Review: The Liberator on Netflix

By John Ruberry

By John Ruberry

Lost among the fallout after the presidential election was the debut of a compelling four-episode on Netflix, The Liberator. It tells of exploits of the leadership of Felix Sparks (Bradley James), who eventually reached the rank of lieutenant colonel, of the 3rd Battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment in the European theater of World War II. Yes, for the most part, this is a true story.

The series which began streaming on Veterans Day, is animated and it uses the new technique of Trioscope, which combines live action and computer and manually created images. The series is based on Alex Kershaw’s book The Liberator: One World War II Soldier’s 500-Day Odyssey from the Beaches of Sicily to the Gates of Dachau. It’s a huge improvement over rotoscoping, most famously, or notoriously used in the first feature film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord Of The Rings, which was directed by Ralph Bakshi. The animation is grainy with a touch of sepia, the latter hue of course is common in films set in first half of the 20th century.

For the most part, The Liberator avoids hackneyed plotlines and characters of many World War II projects, other then sepia. There is no “Guy From Brooklyn” in it. But here is a soldier from Chicago, who of course is a Cubs fan. Fact: real and fictional characters from in television and movies are never White Sox fans, unless, as in Field Of Dreams, the South Siders are central to the plot. Oh well, to be fair it was the Cubs, not the White Sox, who played in the World Series in 1945.

When Lieutenant Sparks arrives at Fort Sill in Oklahoma shortly before America’s entry into World War II, he’s given command of “Company J,” which consists of soldiers locked up in the stockade. These ragtag men are a mix of Mexican Americans, Native Americans, and cowboys. 

It’s a tough command, “The Indians and the Mexicans don’t like each other very much,” a jail guard tells Sparks. “And they hate us more.”

But Sparks is looking for fighters, not divisiveness. He and molds them–even though the Native Americans and Mexicans can’t enter a bar off base in Oklahoma. In Italy a captured member of the Thunderbirds is confronted with this irony by a German officer. 

During its two years in Europe, in addition to the invasion of Sicily and the liberation of Dachau, but also the invasion of southern France, as well as the Battle of the Vosges near the German border, and finally fighting in Bavaria, the 157th Infantry Regiment encountered over 500 days of combat. Sure there are arguments and spats among the soldiers. People never always get along. But the soldiers form an effective fighting unit. 

The German troops are treated relatively sympathetically in The Liberator, but only up to a point as the Thunderbirds later of course liberate Dachau.

The supporting cast is superb, particulary the performance of Martin Sensmeier as Sergeant Samuel Coldfoot and Jose Miguel Vasquez as Corporal Able Gomez, two composite characters.

Originally The Liberator was intended as a live action miniseries for A&E Studios for the History Channel but filming such a project in so many disparate locales, the plains of Oklahoma, Italy, the Mediterranean coast, the Vosges, and Bavaria, proved financially impossible. Not so much with animation. Which is why The Liberator is probably on the cusp of what we’ll see soon on the big and small screens. And the use of animation in war dramas will spare us motion picture embarrasments such as the desert combat scenes in the 1965 box office flop The Battle Of The Bulge.

The Liberator is currently streaming on Netflix. It is rated TV-MA, although despite depictions of battlefield wounds and the frequent use of profanity–in English and Spanish no less–I’m unsure why. Oh, some people smoke cigarettes in it too. I’m mean c’mon. This is the 1940s!

Tune in and start watching. You’ll be glad for it. 

John Ruberry regularly blogs at Marathon Pundit.

One thought on “Review: The Liberator on Netflix

  1. This movie is based on the book by Alex Kershaw which follows the experiences of Lt. Col. Felix Sparks of the U.S. Army’s Forty-Fifth Division, known as the Thunderbirds. As documented in an article by Todd South of the Federal Times, the book was written from countless interviews Mr. Kershaw had with Felix Sparks shortly before his death in 2007.

    If you are looking for historical non-fiction in this movie, then look elsewhere because the book it was based upon has numerous very relevant factual inaccuracies. That is because many of the stories Sparks told to Kershaw simply did not happen.

    I am a researcher, WW II history buff, attorney and the author of The Final Battle – An Untold Story of WW II’s Forty-Second Rainbow Division. My book has more than 100 official resources in its bibliography, and the history of the Rainbow and Thunderbird Divisions intersect at relevant times during the timeframe and scene portrayals of this movie, especially those involving the Dachau Concentration Camp.

    Concerning examples of relevant inaccuracies; Lt. Col. Sparks claims that he and his unit of the 45th single handedly captured and liberated the Dachau concentration camp. This belies historical fact. It simply never happened.

    It was the Forty-Second Division (the Rainbow) that liberated Dachau. Besides the numerous books and reference materials (e.g. Lt. Hugh Daly, The Combat History of the Rainbow Div., The Army Navy Publishing 1946; Sam Dann, Dachau 29 April 1945, Texas Tech Univ. Press 1998; The Rainbow Reveille dated May 11, 1945, published by the US Army and many others) documenting the facts surrounding the events at Dachau supporting this fact, the U.S. Army’s Center of Military History credits the Rainbow Division with the camp’s liberation and not the Thunderbirds. Of course, that is also why the plaque at the present day Dachau camp dedicates its liberation to the Rainbow Division.

    The fact is that the Thunderbirds, as an entire division, just not Sparks’ unit, captured an adjacent Waffen SS garrison, unrelated to the Dachau concentration camp, and committed war crimes within that garrison. However, Sparks, in the Kershaw book, doesn’t even mention that the Waffen SS garrison existed, and, of course, the movie does not have any scenes concerning this garrison, nor does it have any scenes or mention of the Rainbow Division liberating the concentration camp.

    To expand the Spark’s fantasies, he describes what he calls “The Linden Incident.” This was shown as a critical scene in the movie.

    The facts are that Brig. Gen. Linden of the Rainbow Division, and his small contingent, which included a news reporter, actually accepted the surrender of the Dachau concentration camp from SS Lt. Wicker. That is the official historical record and there are numerous documents and pictures of this account as well.

    However, this official account was not told by Sparks, and thus, does not appear in the Kershaw book and subsequent movie. What Sparks describes is pure made up fiction which not only belies the facts, it belies logic.

    In the Sparks’ “Linden Incident,” he claims he saw Gen. Linden outside the Dachau camp and Lt. Col. Sparks went over to the General and ordered him out of the area at gun point. If Sparks had done what he described, he would have been immediately arrested and later court marshaled. And if it happened, of course the news reporter would have reported the incident, and an official Army after action report would have also documented the interaction. There were no news or official records of such an incident, because it never happened.

    This is just a couple examples of the relevant inaccuracies in the movie based upon the book. My feeling is that if a publisher is going to hold out a book as based on true events, then that book should have been fact checked and not published as non-fiction solely based upon the unverified stories of a single man, AND moreover, a movie studio producing a movie they claim as factual has a responsibility to fact check the sources from which they base the movie. Both the book, The Liberator, and the movie failed concerning historical accuracy, and the publishing of such historical inaccuracies does a disservice to the men who served in both the Thunderbird and Rainbow Divisions of WW II.

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