Visit any video retailer with a war documentary section, and you'll find a decent handful of discs promoting themselves as featuring footage of World War II in vibrant color. What's important to realize is that it's not the color (or lack thereof) of the footage that makes any war documentary good or bad, but the presentation itself. One of the better entries into this subgenre is René-Jean Bouyer's series "They Filmed the War In Color," produced for French television in 2000 and recently reworked for American television and video with a retooled English narration courtesy of Geoffrey Bateman.
Bouyer's series breaks down into two ninety-minute chunks: "France Is Free!," which details the history of the war from the French viewpoint, and "The Pacific War," which focuses entirely on the American conflict with Japan.
"France Is Free!" makes for fascinating viewing, as it tells the story of the war entirely through French eyes. It's a perspective seldom seen in such works (well, at least in such works made for American audiences, that is). Bouyer gives us a detailed account of life inside occupied France, including footage of Hitler's visit to Paris. Much of these film clips are all the more impressive as there was a ban on photography - "filming was an act of espionage," the narration informs us - and outside of official documents of visits of German leaders, most of the footage we see here comes from the underground, having somehow survived the darkest days of war.
Bouyer is, for a while, obsessed with this idea, and throughout much of the film's opening scenes, the narration informs us just how rare and important the images we're watching truly are. Add to this commentary on the power of color film stock (color can "seduce and disorient") and the occasional defense of the unavoidable scratches and grain ("Even if the quality is uncertain, the testimony is infinitely precious."), and Bouyer takes too long moving away from the idea of vintage color film as his centerpiece. Once he does move away, a necessary move in order to cover the rest of the war (in which cameras follow French and American soldiers throughout the hemisphere), the film becomes more engrossing and less full of itself.
Bouyer also makes one error he wisely does not repeat in "The Pacific War:" he adds in modern footage. Instead of simply letting the archival material tell the story, Bouyer clumsily includes a handful of modern-day interviews with veterans, video footage which is superimposed in ugly rectangles placed over freeze-framed wartime film clips. The narration is then complimented by translations of unnecessary audio clips of vets recounting their memories of battles.
It's not obnoxious as much as it is simply superfluous, and it's easy to forgive these missteps as the rest of "France Is Free!" is a highly stirring you-are-there account of the war. Considering six-plus years of history get crammed into an hour and a half running time, there's a commendable amount of detail here, a deep and thorough primer on the European front. History buffs may wish for more when it comes to individual points, but as an introductory rundown, this is an admirable, comprehensive work.
The color footage, the main selling point of the title, is well worth the hype. Bouyer's research is outstanding. He's found some valuable footage, both by amateurs and by professionals (among them William Wyler, John Sturges, Darryl F. Zanuck, and George Stevens), and the imagery is stunning throughout. Bouyer might tell a tighter story with "The Pacific War," but "France Is Free!" is equally powerful and a fine introduction to the human side of the war.
VideoAll footage here is presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with varying quality. Grain is everywhere, and many prints come with ugly scratches. But then, this is unavoidable, considering the origins of the footage; Bouyer's efforts were not to fully restore the films but to merely find them. For what it's worth, the majority of the film stock retains its vibrant color, and there are no digital artifacts gumming up the presentation. Not perfect, but much better than expected. As for the modern interviews, there's a bit of streaking in the image, possibly due to a cheap video format.
The Dolby mono soundtrack is clear, minus the rare occasion film stock has corresponding audio. The narration and music are modern recordings and as such sound crisp and clear, with one exception: in one scene, the narration accidentally speeds up for a moment, an overlooked error in the editing room. No subtitles are included.
None, except for a few previews for other Koch releases that start up when the disc loads; you can skip past them if you choose.
If your eyes lit up just a little at the first sound of the disc's title, then yes, this is for you. Bouyer has produced a solid documentary that may repeat information history buffs already know well, but it's repeated in top form. Recommended to anyone who can't live without the History Channel and its various cable offspring.