Feisty Ritchie boys provide only panache to prosaic WWII film

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In case we needed more evidence that America’s “Greatest Generation” was just that, “The Ritchie Boys” provides a heaping helping.

This engaging but prosaic documentary focuses on a group of smart, tough and motivated German Jewish immigrants picked by the Army for its Military Intelligence Training Center at Camp Ritchie during World War II.

Six decades later, the ultra-accomplished veterans still give off the vibe of guys you don’t want to mess with. This nostalgic tale of triumph, which has played festivals across the United States and Europe, aims for feel-good territory and hits the bull’s-eye.

Notwithstanding its subjects’ terrific camera presence, “The Ritchie Boys” is a conventional film that rarely probes beneath the surface. That’s hardly what I expected from one of the 12 finalists for the Oscar nominations for Best Documentary Feature. (It didn’t make the final cut.)

“The Ritchie Boys” screens twice in the upcoming Cinequest Film Festival in San Jose.

Many of the Ritchie boys made their way to the United States alone from Germany and didn’t learn the fates of their families until the war’s final stages and aftermath. Oddly, very little is said about what they were thinking and feeling vis-à-vis their loved ones as they went about their training.

What comes through most clearly is the camaraderie that these competitive and intellectually curious fellows developed in the bucolic Maryland countryside. The fact that their connection remains strong and immediate all these years later illustrates how life during wartime defined them (and so many of their generation).

Once in Europe, the bilingual Ritchie boys interrogated German civilians and prisoners and funneled their information in reports up the chain of command. Their work allegedly saved countless Allied lives and accelerated the end of the war, but German director Christian Bauer makes no effort to substantiate their contribution with specific examples.

This is a major failing. We are left to wonder if the Ritchie boys played a significant role in the victory — and in the Nuremberg Trials — or merely warranted a World War II footnote. If it’s the latter, “The Ritchie Boys” is an interesting but nonessential oral history.

In fact, only the wealth of archival footage gives the film its veneer of historical importance that lifts it out of the realm of home movies.

To be sure, there is the occasional revealing anecdote that transcends the merely colorful to deliver a piercing insight.

Morris Parloff, one of the Ritchie boys and later a respected psychiatrist, arrived shortly after the liberation of Nordhausen, a concentration camp where B1 and B2 rockets were assembled by slave labor. He vividly remembers that he decided to switch to Yiddish to address the former prisoners — and came up empty.

“I blanked it out,” he recalls with emotion. “I just was no longer Jewish. Not like that.”

It’s stunning that such an enormous gulf separated Parloff, who left Germany in the ’30s and wore a U.S. uniform, from his fellow Jews. While settlers in the newly founded state of Israel associated Yiddish with “victim,” I’ve never heard an American make such a candid admission.

If “The Ritchie Boys” had a few more moments like that, it would be as valuable as it is diverting. As it is, the film is a minor addition to the canon of World War II documentaries.

“The Ritchie Boys” screens 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, March 9, and 9:30 p.m. Thursday, March 10, at the Camera 12, 201 S. Second St., San Jose. Tickets: $9 at www.cinequest.org, (408) 295-3378 or at the San Jose Repertory Theatre and San Jose State University Theater box offices.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.