Ben Mankiewicz Details TCM's Epic 75-Film Series for 75th Anniversary of D-Day

Robert Mitchum stars in “The Longest Day.” (20th Century Fox)

Never Surrender: WWII in the Movies is an ambitious 75-movie series airing on the Turner Classic Movies channel in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the D-Day invasion. Airing on Thursdays in May and June, the programs will feature expert historical commentary filmed at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.

TCM is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, and the network has long made military films a staple of its scheduling with special programming for Memorial Day and Veterans Day and plenty of war movies spread out over the rest of the year.

The National World War II Museum was founded in 2000 and now works in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution to preserve the era's history and educate Americans about the conflict. They've done incredible in recording the stories of aging WWII veterans, and the museum's displays are worth the trip to New Orleans even if you're not inclined to enjoy the city's other attractions.

TCM host Ben Mankiewicz and National WWII Museum historian Rob Citino filming the channel's "Never Surrender: WWII in the Movies" series in New Orleans. (Taryn Stansbury/TCM)

Ben Mankiewicz has succeeded the late Robert Osborne as TCM's lead host. Trained as a journalist, he comes from a family with an amazing history of Hollywood success. His grandfather, Herman J. Mankiewicz, won an Oscar with Orson Welles for writing the screenplay for "Citizen Kane." His great uncle, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, twice won Oscars for Best Director and Best Screenplay in the same year for "A Letter to Three Wives" and "All About Eve."

Ben's dad Frank was once president of National Public Radio and served as Robert F. Kennedy's press secretary. He's got several cousins who've had movie careers, including second cousin Tom, who wrote "The Eagle Has Landed" and several James Bond films in the 1970s.

Last month, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz was joined by best-selling historian Lynne Olson and Nick Mueller, Rob Citino and Seth Paridon from the museum's staff to film the network's trademark intros and outros at the museum.

We've compiled a complete schedule of the Never Surrender: WWII in the Movies series with links to detailed film descriptions and more information about the co-hosts. May features films that explore life on the home front, and June is devoted to combat movies.

Mankiewicz took the time to talk with about the museum, the film series and TCM's unique (and very intense) relationship with its viewers.

The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana
The National World War II Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana

How was the experience of filming at the World War II Museum in New Orleans?

I had never been there before. I had long wanted to go. I had a couple of reactions. One, this enormous, very powerful feeling of regret for not having gone there with my father, who was a World War II veteran and died 4½ years ago. He was in the 69th Infantry and landed in Germany in January in 1945, so he saw about four or five months of combat.

Like so many vets, you had to prompt him a little bit, but he would talk about it once you got him going. I just think he would have loved the museum. I know he would have loved it. He drove a jeep and fired mortars, so my visit was the first time I could really see his weapon.

My dad essentially became a pacifist. That's a little strong, but he believed in doing all that we possibly could to stay out of wars and felt we go to war too eagerly and too readily. When he told a story about firing a mortar, he would say that he wasn't so much worried about getting killed, he was worried about blowing his fingers off by the shell coming out too quickly.

He would have really enjoyed that experience and that sort of very particular way that that museum honors World War II veterans. The word I used often during the show recording is "immersive." It's an intense experience, one of the best museum experiences I've ever had in my life. I can't wait to go back again, like with my family back. I don't want to fall into too much hyperbole, but I mean it's really quite something there, and I'm proud to be a part of it in the limited way that we were.

You often have actors or celebrities on TCM as co-hosts when you do special programming, but this time you brought in serious, first-line World War II historians to work with you. What was behind that choice and how was it different than the usual approach?

It was a different kind of challenge. Most of the co-hosts that we have from show business are very smart, very thoughtful, and consistently interesting in talking about craft or film history, and putting the movies into proper historical context. But this was different because you're talking to the smartest people in the country.

I was an American History major with a focus on 20th-century American history, and so I'm a buff and I know more than my friends. But all of the sudden, you realize these people are the real experts. I had to consistently remind myself, as I do with the other interviews too, to shut up, that nobody wants to hear it from me. Get out of the way, get these guys telling their stories because their stories are so insightful and add so much context to the movies that we're talking about. You have people there who know what really happened.

That's important. More important than knowing what really happened is knowing why it happened and why what you're seeing matters and having someone put it in that context. So, it was a different kind of challenge, but one that all of us involved in the production embraced. Every one of those historians we've talked to was great. It's just not even remotely possible to rank them, they were all so good.

TCM is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. The network has always paid special attention to military-themed movies, and I'd give it credit for carrying forward the momentum created by "Saving Private Ryan" in using war movies as a way to engage people in American history and inspiring veterans to finally talk about the war. Do you think TCM has played a role in helping that generation start to share their experiences?

That's a very nice question to ask just because it enables us to consider it. I don't want to overstate TCM's role, but I do think that we as a channel play a significant role in the -- you know, it's hard to say these two words together without sounding arrogant, and I don't mean to -- but playing a role in the cultural literacy of the country.

Those six years of World War II were the most important event of the 20th century. You can make an argument for the Civil Rights Movement, certainly, and for women's liberation, starting with the right to vote. The vote was expanded to minorities and then to women only a hundred years ago. Those events matter, but I think, for the world, there was nothing more important than World War II.

We honor veterans a lot in this country, but the risk that we run when we do that without context is to glorify the war and minimize the sacrifice. We say "sacrifice," but we don't really comprehend what that always means. I'm often reminded often of something John Kerry said during his testimony when he came back from Vietnam. It was along the lines of "It's one thing to ask somebody to risk their life to be killed defending their country. What we don't talk enough about is the importance of asking someone to kill for their country."

These movies, while entertaining, expand our view of the sacrifice made. Certainly if the movie is about the home front, I think those often do a better job than war pictures in showing what it means to sort of come together, to sacrifice as a country together for a widely accepted, if not universally accepted, common good. I hope TCM has played a role in that.

I don't want to minimize the effect that "Private Ryan" had at least on the new generation because we had gone a few years without a great big World War II movie. In addition to being an incredibly powerful story, executed perfectly, "Saving Private Ryan" pulled no punches. And if there is a criticism of some earlier war pictures, it's that, as still happens with a lot of movies that put people into violent situations, is that we sanitize the violence and they sanitize the suffering because it's almost inhuman to consider the extent of it.

One memorable thing about the museum are the estimates of war casualties. I think that they have it at 23 million Chinese killed during the war. And 20 or 21 million Russians. You realize the unbelievable extent of the suffering and disruption and the brutality that went on during those years. And, yes, it was necessary and vital and thank God we won. But, again, I don't think you have to glorify it because the sacrifice is so intense and so acute that just telling the story does the job. Nobody can go to that museum and just follow some of those oral histories and not be impressed with what these men and women, when we allowed that, were able to do under incredibly adverse circumstances.

Ben Mankiewicz and Mel Brooks at the 2019 Turner Classic Movies Festival in Los Angeles. (TCM)

TCM occupies a very privileged place, one that seems kind of precarious in an increasingly competitive and corporate business. You present uncut movies with zero commercials. I saw the hosts interacting directly with fans here at the TCM Film Festival, and those incredibly devoted fans have an incredibly personal connection with the channel. What's that like, existing day to day in the ever-more-corporate world that rules entertainment?

It's nice. It is beyond nice. It sometimes feels a little overwhelming to have a job in television that isn't news. And I got started as a journalist, and I have a lot of respect for them.

I get to have a job in television and entertainment that is a little bit more than just entertaining, a job that really matters to people. It really affects them emotionally. It's a serious responsibility. That's why we interact with the fans the way that we do. And I don't just mean we, my co-hosts, it's everyone involved with the channel. The way we interact with our fans is very satisfying. You can feel their satisfaction.

The relationship that we have with our fans is unlike anything else in television. I use this example all the time. You know I love "Billions" on Showtime, but nobody loves Showtime, right?

I'm frustrated that we're not going to get a new episode of "Better Call Saul" this year. And I think it's one of the best shows I've ever seen, but I bear no allegiance to AMC and neither does anybody else. They're good as long as the shows are good. That's all that matters, you like a show.

But people feel connected to those letters, to TCM, to Turner Classic Movies, and it's a part of their lives. Man, it's clearly a vitally important part of their lives. It connects them in some meaningful way to another time that might matter to them for pure nostalgia, but I think, for most, it is more emotional than that. I'm not knocking nostalgia because that's a very big part of our lives. But the connection is real to their parents and to their grandparents, to the people who came before them, who loved these movies. I know we've got people who watch these movies because they know their grandparents loved it, even if they never saw these movies with their grandparents.

And that's to say nothing of the little moments that are created by these movies. Little moments of joy, moments of happiness, that also tell us what the world we live in was. These aren't documentaries, but you get an idea for how people dressed, how people talked to one another, what they drove, what their streets looked like. These are little glimpses of time, little moments preserved forever.

To be the channel that has the responsibility of protecting and preserving those moments and presenting them and putting them in context and adding the proper curation and forming that connection with viewers is really special. I just feel so fortunate to have a job in this upside-down, crazy, constantly changing, very exciting business. And I get to have a job that, I don't want to overstate it, but it feels important. There's a responsibility that comes with this.

I will say that our viewers don't just watch us, they watch over us. And not always as a guardian. They do protect us, but they also want to protect us from ourselves. They are ready to reach out and figuratively slap our hands when they feel like we are straying perhaps too far from our mission. I don't think we do, but it's comforting to know that there's millions of people who are like, "Hey, knock that off," if they feel like we're briefly misdirected. I welcome that, because that's part of the intense connection between the channel and its fans.

Ben Mankiewicz interviews founder Ted Turner for the 25th anniversary of Turner Classic Movies. (TCM)

I was encouraged by the packs of senior citizens roaming the festival because I personally don't know any senior citizens who watch anything besides the news channel. Plus, there were a lot of young people there as well.

I embrace that audience, whatever it is. I had a younger person, I think she's 32 now, and I've been working with her on another project for 10 years and she said to me, "You know as I get older, I just start thinking more and more like you." It was a very, very nice compliment.

Of course, that's what happens, right? As you get older, I think it's important to keep your mind open to new ideas and to embrace change and not fear progress. Our fans, they've lived and they've experienced life and they've thought about it. They care about these movies, they care about art, they care about storytelling. Their perspective is valuable. I would never dream of dismissing it.

I meet a number of fans who tell me, "I only watch TCM" and fill in the blank of whatever cable news channel they listen to. You know, "I only watch TCM and MSNBC" or "I only watch TCM and CNN" or "TCM and Fox News." We hear that a ton. By the way, given the world we live in, there are some who say, "I only watch TCM and TCM." You know that's it.

Thanks for your time. I'm really looking forward to seeing this programming over the next couple months.

I haven't seen the finished, edited product, but I think it's going to come out great. These historians we talked to were outstanding. First of all, forget their knowledge and expertise that was pivotal, and we're so grateful that they shared it with us, but they were so excited by it. They were so fully into the moment; they weren't afraid. Their enthusiasm was contagious for me. They loved these movies. They know the role that these movies played in teaching Americans about the history of World War II, and they were really eager to talk about it and share their ideas.

And frequently, that perspective was one that you would never have expected. I think we did 27 introductions. There will be 75 movies overall, but 27 of them will be shown in primetime slots that I co-host with these people. More than half of those conversations went in a direction that I never expected them to. I prepared, I had questions, and then we would just start talking about something that I just did not expect even though I had their notes. They were interesting and they have expansive minds, and it was great to be able to add that perspective to these films. I think it's going to be great, and I think our viewers are really going to enjoy it.

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