"It is enough to drive you insane. Dead, wounded,
massive losses. This is the end. Unprecedented slaughter, a
horrific bloodbath. There is blood everywhere and the dead and bits
of bodies lie scattered about." -From the diary of an unknown officer.
World War One was one of the defining moments of the 20th century.
It was the first modern war. Millions were killed on the battlefields
and there was an unprecedented amount of destruction. It was responsible
for the Russian Revolution and launch the US on its way to becoming a world
power. In the end it redrew the map of Europe and was directly responsible
for the rise of the Nazi Party in German which resulted in the Second World
War 20 years later. Yet for all of its importance in the last century,
it has been mostly ignored in the film, TV and print media. While
it is hard to turn on the History Channel and not find a show about WWII
or the US Civil War, "the war to end all wars" has been largely forgotten.
Until now that is. The First World War is an excellent 10
part mini-series that finally examines this seminal event from the 20th
century. Produced by the BBC in 2003, this not only gives an overview
of the conflict, but also show what life was like in the trenches and in
the cities under siege.
This series starts off looking at the way Europe was set up before the
war, and the tensions that existed. It clearly and concisely describes
how the assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire's throne
brought all of these international tensions to a head and started a war
of unprecedented scale and destruction.
As the series progresses, it covers all of the arenas of battle, not
just the Western Front in France. World War One was truly a world
wide conflict, with battles taking place in every hemisphere. The
war in the Middle East gets it's own episode, and the battles in Africa,
China, the South Pacific and India are all discussed too. The series
discusses the major battles of the war such as Verdun, Somme, and Gallipoli
but it also covers the political aspect of the war, such as the Russian
Revolution and the Italy agreeing to side with the highest bidder.
The introduction of chemical warfare and tanks as well as flame throwers
help examine the technological side of the war too.
The events of the Great War are told in a style similar to Ken Burn's
Civil War mini-series. The main events are narrated, but there are
copious quotes from letters, diaries, and news reports that were recorded
during the war that help put a human face on the suffering.
A majority of the video is film footage and stills taken at the time.
Much of this material comes from film archives from Eastern Europe that
were previously unaccessible. I was simply amazed at how much quality
film footage they had, an how little it was reused. These images
are supplemented by contemporary footage of historic battlefields and important
buildings that survived (or sometimes didn't) the war.
I knew a little about WWI going into this series, but I was astounded
to discover how much I didn't know. I was familiar with the death
of Prince Ferdinand and the horrific trench warfare that followed in France,
but I never realized how wide the fighting ranged. I always assumed
that the war consisted solely of the trench warfare that took place in
France, but many of the other theaters had a lot of mobility, including
Germany's Eastern Front with Russia.
The place that the series really excels is in bringing together all
the disparate parts of the war and weaving a cohesive whole out of them.
They take the time to explain why Germany wanted to attack India, something
that would seem to have little impact on the war in Europe but actually
did. They also explain how England's empire was it greatest asset
and biggest liability.
The analysis is often very interesting too. They make a good case
for proclaiming that the war was started for defensive reasons. All
of the powers (with the exception of England) felt that they were under
threat of attack and were acting to defend their country and possessions.
The only area where I think that the series didn't fell down a bit was
the lack of in screen interviews with historians. Ken Burns has used
that tactic to great effect in many of his documentaries, and this one
would have been improved by having different voices give their opinions.
That's a minor nit to pick though, and the series is still very strong
even without it.
This four disc set contains all ten hour-long episodes from the series.
The discs come in a fold-out case that is held in a slipcase. There
is a 32-page book containing notes on each episode.
The stereo audio track is very good. A LFE track would have given
the battle scenes more punch, but it sounds good as it is. The narration
was clear and crisp. The actors who read the letters and diaries
of the men who fought the war often took on accents based on the nationality
of the writer. Some of these are a little hard to understand in parts,
but this is a minor problem.
The full frame video is very good. Of course the vintage film
footage is sometimes spotty or faded, but much of it looks excellent with
a good amount of contrast and detail. The contemporary footage of
some of the battlefields and building that survived the war look great.
Digital defects are very minor. A good looking set.
Unfortunately, there were no extras.
This documentary doesn't have the dramatic impact of films like The
Big Parade or All Quiet on the Western Front, but it does an excellent
job of explaining the war, examining the various theaters of battle and
putting a human face on the suffering. Like Ken Burn's The Civil
War, this show is an immensely entertaining and engrossing series that
presents a thorough overview of this important event that shaped the 20th
century. Highly Recommended.