May 30th, 1994 Discovery Broadcast Normandy: The Great Crusade, narrated by Charles Durning. When Tim Cowling asked me if I wanted to produce a special for D-Day, the Allied invasion of Europe toward the end of World War II, I told him I was pretty much a pacifist and he probably wanted to get someone else. He said no, that’s just who they were looking for.
Normandy became an obsession with me. The story we told was based entirely on letters, journals and post combat interviews, not from recollections gathered long after the war. As a consequence, I read hundred of letters from soldiers, wives at home, combat journal entries and post combat debriefings, still carrying the raw horror of combat and its human consequences. I reviewed hundreds of hours of film footage, some from Russia and some from right-wing sources in the United States that had never been seen before. I stared at thousands of personal photographs.
We made the unprecedented decision to include everyone involved and to treat them equally, Germans soldiers and French civilians living in the battle zones as well as the invading armies and their families. It took a good deal of convincing to get the head of the Hitler Jugend Division to turn over his soldiers’ personal letters and diaries. They turned out to be much like the diaries and letters of our boys. German occupation of Normandy was relatively benign. The French who lived through the occupation and liberation said German soldiers were much more respectful and polite than the invading American and English troops.
I had the rare experience of being taken over by the material I was absorbing. It was as if the soldiers and civilians whose lives I entered were speaking directly though me, dictating what we had to show. I insisted on filming establishing shots on the Normandy beachheads on exactly the same day and at the same hour as the invasion. We stood and photographed from every ridge, every stream crossing, every orchard where a significant battle took place. The Normans are conservative people and remarkably little had changed since 1944.
There were stories I didn’t tell. Of U.S. soldiers shooting 16-year-old French girls out of apple trees, where they had strapped themselves in as snipers to kill the invaders and protect their German boyfriends. Or the summary execution of prisoners by American troops, particularly in the early days of battle.
The head of the Hitler Jugend Association wrote me after he saw the show. He said I had treated his division very fairly except in two regards: 1) I had included scenes of the Holocaust, which had nothing to do with his division and 2) I had featured a scene of German soldiers summarily executing Canadian prisoners while I knew full well that German soldiers executed fewer prisoners than Allied forces. He was right about prisoners. The Germans could send theirs back to Germany while the Allies only had a beachhead.
Normandy: The Great Crusade premiered at the Air Space museum, introduced by the Secretary of Defense with a full honor guard from every branch of the military, attended by more than two hundred members of Congress. Normandy did not glamorize war. There were no heroes. It was unsparing in showing war’s terrible consequences on the men who fought, the towns, villages and fields they fought over and the families they left behind. The military loved the show.
Normandy was the end of an era. In Discovery’s early days, the staff was so small that our programs went on the air with no supervision. Tim Cowling would screen our fine-cuts, but he never asked for any changes. By the time we finished Normandy, Discovery’s middle management had grown. Working in programming was the plum, so mid-level executives from promotion, publicity and finance were getting appointed as Executive Producers of programs. They didn’t have a clue about story telling, but they had power over creative people and they had to do something to justify their salaries.
We had bitter, exhausting arguments with the young woman attached to Normandy. The worst was over our final scenes. We briefly recapped the moment of victory in London, Paris, Berlin and New York. It was, of course, a bittersweet moment of victory and a reminder of war’s terrible cost. The last words are by a young American girl. “I miss my daddy. I want my daddy back.” Our young EP insisted I take out those lines. Good television, she explained, must end with one emotion on the screen and that emotion should be triumph unsullied by sadness.
I mention this because the stupendous stupidity of this view turned out to be more and more typical of many of the executives we worked for in the future. Our creativity had flourished in neglect and we won all our awards for shows that middle managers never touched.
Normandy: The Great Crusade was broadcast internationally, distributed on home video and in a CD-ROM version and was the winner of the 1994 George Foster Peabody Award. It is as relevant today as it was in 1994. A friend posted a copy on Youtube. You can see it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nTyPUaeQYVk.
Tim Cowling was gone shortly after Normandy. Discovery had given our series Invention to an Australian production company. I kept pitching ideas, but one exasperated Discovery Senior Executive finally told me, “Chris, you just don’t get it. Our audience are trailer trash.”