The above footage of Paris’ liberation in August 1944 looks and feels not dissimilar to a Hollywood movie. Part of its power owes to its being in color, a vanishingly rare quality in real film of World War II. But we must also credit its having been shot by a genuine Hollywood filmmaker, George Stevens. Having got his start in pictures as a teenager in the early nineteen-twenties (not long before making the cinematic-historical accomplishment of figuring out how to get Stan Laurel’s light-colored eyes to show up on film), Stevens became a respected director in the following decade. Swing Time, Gunga Din, The More the Merrier: with hits like that, he would seem to have had it made.
But it was just then, as F. X. Feeney tells it in the DGA Quarterly, that the war became unignorable. “The dangerous artistry of Leni Riefenstahl’s 1935 valentine to Adolf Hitler, Triumph of the Will, moved Stevens to volunteer for frontline service in World War II despite his being old enough to dodge a uniform and sit things out.”
In vivid color, Stevens and his U.S. Army Signal Corps crew shot “the D-Day landings, where he was one of the first ashore; the liberation of Paris; the snowy ruins of bombed-out villages en route to the Battle of the Bulge; and, most unforgettably, the liberation of the death camp at Dachau.” (Even the celebratory events in Paris had their harrowing moments, such as the sniper attack captured at 11:54.)
Stevens went to war a filmmaker and came home a filmmaker. The long postwar act of his career opened with no less acclaimed a picture than I Remember Mama, and went on to include the likes of A Place in the Sun, Shane, and The Diary of Anne Frank, whose material no doubt resonated even more with Stevens given what he’d seen in Europe. Not all of it, of course, was the aftermath of death and destruction. These Paris liberation clips alone offer glimpses of such admirable figures as resistance fighter Simone Segouin, Generals de Gaulle and Leclerc, and even Lieutenant Colonel Stevens himself. He appears presiding over the shoot just as he must once have done back in California — and, with the war’s end in sight, as he must have known he would do again.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.