- Movie Rating -

Apocalypse ’45 (2020)

| December 15, 2020

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I have not been able to go to movie theaters nor film festivals.  So now, with the help of award-season screeners, this month I am catching up.

I have often said that if I never have to sit through another World War II documentary in my lifetime it’ll be too soon.  Really, they all look the same:  Grainy black and white footage of aerial combat, ground assaults and Hitler addressing the masses are played under the droning of a stentorian narrator (usually an out-of-work actor) who tries to sound dramatic.  It’s a safe and reliable formula.  It’s what got the History Channel off the ground.

I assumed I had seen it all, which is why I am thankful for Erik Nelson’s engrossing documentary Apocalypse ’45 which, just by offering newly restored color stock footage and allowing the surviving veterans to tell their own story, you get an immersive experience, a real feeling of what the men who were sent into the Pacific really went through.

Apocalypse ’45 covers the last six months of the Pacific campaign as the Axis powers in Europe fell, the forces of Imperial Japan refused to surrender, affirming the Emperor’s decree that his people fight to the last man.  Over narration from the American soldiers who were part of these events, the outlook on the Japanese is surprisingly unique.  They admit that they didn’t hate the Japanese, they just saw the battle as having to kill someone who was trying to kill them – a simple creed of kill or be killed.  The Japanese are seen through the prism of having been under orders by their emperor, and by information from the high command that, if caught, the American soldiers would chop them to bits.  The result of this campaign of fear resulted in actual footage of Japanese civilians throwing themselves off of cliffs to their deaths just to avoid capture.  We see this happen.

That intimacy is what makes Apocalypse ’45 so special.  I don’t know how many World War II documentaries I’ve seen, but the shock here is the feeling of seeing something more immediate.  The color footage, restored to 4K, bridges the gap of years.  Yes, it’s more than 80 years old, but somehow it looks new, like we are seeing a news report filmed 10 years ago.  That approach gives us an intimacy and adds emotional weight to the images being presented.

One of the most striking is seen at the beginning, footage of the devastation of the American fleet at Pearl Harbor.  We are use to seeing the wreckage from a distance in grainy stock footage, but here, in footage film by John Ford (yes, THAT John Ford), you can almost smell the smoke and the mournful feeling of being so close gives the rest of the film a sense of purpose.  Seeing those images, we get a sense of what our boys were fighting for, not vengeance but a defence against an enemy willing to go the extra mile.

In that, the psychology of this war was founded.  The narration is heard by soldiers who went into the Pacific and their dialogue is unique in the way in which they discuss how their whole psychological make-up was rearranged by their experience.  Each went into the war with a clear sense of right and wrong but each seemed to find a gray area when it came to what they were being asked to do.  Yes, the Axis powers were bad, but what did the Japanese civilians do to deserve having their homes and their families blown to bits?  We can see incredible aerial footage of the bombing of Tokyo as one vet talks about staring at an apartment building as the bomb fell, wondering how many people were about to die by his hand.

The motivation for the war is never really in question, but certain aspects of the war’s legacy really are.  Are the soldiers who stormed the beaches of Iwo Jima really the greatest generation?  The volly of differing answers from each narrator calls into question to nature of such a title.

Some who see Apocalypse ’45 will be frustrated by the narration.  The speakers are never identified and we only hear voices.  We meet them only at the end.  For me, I didn’t mind.  In many ways the voices and the images merge into a kind of flowing visual memory.  These men, now in their 90s, hold to these memories like they happened yesterday and give a stark affirmation of the lasting mental horror associated with having lived in an atmosphere of death.  This is one of the best films of the year.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Documentary