Since World War II ended in 1945, the stories of the defining cataclysm of the 20th century and the generation of soldiers who fought in it remain unrivaled when it comes to real-life accounts of bravery, cruelty, and the perseverance of humanity in the face of unremitting horror. But despite all that has already been said about the last and hopefully final World War, stories remain that are either mostly unknown or that merit being retold for their inherent lessons. Such is the tale of Lieutenant Colonel Felix Sparks, the protagonist of Netflix and A+E Studios’ WWII biographical drama The Liberator, and his arduous 511-day journey leading the men of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th “Thunderbird” Division from the war-torn shores of Sicily to the dark heart of the Dachau concentration camp.
Created, written, and executive produced by Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive) and directed by Greg Jonkajtys (Sin City, Pan’s Labyrinth), The Liberator adapts Alex Kershaw’s 2012 book of the same name into a four-part hybrid live-action animated series centering on the 157th Infantry Regiment’s journey from the deserts of Arizona to the battlefields of Salerno. Along the way, The Liberator travels through their withering losses and prevailing victories at the Battle Of Anzio, and finally, their moral trial and reckoning on the killing grounds of Dachau on April 29, 1945.
The Liberator is a striking series with a distinctive visual style, a grainy graphic novel-style aesthetic. What distinguishes The Liberator from films like Waking Life and series like Undone is the use of “Trioscope,” a new form of “enhanced hybrid animation technology” that blends live action footage with 3D CGI painted environments and traditional 2D animation. (Former LucasFilm and Industrial Light & Magic VFX creative Jonkajtys and producers L.C. Crowley and Brandon Barr have recently launched Trioscope Studios to develop further projects.)
From its beautifully rendered facial expressions to dynamic lightning, cross-hatched shadows, and gorgeous particle and fog effects, The Liberator is as strong a case for the potential of Trioscope as any. The color grade filter used throughout the series, with its trace details of simulated celluloid scratches and film grain, imbues a semblance of hand-worn charm and texture to the otherwise artificiality of the series’ visuals. But the innovative production is not without a few grating kinks. Details like bullet trails, muzzle flashes, and falling debris can come off as sluggish at best and distractingly belabored at worst, and the conspicuous absence of tread marks from tanks and truck tires moving across terrain and instances of blood without any pooling animation makes certain sequences feel unflatteringly cartoonish.
Those quirks aside, The Liberator is an entertaining and impressive series, with the show’s appeal evident through the strength of its performances. Bradley James is captivating as Lt. Col. Sparks, who was recognized not only for his decision to lead his troops from the front, but for returning to duty alongside his company following a near-fatal wound, in open defiance of orders for his discharge. “I owe something to a group of men,” he writes to his wife Mary before hitching a ride aboard a B-17 from Algiers back to Italy. “Men who, before the war, I’d probably never have known, and now I know as well as I know myself. If I came home, I could never live with myself knowing I owed a debt to them and ignored it.” Sparks was beloved by his compatriots for his respect not only for their lives, but their fundamental humanity regardless of race or creed, qualities that James brings fully to bear throughout the series. Martin Sensmeier and Jose Miguel Vasquez are equally magnetic in their roles as Sergeant Coldfoot and Corporal Gomez, the former exuding a commanding aura of power and uncommon leadership balanced by the comical yet dutiful demeanor of the latter.
Aside from their prolonged tour of duty throughout Europe and participation in four major amphibious assaults including Operation Dragoon, the 45th Infantry Division was exceptional for its diversity. The 1,500 Native American soldiers in its ranks are the reason for the nickname the “Thunderbirds,” after the Native American symbol of power, protection, and victory in war time. Fighting alongside Mexican American and white servicemen alike, the 45th’s ethnic plurality as well as their exemplary service served as a stunning rebuke to the xenophobic nationalism of Nazi Germany, though The Liberator doesn’t spare any subtlety when it comes to casting a light on the glaring hypocrisies of America’s own history of institutional prejudice in spite of the country’s otherwise egalitarian creed of patriotism. “I’ve been to Oklahoma, Corporal, and the bars have signs out front that say, ‘No Indians Allowed. No Mexicans,’” a Nazi officer tells a captured U.S. soldier during interrogation. “I’ve also been to Georgia. They make their Negroes there drink from separate water fountains, so don’t tell me they’re Americans just like you.”
The series emphasizes this dichotomy of lived experiences through the stories of Coldfoot, a Choctaw American who had been denied promotion several times on the basis of his race and demoted when he lashed out against those prejudices, and Private Thomas Otaktay (Tatanka Means), a Sioux American who chafes under the tacit if unintentional disrespect of being referred to as “Chief” by his fellow soldiers. These characters and more form the crux of the narrative that runs parallel and underneath Sparks’ journey—that of the underdogs and cast-offs deemed either inferior or inconsequential to the war effort, who proved crucial to the Allies’ ultimate victory and embodied the very qualities that America would claim to aspire to and represent at its best.
In the series’ penultimate episode, an S.S. Lieutenant named Voss (Vinzenz Kiefer), is asked by another soldier why he chose not to fire on Sparks as he carried several of his wounded men back to base. Voss answers: “Because we had a choice.” This exchange represents The Liberator at its core: not just the story of Spark’s odyssey through living hell, but of the multitudinous choices one is faced with on the long and winding road out of it. Human beings, when thrust into extreme circumstances that demand equally extreme responses to survive, are capable of small yet defining acts of compassion and cruelty, indicating the essential, ineffable quality of our shared humanity. That The Liberator manages to deftly strike this chord while remaining an entertaining and edifying war drama is no small feat, and characteristic of a story not only worth being retold but of being experienced in its entirety.