PBS doc “The Ghost Army” examines the ‘art of war’

Rick Beyer discusses his doc The Ghost Army (pictured), which airs on PBS tonight (May 21) and recounts the story of a top-secret World War II military unit that deceived the enemy using inflatable tanks, sound effects and trickery.
May 21, 2013

Rick Beyer discusses his doc The Ghost Army (pictured), which airs on PBS tonight (May 21) and recounts the story of a top-secret World War II military unit that deceived the enemy using inflatable tanks, sound effects and trickery.

When the niece of a World War II veteran contacted Rick Beyer with the unusual story of a top-secret military unit, the Lexington, Massachusetts-based director saw an opportunity too good to pass up.

In 1944, the U.S. Army handpicked a group of artists, designers and sound effects experts to impersonate actual army units on the battlefields of France using inflatable tanks, sound effects and other trickery. Known as the ‘Ghost Army,’ the 1,100 soldiers in the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops mounted 20 deception operations in France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany, designed to fool the Nazi enemy.

Some of the men later went on to become distinguished in their respective fields, such as fashion designer Bill Blass, photographer Art Kane and painter Ellsworth Kelley.

Intrigued, Beyer met with the woman at a Starbucks in Lexington.

“She came to the meeting with her arms loaded down with three-ring binders and they were filled with all this artwork that her uncle, whose name is John Jarvie, had done during the war,” he says. “That’s when it dawned on me that, in addition to this bizarre deception story, I had a story about artists that painted and sketched their way across Europe.”

The U.S. government kept the unit’s history and its techniques a secret for half a century. With the files now declassified and available through the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Beyer began researching, amassing artwork and interviewing the surviving veterans. He cut together a teaser but major U.S. cable networks passed.

So, for the first time in his career, Beyer decided to make the film independently. He began throwing fundraising parties, inviting 20 to 50 people to listen to his pitches, and built on word-of-mouth momentum.

“I had never made an independent film before so it was a question of how do I raise money to make a film?” he says. “The best way for me was to do it though individual donations. Eight years later, I have more than 650 people who have donated to the film.”

Tonight (May 21), The Ghost Army will have its U.S. broadcast premiere on PBS at 8 p.m. EST. (PBS International is handling global sales.)

The film mixes first-person testimonies from 19 of the unit’s surviving members with archival footage, and the charcoal and watercolor drawings created by the artists-turned-soldiers during their deployment.

While he had plenty of artwork and still imagery to draw upon, footage of this top-secret unit was unsurprisingly scarce. He found a small amount of footage of the inflatable tanks and the sonic deception units in the NARA but quickly realized he would have to get creative in order to visually piece together the story.

“It became about doing intensive archive research and finding footage that wouldn’t be generic, but specific to telling the story and the places [the unit] was in,” he says.

He used a mix of footage from well-known collections, such as Framepool and the George T. Stevens Collection at the Library of Congress, as well as private collections sourced on YouTube. For example, he traced footage of a German aerial recognizance mission to a videotape editor in Germany that had found it in a thrift store and transferred it to HD video.

If footage of the events described did not exist, he set out to find the second-best thing: a shot of the location in which it took place. To visualize a scene of artists sketching in a bombed-out church in Trévières, France, he sourced archival footage of the church through the NARA.

Fundraising was another big challenge. Beyer raised the financing for the film largely through self-organized fundraising screenings, parties and art shows. Crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter did not exist when he started making the film, so he initiated a classic word-of-mouth campaign by reaching out to college friends and people he knew would be interested in history. Donations ranged in size from US$5 to $10,000.

Ultimately, he believes his pitch had a broad appeal in part because a story about using creativity and imagination to fight a war is unusual.

“People are still very interested in World War II and they’re very conscious that this generation is going away,” he says. “If stories like this are not told now, they may be very difficult to tell. These guys weren’t superheroes – they were people who responded to the call of duty on behalf of the United States of America so I think a lot of people, especially in the U.S., respond to that.”

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