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The Ghost Army

TedFlicks Rating: ★★★★★

$14.00 ticket on a scale of $0 to $14.00.


Winston Churchill wrote in his monumental history of The Second World War that truth is so precious a commodity in combat that it must be protected by a bodyguard of lies.

The exploits of “The Ghost Army” were classified for nearly 50 years after that war’s end, so precious were its truths held to be during the Cold War.  Sixty-eight minute eponymous docu, written, directed, and produced by Rick Beyer in his feature film debut, chronicles the efforts of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, US Army, to deceive German forces from D-Day until the final surrender of Germany to Allied Forces in May 1945.  Beyer’s previous historical documentary credits are in TV.

The inflatable tanks parked in the spring of 1944 on the southeast coast of England, opposite the Pas de Calais, are well known.  The stunt fooled German intelligence for weeks into thinking that the Allied landings at Normandy were a feint for the real attack, which would come on the Pas de Calais.  Hitler accordingly withheld much armor from German forces in Normandy until it was too late to prevent an Allied breakout.

Relatively un-noticed and unknown is the sophistication and finesse with which a specially chosen, 1,100 man unit staged road shows that fooled the Germans as to the size, location, and plans of attack of Allied armies.  It was the ultimate in performance art and makes what passes nowadays under that moniker look like pigeon doo.

Pic, narrated by Peter Coyote, takes a conventional approach to its story — interviews with survivors of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops interspersed with archival footage (both color and black and white), stills, and experts — retired General Wesley Clark and US Army historian Roy Eichhorn most notable among them.  Tale is told mostly in linear fashion.

Coyote’s voice is so familiar to auds from countless PBS and cable-TV non-fiction programs that his workmanlike voice-over is a natural fit.  One could wish that Laurence Olivier (“The World at War”) were still alive to narrate, but one can’t fight Mother Nature.

What sets “The Ghost Army” apart from and above so much of its genre is the care, attention to detail, and precise accounting of history which Beyer lavished on it.  Pic is crammed with information.

Here’s the backstory.  Actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who was a US Navy Officer seconded to the Royal Navy during the Second World War, had an inside look at British psychological warfare.  He reported what he learned to his American superiors, who were more than receptive to deception.  They already had it at top of mind.

At the highest levels of the US war machine the decision was made to create a psychological warfare unit that could deceive the Germans in to believing that great forces were where they were not and that weak forces were in the real staging grounds of attack.

The 1,100 men of the The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops could imitate two divisions comprising 30,000 men.  Their job was described as a suicide mission.  They were to draw enemy fire away from the main attacking elements of Allied forces against Germany onto themselves.

The 1,100 men were divided into three units:  The visual deception unit, which used rubber inflatable tanks and other implementa to fool German aerial reconnaissance, the sonic unit which used state of the art technique to record Allied engineering sounds, such as bridge building, tank and truck movements, and the battlefield orders, such as “Put out that damned cigarette.”  They used enormous sound trucks fitted with batteries of huge loudspeakers to project Allied military sounds toward German lines.  To do so they recorded the sounds stateside on electrical transcriptions (leave it to Beyer to be one of the one half of one percent of the world population who knows what an electrical transcription is) and then mixed the sounds on platinum wire recordings — Platinum wire was the forerunner of audio tape, which the Germans had already developed.  The mixes were then played for the entertainment of the Nazis.  Beyer illuminates this through archival footage and interviews with survivors of The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops.

The most technically interesting unit was perhaps the communications operation.  These fellows were radio experts.  They learned the telegraph signatures of the radio men whom they impersonated and at an arranged time, the real radio operators would go silent, and The 23rd Headquarters Special Troops telegraphers would take over their frequencies, imitating their sending styles and transmitting phony information for German consumption.

Having treated the strategy, it is time to address the men who pulled off the amazing fakery against the Nazis.

As Dick Syracuse said, “I used to refer to us as the Cecil B. DeMille Warriors.”

They were a handpicked yet motley crew.  One had to submit a written application to enter the special force.  They came from all walks of life, but special attention was paid to the art colleges of New York and Philadelphia.  The Army needed guys who could set a stage convincingly.  And these guys could set a stage.  They even used bulldozers to create phony tank tracks and laid down phony artillery shells to fool the Germans.  It worked.

The tale of the Ghost Army also involved a number of flamboyant civilians.

Captain Ralph Ingersoll was a gossip columnist and PR man who claimed credit for the idea behind the Ghost Army.  After the war The New York Times would call him “a prodigiously energetic egotist.”

Some went on to have extraordinarily successful careers in art, politics, and design.  One of them sketched his way through France drawing haute couture designs for post-war rich ladies.  He was a Lieutenant from Indiana named Bill Blass.

Men with Blass’ couture talents came in handy.  Ghost Army uniforms were often costumes.  Rank and unit patches were frequently faked by the best sewers for men to attach to their uniforms.

Other fellows sketched battle scenes.  Arthur Shilstone captured on paper what may have been one of the funniest moments of the Ghost Army.  Shortly after D-Day he was on guard duty in Normandy while four comrades were picking up what looked like a 40-ton Sherman tank but was really one of the realistic 90-pound inflatable dummies developed by the Ghost Army.  Two Frenchmen on bicycles happened by and stopped, looking on quizzically.  After sizing up the situation Shilstone finally said to them, “The Americans are very strong.”

If anything, it is difficult to do justice to the amount of information that Beyer has crammed into “The Ghost Army.”  A critic is forced into a form of triage.  One story, however, begs to be told:  After the liberation of Paris, the Allies rushed westward across France.  The dash was so fast that a 70 mile stretch of General George Patton’s line near the Moselle River around Metz was almost undefended.  The Ghost Army was sent post haste to the front.  They held the stretch of front for seven days, the Sonic Unit blaring sounds of tank formations across the river to the Germans until the US 83rd Division arrived to defend the line for real.  The Germans never knew that all that lay between them and Paris, said one “Ghost” warrior, ”was a bunch of rubber tanks.”

“The Ghost Army” is written, directed, and produced with skill by Rick Beyer.  Dillard Morrison’s lensing is up to the same standard.  Such a pic, however, depends on its editing, and Jon Neuburger excels in the cutting room.  Pic is suitable for people of all ages, but it helps to know some World War Two history before going into the theater.  Sound recording, which is often a pic’s weak spot, is beyond reproach — just like the war work of the Sonic Unit.  Details on its limited release are available at www.ghostarmy.org.  An edited version, about ten minutes shorter than the theatrical cut, will be seen on PBS on May 21 at 8 pm ET/PT.


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