TECHNICALLY SPEAKING
WHERE TO LOOK

If you’re serious about in-depth WWII research, a road trip might be in order. The National Archives in Maryland contain a vast catalogue of military records, plus volumes of additional WWII information. “They have great staff there,” says Ambrose. “They can point you to the right records so that you can drink deeply of that.” Although only a small portion of that information is online, the Archives’ Web site is a good place to start.

Other archives Ambrose recommends include the National World War II Museum in New Orleans and the National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola.

He also suggests checking out the Library of Congress’ Veteran’s History Project, much of which is digitized. Rutgers University also has an excellent Oral History Archives.

You might also check the various WWII reunion groups for a chance to talk to the veterans themselves. “They’ve been meeting for decades,” says Ambrose, “so you can go and sit down with guys who can talk to you, who know all the guys who wrote a memoir or published a book.” You’ll find scores of such groups through The Alliance of Military Reunions.

Finally, of course, it never hurts to read good, old-fashioned books. Both Ambrose’s book The Pacific and his father’s book Band of Brothers go into far more depth than the epic miniseries they accompanied. But don’t stop there. “You read one book on Guadalcanal, you get one writer’s opinion,” explains Ambrose. “If you read three, you’re going to have three different opinions on what was important – and then what happens is that you, the screenwriter, are in the driver’s seat, because now you see the differences in opinion and you can make informed decisions and ones that fit better with what you’re trying to achieve.”

Pen Pacific
Written by Denis Faye

Unlike the millennia of human history leading up to it, the screenwriter researching World War II will run into an embarrassment of informational riches. From flight logs to after-action reports to fitness reports to Dear John letters to interviews with surviving veterans, there’s an almost oppressive amount of documentation available. With that in mind, it might be worthwhile to get a little help.

“What is normally the case is that it takes time, and it takes somebody to separate the wheat from the chaff,” explains historian Hugh Ambrose, “and screenwriters don’t usually have that kind of time. They tend to want to have someone who can help them get to where they want to be quickly and give them all the good stuff and leave aside a lot of the other stuff. That’s why there are people like me who can do that.”

Ambrose has quite a WWII wheat-and-chaff-separating pedigree. Not only was he technical consultant for HBO’s The Pacific miniseries, as well as author of the book by the same name, but his father, the late historian Stephen Ambrose, wrote the book Band of Brothers and consulted for/executive produced the resulting miniseries.

Ambrose spoke with Technically Speaking recently about how Hollywood represents WWII on film and in television. Surprisingly, he thinks it’s okay to fudge the facts sometimes, as long as you’re not trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. In other words, as long as no one starts believing that a real Colonel Klink ran an actual Stalag 13, it’s all good.

What does Hollywood get right about WWII?

Hollywood has been all over the map ever since World War II began in the way they tell stories, so I’m a little resistant to the idea of a generality being able to explain anything. I think ways where Hollywood does really well is when they provide the emotive connection to an individual who was in extreme circumstances. A good film will get empathy for those who were asked to do this horrible thing, to fight in combat. Aside from that, like I said, it’s all over the map with the story they’re trying to tell and the level of historical accuracy that’s in it.

But I think that it’s getting better as we go along. People seem to understand that there’s no reason not to provide a foundation that’s fairly accurate. Now, there are exceptions to that. The movie Pearl Harbor [Written by Randall Wallace], from a film standpoint, may have succeeded, but from a historical standpoint, no one thought it had anything valuable to either represent or to help people understand what was at stake or who did what at any level. It was a big, summer blockbuster film.

Otherwise, things seem to be getting better. After Saving Private Ryan [Written by Robert Rodat], after Band of Brothers, which I obviously have a lot of connections to, it does seem that the public expects more from film in terms of it being accurate. We don’t expect it to be a documentary, but when films come out, particularly ones about WWII, and it seems like the screenwriter sort of cobbled together some ideas and some characters from the war and did whatever they wanted to, there’s a great deal of disappointment, and the film suffers creatively and commercially.

You mentioned that Hollywood gets the emotions right sometimes. Is emotional accuracy as important as historical accuracy?

Historical accuracy is really in some ways an undefined quantity. What does it mean to be historically accurate? What I can tell you is that there are films that don’t have any. And then there are films that have some, but being first and foremost an historian, my job is to craft stories that are as historically accurate as possible, which goes well beyond what 99 percent of films have tried to do.

But for emotional accuracy, there are always gaps in how veterans or historical figures felt at certain events, so I don’t think it’s the historian’s job to tell a screenwriter about how a certain person felt at a certain moment. There’s only so much that the document, the interviews, the research can bring you. So unless the records are clear on a specific point, I think that is something that historians should have less to say about that.

But for The Pacific, you thoroughly researched the journals and letters of the soldiers, so I’d think you’d be a great resource for learning what was going on inside their hearts and minds.

Well, yeah, my job is to do that, and I enjoy it and feel that it adds greatly because people are so interesting and endlessly idiosyncratic, and that is a great source of fuel to a great screenwriter. At least, that is what I hope to accomplish, but again, the records of a guy in a war, even a guy who’s writing a fairly long letter home once or twice a week, his company commander who’s writing a unit report or an after action report, interviews with the other men who are still living, photographs, maps, memoirs by other people who were in that unit or other companies who essentially had the same experience because their battalion was in the same battle, all those things can get us very close to that experience, but the individual is unique, so I have to respect that and respect that a screenwriter might read the same material that I do and come up with something different. It’s not that they want to dramatize it in this way or that way; it’s often a very honest difference. Historians differ with one another so an historian should understand that when working with a good screenwriter who does their homework, like the screenwriters on The Pacific did – first and foremost Bruce McKenna – it’s a collaborative effort at that point and not something an historian should dictate.

What’s going through your head when you watch a show like Hogan’s Heroes?

I think TV is a great source of entertainment. I watch TV for entertainment, but I don’t choose to watch a lot of WWII shows that are really more the creations of the imagination rather than ones that are representative. But I don’t chastise or criticize shows like that. I find it particularly hard to criticize Hogan’s Heroes because I think it’s self-evident to anyone watching that this is a comedy that has really little to do with WWII except that it provides the situation from which the comedy springs. I don’t think people watch and think they understand what allied prisoners of war were going through in Germany. At least I hope not.

What about films like Inglorious Basterds? How do you feel about the complete reinvention of history from the ground up?

I guess it would be easy to say, “Oh goodness, many studies show that young people today don’t understand about what happened in their immediate past or within the 20th century, and so we can be concerned about it,” but I don’t know. People go to films for entertainment, so they have to work on that basis. And I think that when they’re massively, self-evidently humorous, or satire of a particular event, then it’s hard to see that it’s pulling the wool over too many people’s eyes.

I am concerned about Oliver Stone’s films, JFK [Screenplay by Oliver Stone & Zachary Sklar], Nixon [Written by Stephen J. Rivele & Christopher Wilkinson & Oliver Stone]. Stone seems to really want to put his interpretation of important events to the American public. And in both those films, he makes a lot of mistakes that are more concerning simply because the films are intended to be serious. With Nixon, the guy released a book to go with it with footnotes that didn’t match. He tries to pretend that Nixon was a big drinker. There are no historians of Nixon who think that his problem was drinking or that he was getting drunk every night and that an angry, vindictive Nixon came from that bottle. You can’t release a serious, important film about something like that and then release a book with footnotes and pretend that you’re entering the debate on Nixon and then cavalierly create the Nixon you believe existed. History is more complex than that. A filmmaker who takes himself that seriously needs to be more careful.

What would you like to see just once in a WWII movie?

What would I like to see? I think that a great movie about Navy pilots in the Pacific is a natural. It hasn’t been done really well. From what I understand, it’d be expensive, but to go on a war cruise that included some of the more important battles of the Pacific. For example, the character “Mike” Micheel in my book The Pacific is not represented in the miniseries, but he’s in Midway, he fights at Guadalcanal, he’s in most of the major carrier battles in one way or another and, as a dive bomber pilot, had to go out there and find these enemy carriers and fly through their fighters and fly through the flack and drop through 12,000 feet like a stone to release a bomb 1500 feet off their flight deck and all that goes with that. I think there’s a lot there.

Midway [Written by Donald S. Sanford] that was made in the late ‘70s was fine for its time. In terms of something to watch on a Sunday afternoon, I don’t think it’s that bad, but we’ve seen a lot about fighter planes. We’ve seen one or two good ones about B17s, but I think the dive bombers and some of the missions they’ve flown, I think people would be surprised at their challenges.

What one piece of advice do you have for writers embarking on a script about WWII?

Talking to the people is great, but if you want historical accuracy, you have to go to the source. You have to go back to those documents created during the war simply because, after so long, it’s not that the veterans are trying to misrepresent things, but a lot of those things get lost through the decades, so you have to go back through their files and their fitness reports.

Let’s say you’re writing about a ship. The navy keeps amazing records, more than the Marines or the army simply because a unit is on a ship that has electricity and lights and typewriters and places to file stuff, whereas guys in forward line companies don’t always have all that, so you find very detailed records of what the ship was doing. If the ship was in a battle, each of the squadrons writes an after-action report in which all the men’s experiences are recorded along with the time, what the weather was like – they capture a great deal of detail.

And with pilots, almost all of them write something about their experiences. And you get flight logs, times, and planes they flew and so forth. There’s a huge record the squadron commander would have to keep about each pilot and their fitness, so you can watch, just as you could with any officer, those times when they’re struggling, and their officers know it, and they write that down, and then you understand what it’s like to be in combat because they can lose their way a little bit.