“On the front lines of World War II, illusion was their ultimate weapon.”
Narrator Peter Coyote (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial) tells the story of the 23rd Headquarters Special Troops, the first field unit created purely for deception warfare. There are three separate components we follow during The Ghost Army: visual, sonic, and radio. Three subsets comprise the 23rd Headquarters: The 603rd Camouflage Engineers visual, the sonic company and the Signal Company Special radio operators.
Recently declassified intelligence reports make the presentation of this tale possible and it is a fascinating one. Using blowup tanks, recordings, and radio broadcasts the 23rd Headquarters is able to fill in the gaps in the Allied defenses and convince the Germans the foe they are facing consists of a much more massive force than previously reported. Grounding the story and helping engage the viewer are some of the veterans of the unit, a rare treat. Their firsthand accounts provide the emotional context to the film clips, photos, and sketches we see.
At just over an hour long, The Ghost Army is well-paced and chockful of information. History buffs, World War II junkies, and those with an interest in early special effects will be especially drawn in. This is a chapter of American history whose telling has long been denied. Highly recommended.
Presented in standard def 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen, issues often arise when including decades old film stock, so I’m not surprised to see scratches, dirt, and debris littering some of these clips. I am impressed they took the time to transfer the watercolors and other sketches the GIs did into such beautiful detail. The audio is a perfectly serviceable Dolby Digital 2.0. While I usually wish for an upgrade here, I recognize scrubbing the track of the occasional hiss or monotone would erase some of the authenticity of the sound space, so I am all right with the 2.0 as is.
I am happy to report actual special features, a rarity for a PBS show. There are a half-dozen featurettes and deleted scenes numbering a bit higher than that. The deleted scenes average about a minute runtime each while the featurettes are a tad longer. My favorite is the showcase of the Ghost Army soldiers’ artwork.
World War II buffs will undoubtedly be drawn to The Ghost Army, though it has a pull for history fans of not only the armed forces, but special effects as well. If you’re at all interested, it’s worth a look.