A new animated World War II series is coming to Netflix — and it is well worth your time when it premieres on Veterans Day.
Created by screenwriter Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive), and produced for Netflix by A+E Studios and Unique Features in partnership with Trioscope Studios, The Liberator is a merciless odyssey through World War II, a far cry from other shows (and even a few films) of the genre that have graced screens in recent years.
Instead of following American soldiers as they parachute over Normandy or hit the beaches on D-Day as so many WWII films and shows set in Europe do, The Liberator focuses on a diverse group of American soldiers as they fight for an unprecedented 500 days from Italy to the heart of the Third Reich.
Through four hour-long episodes, we follow Felix Sparks, an infantry officer with the 157th Infantry Battalion of the 45th Division played by Bradley James, as he leads a racially-integrated unit of soldiers from across the American West. They are, as Sparks puts, it “the grandsons of the greatest Indian Warriors to roam the American plains,” the “descendents of the powerful Mexican Army that defeated the French on Cinco de Mayo,” and “the sons of Texas Rangers who brought the rule of law to places only killers and thieves lived before.”
But the unit’s diversity underscores a bitter irony: these men who trained, lived, and fought alongside each other wouldn’t even be allowed to share a beer in the same bar together back home.
“These were not the kind of guys that you usually tell stories about in World War II,” Stuart told Task & Purpose. “You focus mainly on guys in Boston, or New York, or other places like that. To see this group from the southwest, especially Native soldiers and Mexican Americans and the cowboy aspect, I just thought that was a fascinating aspect of the war that I had not really been in tune with.”
The series is reminiscent of HBO’s Band of Brothers in that it follows a tight knit unit during a lengthy campaign, but it differs both in tone — it is incredibly bleak — and by location. Based on a book by the same name by Alex Kershaw, The Liberator follows the 157th from the beaches of Sicily, to the mountains of Italy and the Battle of Anzio. Then it’s on to France, and later still to Bavaria, where Sparks and his men fought through some of the bloodiest urban battles of the war.
“We don’t shy away from, or put a fictional spin on, what happened to Sparks or his men,” Stuart said. “They had been in 500 days of combat, which is just an extraordinary amount of time.”
For the most part, the series sticks to its nonfiction source material, culminating in the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp and the execution of German guards there by American troops — something often overlooked in pop culture depictions of World War II.
The Liberator brings you the little good that comes from war, the camaraderie and selfless heroism, with all the bad: the staggering loss of life, the seeming randomness of death, and the terrible toll it can take on those who endure it.
“By the time they got to Dachau, given what they had gone through in the Davos mountains, the campaign in Italy, Anzio, I mean it’s just staggering what they went through,” Stuart said. “It wasn’t surprising in many people’s heads when it actually happened — this snapping point, the breaking point for some of these soldiers.”
There are a few moments where The Liberator takes creative license, but it’s done sparingly. There’s the introduction to the series’ core cast of characters, which takes place at the brig in what feels like a send-up to The Dirty Dozen, and then there’s the way the show uses Sparks’ letters back home to let the reader into the mind of the taciturn and private commander.
“One of the things that keeps him sane is his letters to his wife,” Stuart said of Sparks. “This was not in the book. This was actually a piece of my addition to it… It became a sort of connective tissue from episode to episode. He was a very private man and I felt like he was opening a small window that I was allowing the audience to creep in.”
The other standout of the series is of course the animation style, called Trioscope, which layers animation over live action. While watching the show, there are moments where you’ll find yourself lulled into a false sense of security due to the aesthetic, only to be harshly brought back to reality when soldiers you’d come to know and care about are abruptly, and violently, killed.
“I think one of the great aspects of Trioscope is that you can get that human dynamic,” Stuart said. “You don’t lose any of the drama from live action in Trioscope. It’s not like an actor voicing a character in animation. That is the actor and that is his voice. I think that’s one of the reasons why if you’re expecting it to be more of a lighthearted situation, you’re not going to get that.”
Beyond the emotional impact, having it animated was a matter of necessity.
“We tried hard for about a year to set The Liberator up live action,” Stuart explained. “In fact, I went over to Europe. We went and looked at Romania to double for France and Oklahoma and Bavaria. We looked at Croatia to double for Sicily and Italy and parts of North Africa.”
Given the considerable logistics associated with staging a period piece — there’s not an abundance of affordable B-17s or WWII-era tanks lying around — the showrunners would have to get creative, and that would come at considerable cost.
“We’d have to be adapting modern tanks, that sort of thing,” Stuart said. “So suddenly, the price tag starts to click, click, click. I was wondering if it would ever see the light of day.”
And that’s when A+E introduced Stuart to the team at Trioscope.
“One day, A&E called up and said, ‘we’re sending you a test, an animation test for Liberator’” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ This is going to be dreadful. I’m being really honest, and they know that too, the guys at Trioscope. But I sat down and I watched it. It was only a five-minute test, but the minute they got into it, there’s just some alchemy that happens in your brain. It’s something about seeing a live actor in doing the lines, and the animation sort of rises organically around them. So you stop looking at that part, and you start listening to the words and feeling the emotions that are in the scene. And suddenly, the scene was over. I realized it had suspended my disbelief.”
To The Liberators’ credit, the visuals manage to walk that fine line between being vivid but not distracting.
“And we had to find a nice place in between that felt like a graphic novel, but not so stylized that you end up staring at the style of it as opposed to the substance of it,” Stuart said. “That didn’t take long for the creative team to get together and come up with some nice balance. And then from that point on, it was how do we get the most bang for our buck?”
The series, which features full-scale battles on screen, actually required very little of that to be filmed live. In fact, though the actors attended a mini boot camp to ensure they knew how to handle their weapons, they never actually fired them on set, all of that was done in post-production.
Though it may be tempting to brush off the animation style as little more than a gimmick, the end product is a visually stunning series, that is both beautiful and brutal all at once, and tells a story many of us may never have heard of had the series not been created — which may not have happened without the unique art style.
The Liberator is worth carving out some time to watch when it premieres Nov. 11 on Netflix.
Related: Netflix’s new WWII miniseries looks like ‘Band of Brothers’ meets ‘A Scanner Darkly’