Over the years, there have been numerous documentaries and movies about World War II, but none of them quite like Apocalypse ’45. Directed by Erik Nelson, who also directed The Cold Blue, Apocalypse ’45 features fully restored, never-before-seen footage taken from over 700 reels of film stored at the National Archives and includes narration from 24 combat veterans who were there when it happened. The result is a stunning, if brutal, film about the waning days of the war in the Pacific with Japan, now available in an extended director’s cut on Blu-ray.
The documentary focuses on the final months of 1945, when Allied victory in the Pacific was inevitable. The Japanese knew this too, but refused to surrender, making for an especially dangerous opponent. We see restored footage from April 1942 shot by John Ford at Pearl Harbor and comments from American soldiers that they initially thought the war would be over within six months. One soldier states that they didn’t think of the Japanese as bad guys, just as people following orders to try to kill them. Another soldier says they thought they were bad, but brave. The film does a good job in showing these conflicting views from the American soldiers. Even though they were fighting on the same side, a long, vicious war will inevitably lead to a host of different viewpoints.
The Americans were not used to fighting an enemy such as the Japanese, who would rather commit suicide than face the humiliation of capture. To that end, we see footage of a woman jumping off the side of a mountain in front of American troops. We also see footage of Japanese kamikaze pilots crashing into American ships, devastating the fleet and killing countless troops. We learn that the war at Iwo Jima raged on for four additional weeks after the Americans raised their flag with 6,800 Marines and 22,000 Japanese killed in the process.
There are scenes of Japan getting firebombed by U.S. planes, which killed over 100,000 civilians and footage of Marines using flamethrowers to flush Japanese soldiers out of the caves they were hiding in. A soldier describes how horrific the smell was and there are scenes of badly burned Japanese soldiers.
When U.S. President Harry Truman and Russian leader Joseph Stalin met in recently conquered Berlin and Russia officially declared war against Japan, any hope Japan had for winning the war was lost, but that did not stop them and they fought to the death. The air war intensified and the Allied forces were ordered to shoot anything that moves, from trains to people to water buffaloes. There is incredible dogfight footage captured during this critical period.
Plans were made for a November invasion of the mainland to be known as Operation Downfall. The Marines did not believe the war was winnable before 1948. Countless Purple Heart medals were manufactured in anticipation of the expected casualties. Then America successfully tested an atomic bomb in New Mexico and the ground attack plans were scrapped.
Ittsei Nakagawa, a Hiroshima survivor, was 15 years old when the bomb dropped. He is interviewed for this film and speaks of air raid sirens going off, but then nothing happening until they saw something falling out of the sky. We see 1946 footage of the blast site and the desolate wasteland that was left in its wake. There is footage of badly burned Japanese people peeling off layers of skin. We hear frank admissions from the American soldiers that dropping the bomb was the most humane thing we could do or that they should thank us because otherwise we’d have killed 30 or 40 million more of them. Harsh statements to be sure, but it shows how strong the emotions run in these soldiers more than 70 years later.
The film is beautifully restored and is presented in 1.78:1 16×9, 1920x1080p. The footage does not look as if it were shot more than 70 years ago and the sound is rich and full. Audio options include 5.1 Surround and 2.0 stereo. The Blu-ray also includes more than an hour of additional documentaries, including: Ford at Pearl, which features more John Ford footage; To the Shores of Iwo Jima; and The Last Bomb, both of which were nominated for Academy Awards.
There have been many films about World War II, but Apocalypse ’45, through its use of unseen, restored footage, gives viewers a bird’s-eye view of the horrors of such a long and brutal conflict. Having the soldiers narrate it, rather than some talking heads who weren’t there, gives a more intimate perspective as well. After all, who better to tell the story of World War II than the soldiers who fought in the war? The film is often hard to watch, but that is the reality of war. The documentary is very well done and well worth viewing.