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The Yanks Are Coming (1963)

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A documentary--nominated for an Academy Award--about the American involvement in World War I.

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A documentary--nominated for an Academy Award--about the American involvement in World War I.

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4 November 1963 (USA)  »

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World War II: A Briefer Course.
10 May 2014 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

"The Yanks Are Coming", narrated by Richard Basehart and shown on TV in 1964, has been issued as part of a three-disk boxed set, not represented as a whole on IMDb.com. (Or even separately, as far as I can tell.) The disks contain a dozen or so hour-long episodes that explore the battles of World War II and, more important, the reasons behind the conflict itself. They have titles like "D-Day" and "Pearl Harbor." Each episode is introduced for a minute or two by Wolper himself, whose name appears prominently in all of the credits.

In 1964 the war was only nineteen years behind us and some ill feelings are still reflected in the editorial content of the narration but on the whole things had pulled together for everyone except the USSR. Japan was making precision optical instruments, Germany was undergoing its Wirtschaftswunder. The Marshall plan had rebuilt the destroyed economies of our former enemies and wounds were healing.

It's a curious collection because most of the footage we see is already familiar from other documentaries but some is rather startlingly new. My God, if I see Greg Toland's three American SBDs wearing Japanese meatballs on their wings and dropping their bombs from ten miles up again, I think I'll plotz. But there's greater emphasis placed on war as a human experience. A good deal of time is given to the pain of civilians -- "ours" not "theirs." I didn't know that during the London blitz, communities had built tiers of bunks in the underground or that tea and donuts were available. I haven't watched the section (if there is any) covering the round-the-clock bombing of German targets but I doubt that much sympathy is lavished on the civilians huddling in their shelters in Hamburg. Richard Basehart, who does a good job, tells us that Hitler was surprised that the blitz was unable to break the British spirit. I'll be surprised if, in any later episode, we see film of the remaining burnt-out crags of German cities draped with defiant posters -- "Unsere Mauern brechen, unsere Herzen nicht" -- "Our walls may break but not our hearts."

It's rather a bold series. What caused the war? Japanese militarism, on the one hand, and that wimp, Neville Chamberlain, waving his little piece of paper and declaring "peace for our time." Plus American resentment over having had to go to war twenty years earlier and "pull Europe's chestnuts out of the fire." And that, boys and girls, is what started the war. Nothing about Japanese reasoning or their industrial expansion needing natural resources that their islands lacked. You may be surprised to learn that Hitler was "nervous" when meeting with the Allies in Munich because, had they offered the least opposition, he might have retreated from his demands. It takes guts for a documentary to speculate to that extent.

I'm enjoying it, although most of it is pitched pretty low. The writing appears to have been subject to the influence of Time Magazine. "Attacked in addition to Pearl Harbor will be the Philippines." Someone once parodied the style: "Backward ran sentences until boggled the mind."


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