The Bloody Hundredth (2024)

The Bloody Hundredth Review

The Bloody Hundredth

The 100th Bloody is the name of a new documentary that pays tribute to the real-life heroes of the hundred bomb group. This is a one-hour documentary produced by Playtone-Amblin and narrated by Tom Hanks, which tells the stories of real characters and real airmen featured in “Masters of the Air”. From Pearl Harbor to VE Day, this record shows what young Americans had to endure and accomplish when their country and world needed them most.

Film Review:

If you’ve seen a fact-based drama then do you really need to watch its accompanying documentary? Sometimes it’s done the other way round there’s a documentary that makes a scripted drama on the same subject redundant. Either way, the drama/doc double-up isn’t going anywhere because it makes sense for TV channels to hedge their bets. It can save money: get the same production company to make both shows, and two programmes can share one team of researchers.

But counting pennies is probably not behind The Bloody Hundredth, an hour-long documentary made for Apple TV+ by companies belonging to Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. This is Masters of the Air as-is: this is Masters of the Air without actors; Masters with old photographs instead.

With Hanks himself on narration duties (he played US Army Air Forces officer Colonel Cathcart in Catch-22; he knows his stuff), and Spielberg drawing on his own historical expertise to appear as a talking head contributor (the director once wrote an essay called “Screw You Buddy”), The Bloody Hundredth is an undeniably high-quality production. But it feels like an afterthought; like a DVD extra.

It assumes you’ve already watched Masters of the Air. And you should indeed watch that first because while this documentary does do justice as a summary if you have seen those nine episodes then Bloody acts as confirmation that yes, all of that did happen but it can’t quite muster the same romance or spectacle.

If you’ve just watched Masters of the Air, then The Bloody Hundredth functions mainly as an extended trailer for itself. Yes, all of that did happen: after two years stationed in Norfolk during the war, bombing infrastructure in occupied Europe and Germany itself while taking frightful casualties from returning Nazi air defence fire; yes, they really did stand in a briefing room and gasp and mutter as their commanders handed down another mission even more suicidal than the last one; yes, pilots who made it home did find fresh-faced new recruits already settled into their bunks ready to replace those who had been lost; yes, the raids were so harrowing that shellshocked men really were regularly sent off for afternoon tea and croquet at a country house near Oxford to soften what was politely called “combat fatigue”; yes, names are largely unchanged — this time around it’s still led by two maverick aces who become best friends (“Buck” and “Bucky”) but there is no longer any comedy value attached to how spookily similar their nicknames are; Crosby was real; Rosenthal was real.

Like them, Spielberg uses talking-head historians in The Bloody Hundredth, which also has a large amount of film footage from the time — so we know that Masters of the Air looks right too. There’s an airfield at Thorpe Abbotts, mechanics and commanding officers staring nervously across flat green fields, hoping their boys will reappear on the horizon. There’s the officers’ bar, industrial-tinged speakeasy chic. We’re up in the air as well, looking through the famed Norden bombsight at exploding German factories miles below us, or flinching as another shrapnel-packed anti-aircraft shell explodes near us in a puff of black smoke.

Sometimes it’s distractingly unclear what we’re watching: when we hear about a particular Luftwaffe attack or a specific member of the Bloody Hundredth being shot down, these pictures can’t be of those events exactly? Or can they? The programme is also more understandably a little coy about when its star interviewees sat in front of the camera to pass on their recollections.

Next year will bring the 80th anniversary of Hitler’s defeat. The second world war as something within living memory  the period in which if we want to know about it, we can ask people who were there is very nearly over. Of Masters’ main characters Gale “Buck” Cleven died in 2006 and John “Bucky” Egan in 1961; Harry Crosby passed away in 2010; Robert “Rosie” Rosenthal died in 2007. Crosby and Rosenthal appear here clearly interviewed years ago: Rosenthal’s dates back to 1997. Buck and Bucky only appear in wartime stills luminous as they are there’s a sad piquancy in realising that even these men are slipping from our grasp.

Masters has done a superb job of keeping them alive, and at around nine times longer than The Bloody Hundredth it does a better job of turning history into story — less rushed, less narrative gear-crunchy. What happened has the twists and the grand sweep of epic fiction; actors with sets and scripts are better placed to keep telling the story.

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