereoscopic photography had been around for a few decades. In the years before moving pictures became a mass business, stereoscopy provided a you-are-there experience in the parlors of Victorian-era families. The images, doubled and side by side, are viewed through a device that looks like opera glasses with a long adjustable clip to hold the image and get it in focus.
Stereoscopic images have enjoyed a renaissance in recent years, as collectors scoop up photos and historians use them as a literal view into life in the era between the U.S. Civil War and WW1. Other stereoscopic images were of more fanciful stories, such as the Diableries, or devil’s tales, collected in a recent book by the rock musician Brian May, of Queen, with archivist Denis Pellerin and Paula Fleming.
The images in Soldiers Stories are a long way from those in May’s book, however. Kitzen visited the Imperial War Museum in England and several other big collections to find images shot by soldiers from the U.S., England, France and Germany. In some cases, the negatives were literally dirty, with clumps of trench mud (or possibly worse sorts of material) trapped in the emulsion.
Kitzen said he noticed differences in the kinds of photos captured by each country’s soldiers. Photos from the Americans, who officially joined the war nearly three years after it started, have a certain jaunty optimism. The British photos are generally staged and official, because the British high command banned soldiers from having cameras. The Germans, living up to their reputation for a certain Teutonic efficiency, built quite elaborate and relatively comfortable facilities for their soldiers (unlike the Brits, who wanted their soldiers uncomfortable so they wouldn’t settle in).
But it was the French poilus’ photos that are the grittiest and most emotionally affecting in Soldiers Stories. The French, fighting by the millions on their own soil, created photos that capture the mud and blood, the informality and mayhem, the sheer chaos, of living for months or years at a time in a trench with a small group of other men.
Adding to the emotional wallop are the voiceovers by half a dozen U.S. veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. They talk about being far from home, about losing friends, about surviving amid gunfire and bad weather and much else. And they talk about excitement of going off to war and the intense adrenaline buzz of combat.
The choice to add the modern-day veterans was what made the film come together, Kitzen and Reed said. It brings home the realities of war, no matter the era. In reading the diaries of WW1 soldiers, Reed said, “I realized the emotions and feelings of the WW1 soldier were exactly the same as today. The ability to get modern-day veterans from Afghanistan and Iraq to talk about their (similar) experiences, I just felt like that was incredibly powerful.”
Getting Mickey Rooney, in one of his last film contributions in an epic career before his death last April, to narrate also added a certain quality, Reed said. Rooney enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1944, and served with distinction for nearly two years before returning to Hollywood.
Soldiers’ Stories is not a perfect film. I’m not much for the animated recruiting posters at the film’s start, for instance, and it takes a few minutes for the film to get rolling with all those remarkable 3-D images from battlefronts a century ago.
But for a peek into the war that changed the world, and whose impacts continue to be felt in so many ways even today (the many-cornered mess in the Middle East, for instance), it’s top-notch. And for soldiers and their families, it’s a must-see.