A Rendezvous with History: David Hanna Featured in New Documentary

Social studies teacher David Hanna’s book, “Rendezvous with Death,” has served a crucial role in the making of the documentary “The Lafayette Escadrille,” which showcases...

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By Matt Melucci

Social studies teacher David Hanna was interviewed for the documentary, “The Lafayette Escadrille,” which showcases American soldiers fighting in the French army during World War I. His book, “Rendezvous with Death,” also served a crucial role in the making of the documentary. Published in June 2016, “Rendezvous with Death” is about a group of Americans fighting for the French Foreign Legion to help defeat the Central Powers during World War I.

Filmmakers Derroch Greer and Paul Glenshaw, who were researching the Lafayette Escadrille, reached out to Hanna after reading his book. “[Greer] was doing background reading for a documentary that he was interested in possibly making on the Lafayette Escadrille, which was an all-American squadron that served in the French army in World War I. He saw my book in a bookstore and picked it up and read it,” Hanna said. “He contacted me, and then he said he wanted to interview me, and so he came to New York.”

The interview took place in Principal Eric Contreras’s office. “[Greer] and his cameraman took over Contreras’s office for a day. […] The interview itself was about an hour or so. They used a lot of the parts of the interview in the film,” Hanna said.

Hanna initially did not expect his book to be used as a source of information that would lead to his appearance in a documentary. “You always hope that your book will sell and people will be interested [...] but that’s just in general. You don’t know specifics, and you don’t think specifically that something [will] happen,” he said.

Hanna emphasized that the information portrayed in the film is not solely based on his work. “It’s not just about my book. But my book was one of the main sources for that film,” he said.

The premiere for “The Lafayette Escadrille” took place in Dayton, Ohio on November 9, 2019. On seeing himself in the documentary, Hanna said, “It's weird. The premiere was [...] in this amazing IMAX theater museum at this museum in Dayton. So seeing your face, your own face, on a screen two stories high on IMAX, it’s a little weird. It really is.”

There was also a symposium, which was held the next day on November 10, 2019. People who contributed to the making of the documentary attended the event. “It was myself, this guy Steve Ruddi—he’s also an author. He wrote a book specifically about the squadron, [called ‘The Lafayette Escadrille: A Photo History of the First American Fighter Squadron’],” Hanna said.

General Yvon Goutx, who is the president of the Lafayette Escadrille association in France, also attended the symposium. “[Goutx] came, and that was really interesting because when he was younger, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991—it’s called Operation Desert Storm— he commanded a squadron of Jaguar French jets,” Hanna said. “It was interesting being on the same stage as this person who had actually led, flown in combat, and here I am, just a history teacher. It was kind of humbling to be honest with you.”

Hanna also emphasised the large amount of material generated for the film, some of which did not ultimately make it into the documentary. “The story really could be a part series. But [Greer and Glenshaw] felt that it would be marketable if they could make [a] two-hour documentary,” Hanna said. “So they had to cut things. There were certain key things that they cut that I know must have been tough because you get close to your subjects.”

One of these subjects was Alice Weeks, an American. Her son served in the French army. Weeks moved from her home in Boston to Paris to try and be closer with him, eventually opening her new house to other Americans serving in the French army. Afterward, many of the young men she took in died in battle.

Weeks’s experience was one of the stories that did not make the final cut for the documentary. “There were reasons why, and I understand it had to do with the arc of the story. She sort of disappears by halfway through 1916 and goes back to the United States. But I know they were torn because it’s such an interesting part of the story, and also she was a strong female character in the story, so I know it was tough for them,” Hanna said. “People who see the final product, they don’t know what’s been cut out, so those are tough decisions.”

Hanna recommends watching the film. “For people who are interested in aviation and for people who are interested in World War I, I think they’ll really like this. It’s a really good film. I was impressed. If I wasn’t in it, I would show it to my students, at least a 30-minute chunk. But because I’m in it, no,” he said. The documentary itself does not have a set release date, but it is projected to be available in early 2020.

Hanna’s students also are excited about the documentary. “I’ve read part of Mr. Hanna’s book, and as long as the flow is the same, I think it’ll be really good,” junior Roshni Patel said. “The people he wrote about were real people, and it’s cool that he dug deep into their lives. He’s more than a teacher; he experiences things as a historian.”

Meanwhile, Hanna is now embarking on his next journey, a book about the 1933-1934 Chicago World Fair, specifically on the aviators who were the highlight of the fair. “One was a German zeppelin captain who didn’t like Hitler. The other was an Italian seaplane captain who was a Blackshirt. And the last were a husband and wife team who were balloonists; they went up into the stratosphere,” he said. “I’m working on that.”