“The Liberator” is a World War II mini-series by Jeb Stuart (“Die Hard,” “The Fugitive”) that is probably different from anything that you have watched before.
It was originally planned to be an eight-part series for the History Channel. But producing a World War II action epic proved to be too cost-prohibitive for the channel. So, the project was moved to Netflix, where the story was trimmed to just four parts and filmed in a new kind of animation.
“The Liberator” is presented in Trioscope™ Enhanced Hybrid Animation, a new technology that layers CGI with live-action performance. This is designed to show the actor’s performances in a more effective way. It is different and takes some getting used to. But more on that below.
“The Liberator” centers around the men of the 157th Infantry Regiment. Particularly, it focuses on Felix Sparks and his men, an eclectic mix of Mexican-Americans, Native Americans, and cowboys. In the pre-WWII west Sparks’s men wouldn’t have had much to do with one another but during the war, they learn to not only work together but come to rely on each other. At first, it sounded cliché to me, as it may sound to you; but one must remember that this isn’t fiction but a true story.
Sparks and his men fought through the Italian Campaign, the invasion of Southern France (the Champagne Campaign), the brutal winter fighting in the Vosges Mountains, and into Germany at the Battle of Aschaffenburg. They also witnessed the horrible atrocities that took place in Dachau.
The regiment went through 500 days of meat-grinder combat losing men every step of the way. Sparks, who begins the story as a lieutenant and by war’s end is a lieutenant colonel, tries to keep a stone-faced facade of detachment from the men. He is unsuccessful in that, but his men develop a closeness and trust in their commander that lasts through the war’s end. Sparks is the lynchpin that holds the unit together.
Bradley James plays Sparks extremely well. Martin Sensmeier is also very good as Sergeant Samuel Coldfoot — although I would have liked a deeper dive into his character as we only get a glimpse of it early in the first episode.
One of the things the series did, which I liked, was that it delves into the German side. This is something that isn’t done often enough in the medium — prominent exceptions being “The Longest Day” or the Clint Eastwood duology “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
“The Liberators” makes a distinction between the Wehrmacht (the “good” Germans) and the SS (the bad ones). This is partly done by showing a highly decorated German lieutenant, who is home recovering from war wounds, being hung by an SS major for being a coward and not reporting for duty with his troops to defend Aschaffenburg.
The horrific ending of the story is when the men of the 157th liberated the concentration camp at Dachau. The men were so shocked by what they witnessed that they were determined to make the SS guards pay. One young soldier, who was manning a machine gun and guarding the captured SS, stated they were trying to escape and began to mow them down. Sparks ran in the coal yard where they were being held and kicked the weapon away from the private.
After the war, during an investigation, Sparks recounted what he recollected from the incident:
“It was the foregoing incident which has given rise to wild claims in various publications that most or all of the German prisoners captured at Dachau were executed. Nothing could be further from the truth. The total number of German guards killed at Dachau during that day most certainly did not exceed fifty, with thirty probably being a more accurate figure. The regimental records for that date indicate that over a thousand German prisoners were brought to the regimental collecting point. Since my task force was leading the regimental attack, almost all the prisoners were taken by the task force, including several hundred from Dachau.”
There were several very compelling scenes in the film, but many others were only okay.
Although the CGI normally adds to the action and stark realism, in “The Liberator” it didn’t. The Trioscope™ Enhanced Hybrid Animation took some getting used to and most of the first episode was a bit distracting. Additionally, at times, the animation hinders James’s performance and makes it appear a bit wooden. Further, another disadvantage of the new animation was (to me at least) the difficulty in telling the characters apart in many of the shots. But eventually, you get used to it.
A positive aspect of the animation is that it adds an antiqued-photo and dreamlike aesthetic — almost like a comic-book come to life. I would imagine that this type of animation will be improved upon over time and used again since it is very cost-effective.
Released during Veterans Day week, The Liberator was worth checking out. But despite the true nature of its story, it’s only above average.