Three Outstanding Military Documentaries

Documentary films can range from thrilling to merely interesting to downright tedious. Necessarily, they are concerned with truth rather than dramatic effect. But the best ones are both absorbing and educational. They also serve as beginnings of future discussions.
There are three particularly strong military documentaries about Germany, Poland and their relationship with each other during World War II. As with many great films of this ilk, some are not without controversy.

Triumph of the Will

Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda masterpiece is significant not only because of its horrifying message but also because of the filmmaker’s jaw-dropping, astonishing cinematography, which used what were considered avant-garde techniques at the time:

●    Aerial photography
●    Superimposed, simultaneously filmed images
●    Distorted perceptions resulting from long-focus lenses

The Nazis had almost a million soldiers standing in formation in the Messe-Stadion in Nürnberg, and she captured all the action of the rallies in her cameras. One sees no cranes, no scaffolding and no camera operators in any frame of the film. To this day, film buffs are at a loss when it comes to how she did it with 80-year-old equipment and techniques.

Riefenstahl herself has been at the core of the controversy. She always steadfastly claimed to have been ignorant of Hitler’s anti-Semitism and future plans for Germany, but many scholars and historians don’t agree. While it is true that there are no outright anti-Semitic phrases in the film, her interview with Julius Streicher during the filming yielded the line, “… a people that does not protect its racial purity will perish.” Streicher was hanged after the Nürnberg trials.


This French documentary from Claude Lanzmann has been so controversial throughout its existence that such film critics as Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel and Pauline Kael have changed their opinions multiple times about its nearly 9.5 hours of footage. Lanzmann’s officially sought to portray Treblinka and Auschwitz through interviews with both survivors and perpetrators of the Holocaust. He spoke with witnesses, too, and pulls no punches: Many of the interviews are tooth-jarring in their intensity.

The controversy comes from what appears to be Lanzmann’s hidden agenda. Through shrewd questioning, he alludes to his belief that the Poles themselves were somehow responsible for being nearly annihilated by the Nazis. He asks one witness, who lived in the town of Treblinka, if Poles who weren’t Jewish were afraid of the Jews because of what the Nazis were doing. The witness says, “Let me put it this way. When you cut your finger, does it hurt me?” Polish Holocaust survivors objected to the way Lanzmann went about making his film. They were particularly aghast at how he seemingly ignored the people in Poland who rescued Jews or fought the Nazis. He even admitted later that his specific intent was to indict the Poles as anti-Semitic co-conspirators, which probably explains his complete lack of portrayal of the massacres and other deaths of non-Jewish Poles. Lanzmann also leaves out Russian atrocities against the Polish people, such as the Katyn and Minsk massacres.

White Eagle in Borrowed Skies

Gerald Kochan’s documentary “White Eagle in Borrowed Skies” portrays the history of the Polish Air Force during World War II. When Germany invaded Poland in September, 1939, Poland fell in less than a month. Poland’s obsolete planes and outnumbered fliers were no match for the German onslaught. Two weeks into the invasion, Russia broke through Poland’s eastern defenses, and, after the Polish surrender on September 27, 1939, Germany and Russia divided Poland along the Bug River.  As pointed out in the film, despite the hopeless odds, the Luftwaffe lost more aircraft in the Polish campaign than against the combined French and British Air Forces in the French campaign.

Realizing that Poland’s defense was hopeless, the Polish High Command told its Air Force personnel to continue the fight in exile. Poland itself was powerless to stop the invasion or the resulting slaughter over the next six years. But if the pilots could successfully find themselves bases in countries abroad to reconstitute, allies for which they could fight, Poland might have the last laugh.

They fought the Luftwaffe over Britain, North Africa, and Russia and one ace even tangled with Japanese Zekes and Georges in the Far East. They accounted for 203 aerial victories over German fighters during the Battle of Britain and thus were instrumental in the eventual victory of the Allies.

Military Medals: What Do They Mean?

The United States military rewards many things, including superior achievement, dedication, conduct and bravery. Although many soldiers have earned Army Achievement Medals, Army Commendation Medals, Meritorious Service Medals and Good Conduct Medals, comparatively few have been recognized for bravery.

There are four main commendations awarded by the United States for bravery:
●    The Medal of Honor
●    The Distinguished Service Cross in all its variants
●    The Silver Star
●    The Bronze Star

The Purple Heart is an interesting case: It is awarded for being wounded in action against a belligerent enemy instead of in recognition of an action or actions. Because it is awarded for combat wounds, it essentially recognizes the soldier’s bravery—during today’s world of an all-volunteer military—for being in combat in the first place.

The Medal of Honor

Since the criteria of this highest award were tightened during World War I, it is given only to a soldier who “distinguishes him or herself conspicuously by gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his or her life above and beyond the call of duty in action involving actual conflict with an enemy.” Usually, the President of the United States presents the award to the recipient or, if it is a posthumous award, to the recipient’s immediate family. There are only two ways a soldier can be recommended for this award: by someone in his or her immediate chain of command with direct knowledge of the soldier’s actions or by direction of the President of the United States.

The Distinguished Service Cross

There is a version of this medal for each of the armed forces of the United States, the Navy/Marine Corps equivalent is the Navy Cross.  The criteria are similar to those required by the Congressional Medal of Honor but do not meet the same level as actions that are “beyond the call of duty.” Several Distinguished Service Crosses have been revoked in the past for a variety of reasons. The most notable reason involved a case of six black soldiers who had received Distinguished Service Crosses for actions that merited a Medal of Honor. After a review lasting seven years, Congress awarded those soldiers their proper medals in 1997.

The Silver Star

The Silver Star is the third-highest award for bravery in the United States Armed Forces and, similar to the Distinguished Service Cross, is awarded for conduct that does not merit a higher award for bravery.

The Bronze Star

The Bronze Star can be awarded either for gallantry and heroism (in which case it carries the “V” device) or for outstandingly meritorious service in a combat zone. When awarded for bravery, its criteria are similar to those of the higher awards but such bravery does not meet the higher criteria. When awarded for meritorious service, it is the highest award other than the Legion of Merit that a soldier can earn.

A Famous Recipient

Audie Murphy is the most decorated United States soldier of all time. Astoundingly, he was awarded all five of these medals. In addition to his Medal of Honor, he received a Distinguished Service Cross, two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars with “V” device, and three Purple Hearts. Then, he turned 20 years old.

Military Films: What’s Real and What’s Not?

Military training is unique in that it involves learning how to, literally, put your life in someone else’s hands on the modern battlefield. In basic training, soldiers are assigned a “battle buddy” or in more advanced training like Ranger School, a “ranger buddy.” The soldiers so paired help each other pass inspections, shine boots, make beds, mop floors, clean weapons, pass classes, learn topics and work together during battlefield training and assorted live-fire exercises. It is an awesome responsibility. Many soldiers who wash out of training either didn’t have a competent ranger buddy or were themselves incompetent.

Basic training also emphasizes the “team concept” over the “lone wolf.” For every Alvin York or Audie Murphy, there are thousands of dead guys with something to prove. The Army certainly doesn’t discourage individual gallantry, but it stresses how crucial it is to think rationally, rely on your team members, and function as a whole rather than as a thousand individuals.

Such training prepares soldiers for life after the armed forces, too. Although most civilian jobs do require life-threatening work, people who were once accountable for keeping someone else alive usually handle workforce pressure much easier than those who weren’t. In fact, as some Army training films point out, “it’s no wonder so many of today’s white-collar workforce started out green.”

Many films about the Army do depict it accurately. John Wayne may have had an undone chin strap, but there isn’t an easier way to be told to “drop” and do push-ups than have your chin strap undone. Other movies portray weapon mishaps and bullets flying everywhere on a post for comedic effect; in reality, spraying bullets anywhere but downrange in a controlled environment on post would result in severe disciplinary action, possibly even a court martial. Some even show schoolboy high jinks loaded with sexual innuendo and toilet humor as part and parcel of Army training. Nothing could be further from the truth. Sure, soldiers-in-training laugh and joke like anyone else while relaxing, but training time is serious business.

Other military films are downright gritty in their realism. A prime example is Wolfgang Petersen’s “Das Boot,” which shows the rigors, triumphs and, more often than not, heartbreaks of service on a German U-boat during World War II. Oliver Stone’s “Platoon” is another example: The actors actually went through an abbreviated form of basic training for the movie. Its depiction of Vietnam pulled no punches and even included an unwarranted killing of a civilian and the murder, however well-deserved, of a fellow soldier who was the murderer’s superior.

Perhaps most gritty of all, military documentaries deal full-bore with the horrors of war. The number of people killed during World War II, for example, tops 60 million, and the Germans and Japanese were the primary ones who committed atrocities. New documentaries that cover the needless slaughter of Poles at Katyn have only recently come out with the release of some of the Russian/Soviet archives. It is the change in current political climate that often prompts the release of many “unexplored stories”.

Among the many untold stories coming out of World War II, included that of the exiled Polish Air Force that traveled to France, Belgium and England to carry the fight to the Axis. Outlined in Gerald M. Kochan’s exemplary 1998 film “White Eagle in Borrowed Skies,” the Polish fliers distinguished themselves wherever they flew. As a unit, for example, they were responsible for more than 200 aerial-combat victories over the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain.

Borrowing from Cornelius Ryan’s 1974 novel “A Bridge too Far,” Kochan plans an even more ambitious documentary film about Operation Market Garden and Bernard Montgomery’s smug vilification of the Polish paratroopers whom he had hung out to dry through faulty planning and drops into hot landing zones far from the objective. Ryan asserted that the Allies swept the giant failure of the 1944 attack under the rug, and the new documentary seeks to explore not only this but also what other options the Allies had.

A successful military officer, foreign-service officer and civilian who supports the Defense Department through innovative education and logistics development, Kochan has been involved with the armed forces ever since graduating from Miami University in Ohio in 1978. Commissioned that year, he served with distinction his entire career. He also is a veteran of Desert Storm and the Iraq War.