Gripping new doc commemorates the explosive 75th anniversary of the end of WWII
Directed by Erik Nelson
On Aug 14., 1945, the fighting in World War II came to an end.
A few weeks later, on Sept. 2, on the deck of the battleship U.S.S. Missouri in Tokyo Harbor, it was official, and Japanese officials signed their country’s unconditional surrender, bringing the global conflict to a close after four gruesome and exhausting years.
Apocalypse ’45 recounts the final year of the bloody conflict in the Pacific, where Japan—even after Germany had already surrendered, months earlier—vowed to continue to fight to their last man, woman and child, even though they knew the war was lost.
This quite remarkable film brings the final year of the Pacific conflict “alive” with newly restored materials from the National Archives, most of it never before seen, and the enhancement of new sound effects. And it becomes especially monumental and moving, on the week of 75th anniversary of the end of World War II, with its use of voices of actual U.S. military veterans who served in the Pacific.
The number of living World War II veterans is dwindling nearly every day, but director Erik Nelson found 24 men whose words provide a first-person, you-are-there narrative of war from the people who were in the middle of it—the sailors and soldiers and airmen, who recall vicious ground combat at Okinawa, terrifying suicide blitzes by Japanese kamikaze pilots, and the victorious, iconic flag raising after the hell-on-Earth campaign to take of the island of Iwo Jima.
Saving Private Ryan? Full Metal Jacket? Dunkirk? 1917? Apocalypse Now? All great war movies, sure. But not in the same league as this—because this is about as real as a war movie gets.
The veterans talk about being frightened, about watching their buddies get blown to bits, and about being young men, sent to the other side of the world on a do-or-die, kill-or-be-killed mission—against an enemy who was fully prepared give up his life in order to take their’s. The interviews provide the film’s dramatic foundation as we watch scenes of brutal combat and carnage, sailors on aircraft carriers and battleships, dangerous and deadly aerial dogfights and, ultimately, the devastation of the atom bomb dropped on Hiroshima the morning of Aug. 6, 1945, which killed some 150,000 men, women and children. Another bomb, dropped on the city of Nagasaki, finally led to the end of the Japanese resistance less than a month later.
Ah yes, the bomb. The specter of the bomb frames the movie; the film begins with a prelude about the bomb, and it then marches steadily toward the war’s concluding chapter. It wants us to think long and hard about the atomic bomb, America’s original weapon of mass destruction. Military officials knew it would level the entire city and kill countless civilians; the movie notes that its use was not without controversy. Newsreel footage by an American medical team, taken in Hiroshima the following year, shows the ghastly after-effects.
The bomb ended the war—and started the so-called “nuclear arms race,” an era in which many wary nations worried about which other nation might drop the next atomic device. As one veteran notes, “It put us in the position of, ‘We’ve dropped an atomic bomb,’ so now anyone else in the world can drop an atomic bomb.” The end of WWII ushered in the beginning of a new era, an era of even more potential destruction and existential dread, an even wider Armageddon.
The film opens with the words of someone talking, then singing a 16th century Japanese ballad, an ode to peace. We find out his name is Itsei Nakagawa, and that in 1945 he was a Japanese teenager trapped in Hiroshima with his family the day the city was obliterated. We meet him again, at the close of the film.
The movie never otherwise identifies its two dozen narrators—at least not until the end, when they’re all introduced individually, telling us who they are, when and where they served, and finally appearing side-by-side with vintage photos from their military youth. It’s one of the film’s most poignant segments.
Director Nelson, a frequent collaborator of noted German filmmaker Werner Herzog, has an esteemed pedigree as a documentary producer and director. He produced Grizzly Man (2005), about an Alaskan grizzly bear activist, which swept film festival awards; and he combed through some 15 hours of “lost” Hollywood film footage for his 2018 HBO documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, about the B-17 bombers of World War II.
With Apocalypse ’45, he’s made a gripping, emotional snapshot of history and heroism that honors the greatest day of World War II—the day it ended—and a precious handful of the men who made it possible. A stately, somber reminder of the soul-scarring god-awfulness of war and its catastrophic consequences, it’s also a heartfelt salute to those who answered the call of something much bigger than themselves.
“We all had different religions, different faiths, different political positions,” one vet tells us at the beginning of the film. “But the most important thing of all was being American. We were unified in that. That gave us strength. We were one in those days.”
As we remember those days, 75 years ago this summer, Apocalypse ’45 is a powerful reminder of a war that changed the world—and the men who helped bring it to an eventful end, and lived to tell the tale.
In select virtual theaters Aug. 15, and Sept. 2 on the Discovery Channel