The Office Cat and Jerry Kuehl
01 November 2018
The Office Cat turns its attention to The Vietnam War
It’s well known that: ‘Whoever Pays the Piper Calls the Tune’, so I was pleased to learn the 18-part series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, The Vietnam War, transmitted beginning on 17 September 2017 on the American PBS network, was bankrolled by at least 20 people and institutions including The Bank of America, David Koch, and the Blavatnik Foundation. Let me refresh the memory of younger viewers. The Bank of America saw its property in Santa Barbara burnt down by students in 1971, and in 2014 paid the US Justice Department nearly 17 billion dollars to settle its obligations resulting from its involvement in toxic mortgages, and about whom Ken Burns has said he is ‘grateful to the entire Bank of America family’ which has ‘long supported our country’s veterans.’ David Koch, with his brother Charles, heavily supported the Tea Party. Leonard Blavatnik, the richest man in England (at least in 2015), gave a million dollars towards the inauguration of Donald Trump, as did the Bank of America. The Rockefeller Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Mellon Foundation all contributed to bankrolling the series, so I was reassured that all would be well, and that the pipers would not permit themselves to play many discordant tunes. They certainly couldn’t find room for Country Joe and the Fish who sang:
Well, come on all of you, big strong men,
Uncle Sam needs your help again.
He’s got himself in a terrible jam
Way down yonder in Vietnam
So put down your books and pick up a gun,
We’re gonna have a whole lotta fun.
I suspect that’s because the budget for music clearances was exhausted by the cost of securing rights to use the songs of the 2016 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Still, I was delighted to be asked to help on this series by directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, (along with deputy director Christopher Marrion), producers Ken Burns, Lynn Novick, and Sandra Bolstein, and writer Geoffrey C Ward. They made sure that viewers couldn’t help but notice, as Mr. Ward so elegantly put it: ‘The war was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstanding, American over confidence, and Cold War misunderstandings.’
Though I took no personal credit for the effort, Burns and Novick were not alone in making this 18-hour series for Florentine Films. As directors, they reported to themselves as producers, but also to producer Sandra Bolstein, and to co-producers Mike Welt, Saliman El-Amin, Ho Dang Hoa, to associate producers David P. Schmidt, Lucas B. Frank, Mariah A. Doran, consulting producer Benjamin Wilkinson, and Jim Corbley, the producer for WETA which transmitted the series in the USA. to Mark C. Edwards the commissioning editor from Arte France, and to the coordinating producer for Ken Burns, Elle Carrière. They had the help of 24 programme advisers, including Todd Gitlin, who says he grew up believing what he was told by newsreaders on television and Neil Sheehan, who appeared in the series as a ‘Journalist’, but not Noam Chomsky, or John Pilger, a journalist who also reported from Vietnam, who did not believe that the war was begun in good faith by decent people: ‘There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous,’ he said.
The series also benefited from a Senior Creative Consultant, Geoffrey Wave, and even from a Dialogue Editor, Marlena Grazaslewicz. The credits for sources of film and photographs included 21 film sources and 40 sources for still photographs, but neither a film nor a photographic researcher was named, though Polly Petit, a human film researcher whose work I respect was one of 23 people credited with ‘additional research’. This gave me an opportunity to show off my own creative skills. I was encouraged by the announcement which solemnly intoned as the end credits rolled: ‘Some archive materials contain scenes that may have been staged by their original creators’. I puzzled mightily as to what this might mean, but I understood it as giving me carte blanche to be inventive. The ‘original creators’ can only have been individual camera operator or still photographers whether on the ground, in the air, on board naval vessels, or in the case of air to ground film of bombing raids, the airman or airmen who set up the camera to make the recording in the first place. Did this mean that some cameramen didn’t actually record in real time, but deliberately reshot ‘staged’ material after the event—whatever that event was?
I found myself asking: why would they have done that? When would they have done that? How could they have had the opportunity, especially in combat situations to do that? But if what the credit indicates is that some camera operators not always operated on their own but pointed their cameras as they were told to by a director, that would mean another person was involved in the filming and not just the original creator. Needless to say, that is hardly something any military operation could afford, especially in the midst of a fire fight.
Ronnie Noble, a Second World War cameraman who was with the British Eighth Army in the Western Desert of North Africa, wrote as part of one of his shot lists:
I find that when in the very front line it is impossible to build up or follow through a complete story, the situation is far too fluid and when under constant shell fire and continual bombing it is impossible to ask units to stunt shots to build up a story. The only way to do this is to stay in the back areas, and then, none of the action shots are genuine.
For ‘stunt’ today’s reader might like to substitute ‘fake’.
I was troubled by a further, nagging, point: what is the force of ‘may’ in the context of the announcement? If it means sometimes ‘original creators’ may have ‘stunted’ elements and sometimes they didn’t that would mean the viewer, when he or she tried to establish the authenticity of any archive material is faced with a daunting, if not impossible task. Without access to the original shot lists—similar to those written by Ronnie Noble—it’s simply not possible to determine which elements are genuine and which are ‘stunted; or to put the matter bluntly, faked. In today’s Post Truth era, we might call them Alternative Facts. I took that to be an encouragement for my creativity. I also thought it might help me to learn more about still photography because of the number of photographs used in the series.
Provided it had been staged by its ‘original creators’ there could be no objection to the inclusion of a still of Ho Chi Minh, Richard Nixon, Jane Fonda, Gordon Lonsdale and John F Kennedy seated around a conference table in Hanoi, or even Saigon or Dien Bien Phu. A whole new vista opened up but somehow I felt the series Communications Manager, Jessica Shuttleworth, might have been asleep at the wheel when the wording of that end credit was agreed. But it’s certainly good to know that Mr Burns and Ms Novick along with their fellow directors, consultants, advisers, and original creators, have made a substantial contribution to our era of Alternative Facts and Post Truth.
‘War is Hell’, as the 79 interviewees (but not including John Kelly, Jane Fonda, Henry Kissinger or John McCain since I believed they had nothing useful to contribute to a comprehensive understanding of the Vietnamese conflict) showed. I’m a sensitive Cat, so I made sure that Max Cleland, the former Senator from Georgia, was described as ‘Army’ rather than ‘Triple Amputee/Army’ and ensured the camera person filmed him only in close-up. I felt there was enough bloodshed in the series and didn’t want to give the impression that he might have been damaged in the service of his country. When it came to the other side, I made sure that Bao Dinh was described as ‘N. Vietnamese Army’ rather than as the author of ‘The Sorrow of War’, since few Americans will have heard of his searing account of the conflict in Vietnam. In talking about Neil Sheehan, I thought it would be inappropriate to point out he was an adviser to the series, so I simply made sure he was described as a ‘Journalist’. As for John Negroponte, in the wrap up in program 10, I decided not to allude to his activities as Ambassador to the UN, where he propagated the lie that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, since I felt that after watching the series, viewers would have seen enough about senior officials lying to the American people.
Since I’m really a film researcher, and not a fact checker, it’s not for me to call into question anything Mr Ward has to say, though one of my human colleagues, Edwin Moise of Clemson University—who was conspicuously not one of the 24 programme advisors—has pointed out the story of the Tonkin Gulf episode in program 3 was based on his own mistaken speculation in 1996, even though he has now corrected the error. This is what he says:
When I looked at Episode 3 of the Ken Burns and Lynn Novick documentary series “The Vietnam War” on PBS, I was slightly embarrassed to realize that one of the errors came from me. In my book on the Tonkin Gulf incidents published in 1996, I had looked at American reports on a North Vietnamese radio message intercepted on August 4, 1964. The US government interpreted the message as describing preparations for an attack on US Navy destroyers. I said that interpretation was unlikely; it was “far more likely” that the message was about preparations for defense against an attack by 34A raiding vessels operating out of Danang. It is now clear that both interpretations were wrong. The message had not been about preparations for a combat operation of any sort, offensive or defensive. It was about plans to move two damaged North Vietnamese vessels to a port where they could be repaired.
The documentary treated my incorrect guess for the likely explanation as simple truth.’
That means the film which I chose to illustrate the scenes on the 4 August 1964, which include a close up of an American radio operator, though they may be authentic shots of a U.S. Sailor, can’t really claim to show what really transpired off the Vietnam coast. It’s a fine example of an Alternative Fact, and I was able to find many more instances. In program 1, when Dwight Eisenhower became President in 1952, the vehicles shown on the Interstate Highways were built in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Alternative Fact. The A-4 Skyhawk jets were in fact F-4 Phantoms. Alternative Fact. It was Charles de Gaulle, Rupert Murdoch, and Donald Trump who finally brought lasting peace to Vietnam. Alternative Fact.
Das Reichsorchester, a film about the Berlin Philharmonic during and immediately after the time when Hitler controlled Germany was first uploaded to YouTube on December 16, 2007, to commemorate the 125th anniversary of the orchestra.
I know I should have talked about it then but like many of those in the orchestra, and those who spoke on their behalf, my memory is a bit selective about what really happened all those years ago. The programme was made by Enrique Sanchez Lansch, directed by Beata Romanowski, and produced for Gala Productions.
Because the Berlin Philharmonic was the jewel in the crown of Nazi musical culture, I didn’t have much difficulty in finding film of its performances not only in concert stages, but on the shop floor of AEG in 1941 which was then—as it still is—a giant manufacturing concern. I found lovely shots of Wilhem Furtwängler conducting the prelude to Die Meistersinger while the faces of the clean-shaven workers seemed to express rapt attention, though since cameras can show nothing of the life of the mind, they might have been dreaming about their girlfriends.
As the once all-powerful Nazi state came to its own Götterdämmerung – a Twilight of the Gods – with the triumphant Red Army besieging Berlin, I wished I could have found film of the Reichsorchester’s last concert on April 12, 1945–which concluded with the final scenes of the Götterdämmerung. But no cameras were there to record it – the improvised concert hall was dark, with only the lights on the music stands providing illumination.
I did the next best thing by finding colour shots – taken some time after the war – of the ruins of Berlin which I thought perfectly conveyed the ruins of Valhalla, where Richard Wagner’s Gods lived. The shots were made from a low flying aircraft, which I imagine represented Valkyries, just as the women who cleared Berlin’s rubble – the Trümmerfrauen – who were also filmed in colour, might have been Niebelungen, the dwarves who toiled in the bowels of the earth to amass treasure. I’m aware that it’s accepted that Valkyries were not aircraft, and that Trümmerfrauen were women, and full grown women at that, but if my account is seen as a way of providing alternative facts, all becomes clear.
Channel 4: When will they ever learn?
Pearl Harbor: The New Evidence was transmitted by Channel 4 on 4 November 2017. Though the ‘new evidence’ seems to have been confined to a disputed allegation that Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt conspired to bring the United States into the Second World War, I was able to help the production team with other aspects of this film. The programme was directed by Jo Macgregor and produced by Rebecca Hayman and Alan Handel for Handel productions; Arrow International Media; The Movie Network, a division of Bell Media Inc; A+E Television Network; Channel 4; and BBC Worldwide.
A number of films of the events on 7 December 1941 are already in circulation, but I was delighted to offer a new one: images of an aircraft carrier and shots of an American sailor who had seemingly been swept overboard and was struggling to stay afloat. The fact that no aircraft carriers were at Pearl Harbor didn’t bother me at all because of the poignancy of the shot of the sailor in danger of going under. I thought this shot was so striking that I used it twice. When it came to speaking of the torpedoes used by the Japanese, I set the scene with film of the British assault on 17 November 1940, at Taranto in Italy, when aircraft of the Royal Navy seriously disrupted the Italian fleet in the Mediterranean. The attack was carried out at night by a group of carrier-based Swordfish, but no one can see very much at night, so I shifted the time to daylight hours.
I illustrated the principal of how those torpedoes worked with shots of a Grumman Avenger, an American torpedo bomber whose first action was at the battle of Midway in 1942.
In later life, we were told Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, Commander of the Pacific Fleet, in charge of naval forces at the time of the Japanese attack and who was the scapegoat for American failings, came to believe that ‘Pearl Harbor was a conspiracy to get American into the war, and that it went right up to the President’. I’d certainly want to work on that film.
Holocaust—the Revenge Plot was transmitted by Channel 4 on January 27, 2018. The programme was produced and directed by Nick Green who reported to Executive Producers Phil Gurin, Tim Bock, Dinah Lord, and Matthew Barrett for Global Road Entertainment. Since so much of the production took the form of a drama-doc, I wasn’t able to help the team very much, but I did manage to sneak in one of my favourite episodes when it came to showing Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. As Jews were evacuated from the city, I illustrated the scene with shots of the Dutch transit camp in Westerbork, a mere 1640 kilometres distant.
Nazi Victory: The Post War Plan—Transporting the Reich was one of a series of programmes about what might have happened if the Third Reich had won the Second World War. It was produced and directed by Danny O’Brien who had as his assistant producer Matt Bone, and a ‘production for Germany’ Lars von Lennet. It was written by Matt Bone and Guy Walters. They all reported to executive producers Henry Scott and Bruce Burgess for Like a Shot Entertainment and for Adrian Wiles and Emma Sparks. for UKTV (the series was made for Like a Shot Entertainment Production in association with UKTV). It’s been transmitted several times on UKTV, most recently on 30 March 2018.
The fact that Germany had to actually win the war before it could put into effect its plans for the post war period didn’t perturb me at all. I took that as an invitation to explore the ‘what ifs’ of European History. I discovered that when Hitler became chancellor in 1933 he ‘obtained his first private aircraft’, a Junkers JU-52, so I found splendid scenes of that same machine flying over the roofs of Nuremberg during the Nazi party rally of 1934, filmed for the Triumph of the Will, released in 1935. When the invasion of Poland in September 1939 marked ‘the beginning of World War 2’, I illustrated the event with film of German troops re-occupying the Rhineland in 1936. Later, when the fortunes of war turned against the Thousand Year Reich, I found I could illustrate the training of Hitler Youth volunteers to fly jet fighters with scenes of gliders, filmed when what purported to be a time before the establishment of the Luftwaffe in 1935. Perhaps my most ambitious enterprise was to persuade Mr Bone and Mr Walters to speak of death camps in Poland and to assert that Auschwitz received prisoners from 1941 to 1944. The film I found to illustrate that came from a 1948 Polish production by Wanda Jakubowska, of The Last Stage (Ostatan Etap). She herself was a survivor of Auschwitz, so she probably should know when it was made.
The Office Cat, 1931-2018
Jerry Kuehl was an independent television producer whose principal but not exclusive interest was visual history. His first grown-up job in television was as a historical advisor to the 26-part 1964 BBC production, The Great War, he was then an associate producer of The World at War, the 26-part series made by Thames Television in the 1970s which set new standards for accuracy and authenticity in the use of archival footage. He was the Head of General Studies at the National Film School from 1979 to 1981. In the 1980s, he was a director of Open Media whose productions included After Dark. In the 1990s, he was a writer and consultant to the 24-part CNN production, The Cold War. In 1991, he wrote and co-produced the 4-part La Grande Aventure de la Presse Filmée (English title: The Great Adventure of Newsreels) for France 3. He produced Kuehl’s Reels, a programme series for YouTube which punctures the pretensions of those who misdescribe films sent to the site. He is also responsible for the Office Cat who skewers irresponsible producers and directors in both the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and the IAMHIST Blog. He was the recipient of a lifetime achievement award from FOCAL, the Federation of Commercial Audiovisual Libraries. Jerry sadly passed away in September, and his obituary written by Taylor Downing can be read here.
Disclaimer: The IAMHIST Blog is a platform that offers individual scholars the opportunity to present their work and thoughts. They alone are responsible for the content, which does not represent the view of the IAMHIST council or other IAMHIST members.