The Second World War In Colour

The moral of the story behind The Second World War in Colour could be 'Always listen to your archivist.' As long ago as 1991, researcher Adrian Wood, of U.K.-based Trans World International, came up with the idea for a project about...
July 1, 2000

The moral of the story behind The Second World War in Colour could be ‘Always listen to your archivist.’ As long ago as 1991, researcher Adrian Wood, of U.K.-based Trans World International, came up with the idea for a project about World War II consisting entirely of original color footage, but it took until 1998 to convince broadcasters to commit.

During the interim years, Wood kept coming across more and more material from all over the globe through his research for other projects. ‘The first material I was aware of was the American material, subsequently the German material and then the Russian material. And it was knowing that material existed in all of those countries in color, in Britain as well, that [I knew] there was a possibility of doing something.’

By late summer 1998, U.K. broadcaster ITV and the U.S. History Channel came on board, and the TWI/Carlton 3 x 60-minute copro was finally able to get underway. The budget for the series is in the ballpark of US$1.5 million.

‘The series was not conceived to give a definitive history of World War II, because the color material is very subjective about where it was used and in which theaters,’ Wood explains. ‘What we wanted to do was present an overview of the war.’ He and series producer Stewart Binns opted to use 100% archival footage, and to have narrators read original letters and diary excerpts from the period.

By late ’98, Wood says, ‘a group of people were brought together to search out letters and diaries, and then simultaneously we hired specialist film researchers, whom I’d worked with over many years in various places, freelancers who specialized in this kind of area.’ He hired archivists based in Washington, Rome, Paris and Moscow, as well as a team of researchers in London.

Together they searched around 40 sources, though Wood says the primary ones were the U.S. National Archives, the Imperial War Museum in London, the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., the Bundesarchiv in Berlin and the Russian State Archive for Film and Photo Documents

in Krasnagrosk. Wood went after worldwide distribution on both terrestrial and cable television, as well as home video rights. The average fee came in around US$3,000 per minute.

One of Wood’s treasured finds involves a piece of film he’d come across years ago. ‘Very simply, it was a film that was shot to accompany a dissertation by Eva Justin [a German nurse who helped conduct experiments on Gypsy children during the war],’ explains Wood. ‘Eva Justin’s film sat in the Bundesarchiv for I don’t know how long, and it’s one of the pieces of color film I’ve seen several times.’ He says he had offered the film to producers over the years, but no one had found a way of incorporating into their projects.

The recent discovery of documents linked to the footage made it even more valuable. Wood’s German researcher, Dunja Noauck, found not only Justin’s dissertation, but the receipt for the children on whom Justin had experimented, after they were transported to Auschwitz. ‘Suddenly this piece of film that has interested me became a much more powerful thing because of the documentation that existed.’

With the help of his researchers, Wood had accumulated enough material for preliminary editing to start in April 1999, and they delivered the series by September.

The Internet proved useful in the hunt for the letters and diaries, but for the footage, human interaction was a must. ‘None of the German material is on the Web, none of the Russian material. The Australian material is up now, but the Imperial War Museum’s isn’t. You still have to go back to the old method of checking through the card indexes and the acquisition documentation, and talking to the people who work there.’

About The Author
Andrew Jeffrey joined Realscreen in 2021 as its news editor. Here, he helps to oversee assignment, reporting and editing for Realscreen's daily newsletter. Prior to his work covering documentary and non-fiction film and TV, he worked as a reporter and associate producer for CBC Edmonton, and as a reporter for The Star Calgary, where he covered daily news on beats such as local and provincial politics, health care and harm reduction, sports and education. His work has appeared in other Canadian news outlets such as TVO, the Edmonton Journal and Avenue Magazine.