WWII In HD is, at least on the surface, a pretty simple concept. The series, which is split into ten chapters, takes color footage shot during the Second World War and puts it all into context as narrators tell us about the personal experiences of twelve different veterans who served. Jack Werner (Justin Bartha), Rockie Blunt (Rob Corddry), Richard Tregaskis (Tim DeKay), Archie Sweeney (Mark Hefti), Jimmie Kanaya (James Kyson Lee), Charles Scheffel (Ron Livingston), Shelby F. Westbrook (LL Cool J), Robert Sherrod (Rob Lowe), Bert Stiles (Josh Lucas), Jack Yusen (Jason Ritter), June Wandrey (Amy Smart), and Nolen Marbrey (Steve Zahn) each get to tell of their experiences through readings from their journals while narration from Gary Sinise helps to keep it all in context and in historical order.
The series begins by explaining how American involvement in the war was negligible until the bombing of Pearl Harbor, which forced the United States to take what was at the time a relatively small army and groom it into one of the finest fighting machines in the history of the world. Hearing the call and wanting to do their civic duty, many enlisted and later many were drafted, to head overseas and fight the Axis - initially in the South Pacific on Guadalcanal and Midway, then later in North Africa fighting alongside British forces. Situations escalated on both fronts around the same time, with Patton and MacArthur eventually carving out their niche in history on their respective fronts. Eventually American troops move into Europe as well where D-Day arrives and changes the face of war and in turn, history itself. From there the series traces events on all three fronts, covering the involvement of the Navy, Army, Air Force and Marines as well as events in Iwo Jima change things on the Pacific front. Air battles intensify over Europe and later on the Japanese landscape is changed permanently. More and more American and Allied forces pile into Europe and, not soon enough, the Third Reich eventually falls.
Sinise's narration gives a very 'Ken Burns style' slant to the footage, letting us get to know the twelve Americans whose lives are laid bare here on a personal level as well as a historical one. This gives the stories more impact, a prime example being when a young solider from upstate New York never makes it home and we learn how his parents heard the news. It's quite tear jerking, as is the often times grueling footage of the casualties of war, which here leaves very little to the imagination. A disclaimer at the beginning warns of disturbing content and as the series progresses it becomes obvious that they weren't kidding when they wrote that, but in the context of the series and in the spirit of showing war in all its glory and its horror, the series wouldn't be complete without it.
A young man from Austria of Jewish descent named Hans 'Jack' Werner moves to America before he can't get out of his homeland. He changes his name and enlists to fight the Nazis he despises so much and winds up shipped to the South Pacific, rather than to Europe. This doesn't stop him from giving his all. A young woman named June Wandrey says goodbye to her family and, after her training, gets onboard a boat headed to the front where she works as a nurse and has to put in long shifts, sometimes going without rest for over twenty-four hours straight, but giving her all to help the wounded. All of the people covered here have interesting stories to tell and while it's obvious that not all of the footage used to illustrate their tales was shot specifically by or for them, it all works in regards to giving us a feel for what they went though.
The footage used here, culled from various sources and not just American ones, doesn't flinch. You'll find yourself wanting to duck when the bombs go off or wanting to plug your ears when the tanks fire. If seeing the plans take off isn't quite as impressive on TV as it must have been in real life, it's still pretty damned impressive as are some of the shots that show off just how massive some of the naval vessels used were (and still are). Much of the machinery of war is not quite glamorized but certainly put in the spotlight quite often, which will allow military history buffs to take in all manner of details. As mentioned, the series can also be pretty harsh viewing at times. Those upset by footage showing in no uncertain light the atrocities of war and their devastating after effects should know going in that there's no shortage of that type of footage here. Not only is there a lot of footage of dead and wounded soldiers but there's some harrowing concentration camp material here as well.
If the stories of those who served weren't enough, there are the little details included in the footage that makes it so interesting to gawk over. A clip of an innocent blonde haired, blue eyed German girl playing with Adolf Hitler, so completely unaware of how evil this man really was, is shocking by today's standards. Simple things like the expressions of hope and optimism carried on the faces of those departing contrast harshly against the faces of those who they meet who have been away from home for a while. Their weary looks and exhausted faces say much about what they're going through. This little bits and pieces that make up a large part of the series are just as important to its success as the narration and storytelling aspects. Sometimes a picture really is worth a thousand words, and this series is full of them.
When dealing with a subject of this magnitude, something as massive as The Second World War, it's easy to focus on what isn't covered. The series is presented almost entirely from an American perspective and as such, it's biased. It doesn't cover much of what the American troops weren't involved in and so it's not going to be the definitive take on the war that maybe some had hoped for. That said, what it does cover it covers really well, with class and care.
All ten episodes in this set are presented in AVC encoded 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen. Since much of this footage is closing in on seventy years old and the large majority of it looks like it was shot on 8mm and 16mm film stock (with some cleaner, clearer footage maybe shot on 35mm?) under far less than ideal conditions, you can't expect it to look like gold but discerning viewers will definitely appreciate the added resolution afforded to the material on Blu-ray. It stands to reason that this footage was shot fullframe, but the 1.78.1 framing generally looks pretty good even if we are essentially watching cropped blow ups at times. Expect to see emulsion marks, scratches of all kinds, large spots of grain and all kinds of print damage in addition to some color fading throughout the presentation. Since so much of this material comes from what could essentially be considered home movies, there are times where the focus isn't always dead on and given the fact that often times there are bombs going off and guns being shot in the close vicinity to the camera, you've got to accept that the camera will move around a lot. For what this is, however, the transfers are pretty good. A large majority of this footage is unseen outside of this presentation, so we don't really have much of a reference point to go off of but let it suffice to say that if you enjoyed the series when it was shown in HD on the History Channel you'll be happy with what you see here. If you missed out, well, this is ten hours worth of rough footage given the Blu-ray treatment - it can and does only look so good, but really you're not going to be interested in getting this set for reference quality video so much as for its invaluable historical content.
Audio options are supplied in an English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track and in an English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo track. No alternate language audio options are supplied, and there are no subtitles or closed captions provided. The 5.1 track is a pretty solid one - the narration and interview clips are nice and clear while the scenes of war, some of which appear to have had sound effects added over top for dramatic effect, are appropriately intense with a fair bit of surround activity. Bass response isn't completely overwhelming but your subwoofer will keep pretty busy. There aren't any problems with major hiss or distortion and the levels are well balanced. It'd have been nice to have had a closed captioning or subtitle option as there are a couple of times where some of the interviewees are a little soft spoke, but aside from that there are no complaints here.
The first of the two discs is barebones, save for menus and episode selection. The second disc has those features as well but also throws in a Character Profiles (14:56, HD) featurette that allows Jack Werner, Charles Scheffel, Roscoe Blunt Jr., Jimmie Kanaya, Shelby Westbrook, and Jack Yusen to elaborate on their experiences and accomplishments during this tumultuous time. Some of the material is extensions of bits that we see in the feature. Finding The Footage (2:28, HD) is a brief segment that explains how everything we see in the feature was originally shot in color. Historian Don Miller, Producer Lou Reda, and a few others talk about how they tried to get some harder to find footage and elaborates on the exhaustive search they went on to find this material. Preserving The Footage (1:56) lets the same group of guys from the last feature talk about their efforts to restore the footage the uncovered, much of which had become dry and brittle, and how they worked with various archives to clean the film, restore it in HD, catalogue it and then return it to them. These extras are interesting enough but you can't help but feel that things are more than just a little bit light in this department.
WWII In HD is ten hours of some of the most gripping television to come along in some time. The video quality is understandably rough around the edges and the extras are light but the series itself is as simultaneously exciting, horrifying, heartbreaking and fascinating as anything out there. If nothing else, this series gives you a brief taste of what only a small sampling of those who served their country in the Second World War went through and for that it's invaluable. Had a bit more effort gone into the extras, this could have easily earned the Collector's Talk rating as the feature content is just that good. As it stands, consider this set highly recommended.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.