To call Erik Nelson's Apocalypse '45 a jarring film is, quite honestly, an understatement.
Apocalypse '45 honors the 75th anniversary of the end of World War II utilizing unforgettable, often never before seen footage along with the voices of 24 men who recount the battle in the Pacific that served as that final, epic battle.
The film kicks off in high fashion, a post-Pearl Harbor attacked Pacific Fleet decimated and captured in vibrant, disturbing detail by Hollywood legend John Ford. Ford's footage, indicative of his immense talent, is a powerful reminder that even America's creatives were drawn into the war effort when the U.S. government recruited them to tell the war's story.
There's other footage here. Over 700 reels of archival footage, often in color, from the National Archives serve as the foundation for Nelson's film. These reels are unflinching and Nelson's lens doesn't really ever flinch here. War is hell and Nelson makes sure we come as close as we can to seeing that hell.
The footage, digitally restored in 4k, tells the story in often brutal detail. A frequent collaborator with Werner Herzog, Nelson doesn't spare us the graphic details or images but instead immerses us in them. From capturing kamikaze pilots on their suicide missions to the early stages unfolding at Iwo Jima to the stark aftermath at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Apocalypse '45 spares us the usual Hollywood stylings and instead reminds us of the terrible price paid by soldiers who fought including those who died and those who returned home forever changed.
If it sounds, however, like Apocalypse '45 is simply another rah-rah American "greatest generation" film, think again. As Nelson brings these images to life, it's the voices he includes here that are most unforgettable. They're acutely aware that this thing we call war, which is detached for a good majority of us, actually represents the best and worst of humanity. Often times, Apocalypse '45 makes it clear that winning this war wasn't so much about strategy as it was relentless annihilation of the enemy, the perceived enemy, or anything that stood between us and the enemy including women, children, families, and/or all of the aforementioned.
There's beauty to be found here, but in most ways it's an illusion. The camera can make things seem beautiful. It's a gift that Hollywood has, I suppose. Yet, Nelson doesn't ever let us forget the truths. At Iwo Jima alone, nearly 7,000 U.S. Marines and 22,000 Japanese perished on an island most had never heard of before and would be used solely for the purpose of further annhilation and firebombing of Japan. Hollywood's motion pictures seldom capture the truth behind the imagery, but Nelson's lens practically demands it. Nelson insists on reminding us of the civilian costs and as we're watching these images scroll by before our very eyes we're shook. Seriously shook.
Apocalypse '45 is, indeed, an unforgettable documentary that practically insists we don't forget it and we don't forget these men and women and those who fought the battles for reasons that still aren't always completely clear. It's worth noting, or perhaps emphasizing, that these images are, at times, quite graphic in nature including graphic war scenes and graphic scenes of post-battle injuries including those involving children. If you have PTSD or are vulnerable to flashbacks, be advised that Apocalypse '45 is likely best seen in the company of trusted confidantes and an understanding support system.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic