Film From the Frontlines: New Glimpses of a War

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When the Wehrmacht hanged 18 civilians in a World War II reprisal killing in Serbia, tugging on the victims’ ankles to hasten death, a German propaganda cameraman dutifully recorded the grisly sequence on color movie film. When Russian partisans executed a suspected German spy deep in the forest, that killing, too, was caught on camera.

Nearly 65 years after the Allied victory, long-lost or overlooked film footage — some in unexpected color and almost all raw and unedited — continues to emerge from military archives and family trunks worldwide, adding new dimensions to history’s most exhaustively covered conflict.

Two documentaries featuring such finds — “WWII in HD” on History and “Apocalypse” on the Smithsonian Channel — make their debuts this week and next on American television, keyed to Veterans Day. And one, “Apocalypse,” comes with a dose of controversy, as its filmmakers have colorized black-and-white reels, rekindling debate about a practice usually confined to old Hollywood movies.

The two-hour segments of “WWII in HD,” running Sunday through Nov. 19 and narrated by Gary Sinise, weave enhanced but original color footage into the stories of 10 American service members and two war correspondents as told through interviews and journals using the voices of actors.

“We’re finding material people haven’t seen before,” said Nancy Dubuc, president and general manager of History. And, she said, the footage was shown in all its raw context: “We make sure the heads and tails stay on.”

Compiled from 3,000 hours of film rarely if ever seen since the 1940s, the segments depict test firings of the Nazis’ V-2 rocket and actual launchings against Britain, with Wernher von Braun — later to become an American space-flight pioneer — on the phone literally calling the shots. There is also President Franklin D. Roosevelt with George S. Patton and other top generals at the supersecret 1943 conference with Winston Churchill in Casablanca, and a bird’s-eye view of the Japanese surrender, taken by a Navy cameraman perched high on the Battleship Missouri...

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