George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, opening February 7th, follows a group of men tasked with saving priceless works of art from the Nazis during World War II; an unusual but intriguing facet of the war that’s often overlooked. Today’s “Hollywood! Adapt This!” topic falls in the same vein, and if Clooney’s pic proves successful, there’s every chance it could be adapted in the near future. Even with the relative security of military vehicles and weapons, and trust in your fellow soldiers, to say that war is terrifying would be an understatement. Now imagine you’re asked to stage skirmishes armed with nothing other than inflatable tanks, dummy personnel and no back-up for miles. Hit the jump for more. Hollywood! Adapt this: The Ghost Army.
The officially named 23rd Headquarters Special Troops was a tactical deception unit composed of 1,100 artists, architects, actors, set designers and engineers. Their job was to impersonate U.S. Army units with the intent to deceive the enemy. Following other units along the path of the war, the 23rd staged more than 20 battlefields, often side by side with legitimate military units on the front line. They landed at Normandy two weeks after D-Day and staged a fake landing in order to draw German artillery fire and make the Allied force appear larger than it actually was. Other staged skirmishes included crossings of the Ruhr river, positions along the Maginot Line, and a final major push across the Rhine river to draw enemy forces away from actual crossings.
In order to portray an Army unit convincing enough to fool enemy combatants, the 23rd employed a number of deceptive techniques. First and foremost were visual deceptions, which included inflatable tanks, cannons, jeeps, trucks, and airplanes, all used to stage airfields, bivouacs, formations and more. (It’s also pretty intimidating when an enemy spy witnesses a lone American soldier lifting a full tank into the air and spinning it around.) Auditory deception, in the form of armored and infantry unit sound effects mixed together and played back on powerful speakers over a distance of 15 miles, was also used. Finally, the unit also employed “spoof radio” to mimic a departing radio operator’s behavior as to not tip off the enemy that the operator had moved on. For a look at the Ghost Army, take a look at the trailer for a recently released documentary below:
How Could / Why Should It Be Adapted?
The Ghost Army was so successful (sometimes to the detriment of their own uninformed allies) that the U.S. planned on using the deceptive techniques in future wars and thus kept the truth behind the 23rd classified until 1996. After their exploits became public knowledge, filmmaker Rick Beyer spent years tracking down the troop’s surviving members for interviews for his recent documentary. Some of the 23rd’s artists – including Bill Blass, Ellsworth Kelly, wildlife artist Arthur Singer and Art Kane - went on to have successful art careers after the war, but couldn’t divulge the true story of their war experiences until recently. In addition to the carrying out their bizarre and often life-threatening orders, the artists also captured scenes of war in various mediums, including watercolors and charcoal sketches.
The Ghost Army not only offers a unique perspective on the war’s front lines, but also an intimate look at the daily life of the soldiers struggling to make it out alive. The documentary highlights these anecdotes, contrasting the highly artistic and intellectual members of the 23rd to the more raucous and rowdy members of the general infantry; a great example is a retelling of an incident in a local brothel, complete with sketches documenting the events. Their experiences provide an unexplored angle from which to view World War II, a tragic event that appears to have no shortage of stories to tell.
The Final Word
The Ghost War is every bit as interesting as The Monuments Men, and is equally deserving of a Hollywood adaptation. The Second World War seems to work best as a dramatic interpretation when the horrors of war aren’t taken head on, but rather from a unique angle, like a group of men tasked with retrieving one soldier out of thousands in order to send him home to his family, another group charged with rescuing priceless works of art, or still another charged with bluffing their way through the war while drawing live fire and risking their lives so that others might live. The Ghost Army has far too many great characteristics to be overlooked for long, so I expect this story to get picked up for adaptation sooner rather than later.
Be sure to tune in next weekend for our next installment of “Hollywood! Adapt This!”