Oh! What a colourful war

We've seen it all before, many, many times, in black-and-white. You might think there was nothing more to show of the Second World War. But now over 400 hours of colour footage has surfaced, and is about to be screened on TV.
Martin Bormann, or what was left of him, was secretly buried at sea last month - another belated footnote to the Second World War. The Soviet archives have long since given up their secrets to Western war historians, and now, thanks to Channel 4's Sex and the Swastika, we even know the details of Hitler's sexual perversions (sado-masochism, a taste he would inflict on Germany). Sixty years after the official opening of hostilities, is there anything new to say about the years 1939 to 1945?

ITV obviously thinks so, and has commissioned a series retelling the history of the conflict. This time, however, the narrative is subsidiary to the archive footage - a frame on which to hang the largest collection of colour war footage ever amassed. And not just any old colour footage. Stewart Binns, series producer of The Second World War in Colour, whose co-producers were involved with the seminal World at War and the BBC's recent Cold War, reckons that 40 per cent of the material has never been screened before.

"There was colour footage in The World at War - stuff from the Pacific and George Stevens' film of Dachau," he says, "but nothing on this scale."

Binns' attention was drawn to this hitherto unseen material by Adrian Wood, one of the world's foremost film researchers.

"He came into my office one day and asked what I would say if he told me that there were over 400 hours of colour footage of World War Two lying about," says Binns.

Wood had apparently spent years tracking down the footage, about half of which was found in the national archives of Washington, Berlin, Moscow and London. A lot of it had been assumed to be black-and-white, because that was how it was traditionally screened.

"There was a feeling at the time that the public should not be exposed to colour film because it was too graphic and too disturbing - and because it was not economical," says Binns. "Stuff shot in colour tended to be shown in black-and-white - especially newsreel that had to be distributed quickly and in great bulk. Because it was seen in black-and-white, everyone assumed it had been shot in black-and-white. Adrian went back to the originals."

Incredibly, colour was first used to film the Balkan War of 1912, and although Hollywood had been shooting on colour stock since the 1920s, the expense was huge, and it wasn't until the introduction of 16mm colour film - in 1932 by Agfa in Germany, and in 1935 by Kodak in the United States - that colour became widespread among institutions and well-off individuals. Russia and Japan were technologically backwards in comparison, and, apart from one rather primitive sequence from a May Day parade in Moscow in tonight's episode, there is nothing from either of these two countries. The siege of Stalingrad is illustrated by colour slides, the only part of the whole series which doesn't use movie footage. Adrian Wood's trips to Russia were to retrieve German material that had gone east at the end of the war.

But it's the home movies, rather than the official footage, that is the freshest - and not because it is less familiar.

"Amateur films weren't being made for propaganda purposes, and have a personal quality that suited the series," says Binns. "The Briton Rosie Newman was a prolific amateur colour cine film-maker and much of her material has become available after she donated it to the Imperial War Museum," says Stewart Binns. "Hertz Reiger, a young German soldier in Operation Barbarossa, was a prolific source of footage of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. And Sir Robert Menzies' home movies were found in the national archive in Canberra. He came to see Churchill in the Blitz, and filmed London as a tourist."

The most horrific of all the personal footage is some taken by an unnamed German civilian living in Nazi-occupied Serbia in April 1941. After an SS officer was assasinated by partisans, 36 townspeople from Pancevo were marched to the town cemetery, hanged and shot. The "inquisitive" German filmed the executions.

The cameraman says that he later paid for his curiosity by being heartily sick, but he is still alive in Germany and his nausea didn't prevent him recently passing the footage to an agent, who was asking a lot of money for it. The intrepid Adrian Wood persuaded them to let it be used for the series - the first time it has been publicly screened since 1941. Those inured to grainy black-and-white footage of Nazi executions and mass graves, prepared to be repulsed anew by similar scenes in colour.

Colour, as the producers of The Second World War in Colour realised, adds a new dimension to the oft-told tale. The three-part series begins tonight, with a brisk canter from Munich and the Phoney War to the Fall of France and the Battle of Britain.

"People seem to connect with colour more than black-and-white," says Binns. "You see people as people when there is colour in their face and on their clothes - there's a stronger emotional link."

This also seems true of landscape. We are all familiar with footage of German tanks charging across the Russian steppes, but when those steppes are green, the scene becomes more familiar and intimate. Straggling columns of refugees in the France of May 1940 become almost unbearably vulnerable when seen among green hedgerows, their carts full of their gaudily coloured possessions.

"Many people remarked on the footage of refugees in France," says Binns. "They have been struck with the similarity to the refugees in Kosovo."

And anyone who saw Reach for the Sky on TV last Saturday, which, like nearly all postwar British war movies, was shot in black-and-white, should compare it with the colour footage in next week's programme of British bombing crew taking off for a raid over Germany in 1943. Reach for the Sky seems fossilised, and that's not just Kenneth More's acting style.

The bomber crew footage in The Second World War in Colour is further enhanced by actual recordings of the crew's voices as they reached their targets. The regional diversity of the accents is a shock in itself to those bred on the stiff-upper- lipped British war movie. It's a device this series uses throughout. Diaries and letters accompany the footage, with John Thaw's narration linking the material. There are no historians or other experts interviewed.

Perhaps, though, the colour footage of the war is not as unfamiliar as we imagine - especially to those who have seen Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan. It's a well-known fact that Spielberg's based the "look" of that film on the remarkable colour home movies shot by the future Hollywood director George Stevens between 1944 and 1945, as he advanced with the Allied troops, and which the BBC screened under the title D- Day to Berlin.

"Looking at the Stevens material, you can see scenes that directly inspired Spielberg," says Binns. "Certainly Spielberg graded and treated his film stock so it had the look of Stevens' original about it."

But Spielberg's homage goes deeper for Binns, who believes his series is part of a trend that eschews political explanation of WWII, an approach exhausted by historians, for the raw emotional experiences of those who had to fight or endure it.

"I think we'll see a flood of Second World War poetry and diaries," he predicts. "Films like The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan made absolutely no reference to the political situation, but simply told what it was like to be a soldier. The Longest Day, by contrast, described the events of D-Day in great detail from the top brass downwards. I believe our series is part of a different way in which people are beginning to look at the war."

`The Second World War in Colour' begins tonight at 10pm on ITV