‘Apocalypse ’45’ Film Review: World War II Documentary Is an Elegy to Those Who Were Lost

Director Erik Nelson finds a way to trade in the typical war-doc toolkit for something more personal and more striking

Last Updated: August 14, 2020 @ 11:35 AM

The United States celebrated the end of World War II with Victory in Japan Day on Aug. 14, 1945, exactly 75 years before the release of “Apocalypse ’45,” Erik Nelson’s examination of the war in the Pacific in the words and film footage of the men who were there.

But as that foreboding title suggests, you wouldn’t use a word like “celebrated” to refer to “Apocalypse ’45.” The documentary is a tribute to the men who fought, but it’s also an elegy for those who were lost, and it doesn’t evade questions about the reverberations that linger from the use of the two atomic bombs that helped end the war.

In some ways, it is a film about victory, illustrated with vivid, restored footage that was shot during the war but has largely sat unseen in the National Archives since then. But more than that, it is a film about loss and sacrifice, which you hear in the voices of the two dozen former soldiers, ranging in age from their early 90s to 101, who tell the story.

It’s hard to say that any WWII film can feel fresh after decades of documentation, but “Apocalypse ’45” finds a way to trade in the typical war-doc toolkit for something more personal and more striking.

The film, which is being released in some theaters (and virtual theaters) on the Aug. 14 anniversary, will also air on the Discovery Channel on Labor Day weekend, which is closer to the Sep. 2 date on which Japan actually signed the papers to surrender unconditionally. (That surrender was announced on Aug. 15 in Japan, which was Aug. 14 in the U.S.)

Director Nelson documented World War II aerial fighting over Germany in an earlier film, “The Cold Blue,” which drew upon footage that director William Wyler had shot for his 1944 documentary “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.” And Nelson uses footage from another celebrated director in “Apocalypse ’45,” utilizing unseen film that John Ford shot at Pearl Harbor in the aftermath of the Japanese attack that led the U.S. to enter WWII.

But the Ford footage, which vividly shows the sad aftermath of that attack, is only a prelude to the real story told in this film. After the Pearl Harbor setup, the movie quickly jumps to 1945 — when, a title card informs us, “The Japanese knew the war was lost, but they were determined to fight to their last man, woman or child.”

That fight is the heart of “Apocalypse ’45,” which details a string of battles in the Pacific: battles for Manila, for Iwo Jima and for Okinawa, all of which were preludes to an expected assault on mainland Japan. At first, the film moves quickly, but it slows down when U.S. forces begin their extended and costly assault on the small but heavily fortified island of Iwo Jima. “All we wanted to do,” one veteran says, “was [to] leave there alive.”

The battle for Okinawa, which began soon after Iwo Jima was secured, was even longer and bloodier — an 82-day assault on an island occupied by a prepared and entrenched Japanese military. This stretch of the film makes use of hugely dramatic footage of kamikaze attacks on the American ships gathered offshore, and of American soldiers using flamethrowers to wipe out all the tunnels and bunkers in which the Japanese soldiers were hiding inland.

“You can’t describe death, nor can you forget it,” another veteran says. “When you mention it, I can smell it.”

By the time the battle for Okinawa ended in June, 1945, Germany had been defeated in Europe and the Soviet Union had pledged to enter the war against Japan. Once again, the Japanese knew that defeat was inevitable, but their leaders wouldn’t agree to an unconditional surrender. So the U.S. stepped up its air war over Japanese soil: “Anything that moved, we strafed it,” one former fighter pilot says. And because the fighter planes had cameras mounted by their guns in the wings, the footage of these attacks on Japan is some of the most powerful in the film.

Before the U.S. successfully tested atomic bombs and decided to drop them on Japan, it was planning for a full-scale military invasion of the main island of Japan — and based on the fighting in Okinawa, it assumed that the invasion would only be successful after years of fighting. One startling detail from the film: Anticipating enormous casualties, the military ordered a huge increase in the production of the Purple Heart medals that go to wounded soldiers — and when the decision was made to drop the nuclear bombs rather than invade the mainland, those Purple Hearts were put into a stockpile that has supplied every war since then.

Some of the soldiers who tell their stories in “Apocalypse ’45” describe the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as a humanitarian move that prevented the huge number of deaths that would have occurred in a U.S. ground invasion, but it’s hard to look at the stark footage shot by a U.S. Army medical camera crew in those cities and think there was anything merciful about it. The shots of destroyed buildings are harrowing, but the footage of burn victims and others injured in the bombings is horrific.

“It’s been said many times by many people that war is hell,” a veteran says. “It really is hell. But I never visualized hell being that bad.”

In the film’s closing moments, the film hammers home the point that WWII was a time of cooperation rather than partisanship, and it does so with perhaps more vigor than it deserves. (In this context, it’s sort of distracting to bring in today’s politics.) But the end of “Apocalypse ’45” also lets us finally see the men who’ve been telling the story for the past 100 minutes, and their faces, tinged with pride but also sadness, are as powerful as all the painstakingly restored history we’ve been watching.