October 27, 2009

Professor Donald Miller Helps Bring WWII History to Big and Small Screens

The film Beyond all Boundaries will premiere Nov. 6-8 at the National World War II Museum, and the 10-hour series WWII in HD will air on the History Channel starting Nov. 15

This fall, Donald L. Miller, John Henry MacCracken Professor of History, will welcome the premiere of two projects he’s worked closely on to preserve the rich stories of World War II. The film Beyond all Boundaries will debut at the National World War II Museum Nov. 6-8, and the 10-hour series WWII in HD will begin its run Nov. 15 on the History Channel.

Miller will attend the premiere of Beyond all Boundaries, an IMAX film that is the signature attraction of the National World War II Museum’s Soloman Victory Theater. Miller served as writer and creative consultant on the film, traveling to California to meet with Tom Hanks about the project.

Designed exclusively for the museum by Hanks and director Phil Hettema, Beyond all Boundaries is a multi-sensory cinematic experience. The 250-seat Soloman Victory Theater is part of a $300 million expansion that will quadruple the museum’s size. Hanks, Tom Brokaw, Brad Pitt, and at least a dozen other Hollywood stars who did voice-overs for the film will attend the opening weekend festivities in New Orleans.

“The film and the stage effects are supposed to work in complete symphony,” says Miller. For example, the seats will rumble in concert with explosions on screen, real search lights will accompany those in the film, and “the whole theater turns a horrible bright white when the atomic bomb goes off,” he says.

A strong supporter of the museum, Miller is chair of the Presidential Counselors, a board of international scholars, television executives, and heads of other major historical institutions, which shape the direction of museum policy. He also is the creative consultant for a documentary film called “La Fiere,” about a small but important battle in Normandy on D-Day, which will air nationally. He gave the presentation “Does Bombing Work? The Lessons of Dresden” at the museum as part of its prestigious Mason Lecture Series, which honors the work of outstanding writers and historians on WWII.

Miller was writer and chief historical consultant for WWII in HD, a 10-hour series that will begin airing on the History Channel Nov. 15. He worked with Lou Reda Productions of Easton on the full-color, high-definition series, which is one of the History Channel’s most ambitious projects to date. It is narrated by Emmy Award-winner Gary Sinise.

“It’s a very powerful show,” Miller says. His best-selling book, The Story of World War II (2001), was the inspiration for the series. Both the book and the series are character-driven, telling the story of the war through the lives of individuals whose paths often intersect in serendipitous ways.

Working in partnership with the Library of Congress, a team of historians and researchers scoured the world to find compelling personal stories from veterans who served in every branch of the armed services and fought in every theater of operation. The series uses color footage, much of which has never been seen before, drawn from more than 3,000 hours of World War II film unearthed from archives and private collections across the globe. The History Channel preserved and restored this footage and converted it to high definition format for unprecedented clarity. The shows will incorporate original Library of Congress audio recordings from World War II into the series.

“There is a range of fascinating characters,” Miller says. The series weaves together 12 lives, including a Japanese-American medic who fought in the war while his parents were interned in a relocation camp; an Austrian Jew who escaped his country and fought for the U.S. in the Pacific; an African American fighter pilot who flew with the Tuskegee Airmen; and an Army nurse who served in every major European campaign and treated liberated survivors of Hitler’s death camps. The surviving characters appear in the film, recounting their experiences firsthand.

Ten Lafayette students worked as interns on WWII in HD, with several staying on after graduation to continue work on the project. All of them worked in close concert with Miller as head of the history department’s internship program.

Some of Miller’s other upcoming projects include The Pacific, a 10-hour miniseries that will debut on HBO in March, 2010. The executive producers are Hanks, Steven Spielberg, and Gary Goetzman, the creative team behind the Emmy-winning 2001 HBO miniseries Band of Brothers.

“It will be the most expensive production ever to appear on TV,” Miller says.

The dramatic series was shot in Australia and is based on the stories of three U.S. Marines–Robert Leckie, Eugene Sledge, and John Basilone–who fought in the war’s Pacific theater. Miller served as historical consultant and on-air commentator for the historical documentary that will accompany the dramatic series.

He also is a creative consultant for a documentary on the bombing campaign against Nazi Germany being produced by Boston PBS station WGBH for its acclaimed history series “American Experience.” Miller has worked on more than two dozen projects with WGBH during the past 20 years. The documentary is based strongly on Miller’s book Masters of the Air (2006), named  Outstanding Book of the Year by World war II Magazine, and he has worked closely with the producers on crafting the film, which will air early in 2010.

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