To be honest, I never really received good grades in history class, but it wasn't because I didn't have the will to learn. I actually love learning about the history of mankind, but let me tell 'ya, there isn't a single filmstrip or textbook in the world that ever could have hoped to teach me anything about history. It was all too robotic, too mechanical - This was the most powerful civilization during this period, this is how they passed the time, this is how they hunted for food, this is why that civilization fell - yadda, yadda, yadda. It wasn't just the boring presentation that turned me off, it was the fact that those 'learning tools' seemed to completely miss the point. For me, the cold hard facts merely mark the beginning of a history lesson. Poorly written textbooks lay out the facts in a matter of factly, 'that's just the way it was' context, but where our past truly begins and ends is with the human condition. Fortunately, there are plenty of documentaries being released nowadays that are truly able to deliver the information I want, in exactly the way I want it. The most recent achievement in this respect to date is unquestionably the History Channel mini-series, WWII in HD.
Well, I'll spare you the history recap and get straight to point. Many have considered The World at War to be the definitive WWII documentary to date, myself included. Now, although it's true that The World at War goes into far greater detail about the war than the History Channel's latest offering, that doesn't exactly mean the former is a superior documentary overall. The World at War clocks in at over 22 exhausting hours, whereas WWII in HD is a much more reasonable 7 and a half. Quantity never equated to quality for me, and although I enjoyed the classic UK series immensely, I can't deny it often bored me much the way a classroom textbook would. There were plenty of shocking interviews laced throughout, sure, but none of it felt relatable to me. After all was said and done, The World at War, although a great reference series for sheer knowledge, failed to involve me with everything that was going on. If anyone or anything hopes to hold my attention for that length of time, I need to have some sort of connection to keep me interested.
However, WWII in HD opts to have the audience experience the war solely through the personal accounts of 12 American soldiers. Their stories are shared through journal entries that were written both on and off the battlefield throughout the entirety of the war. You'll hear thoughtful words on why it was important for them to enlist for the war in the first place, and over time, you'll hear the tone of their entries change dramatically as they continue to push on through numerous campaigns. Because the entire war is presented to us through these brave soldiers' eyes, this approach will undoubtedly connect each and every viewer at home to the war in a way that no documentary has ever been able to do before. In order to further solidify the true World War II experience for those at home, Lou Reda Productions went through 3,000 hours of unseen color war film, and were able to find footage of the very same battles that each soldier had been a part of. History books and documentaries often make the war seem surreal, but with shockingly exact visuals to back up the thoughts and emotions as recorded by each soldier, WWII in HD is easily able to do what its competition was never able to - Put the war back into a context that's real, into a perspective that every generation will be able to engross themselves in, and identify with. Adding yet another layer to the combination of shocking visuals and troubling journal logs, are interviews with the surviving Americans that wrote the original entries themselves.
Of course, journal writings and war footage isn't enough to tell a fluid and cohesive story, especially when it comes to a topic as broad as World War II, but some excellent narration from Gary Sinise ensures it's all effortlessly pieced together. Now, I know what you might be thinking - I never really cared for celebrity narrative work on documentaries. This isn't Sinise's first experience with narrating though, as he's already proven his worth on Discovery's When We Left Earth. If you haven't seen that series, then you'll most likely be pleasantly surprised by his work here. He's able to convey the proper tone for each event as it unfolds, never dramatic enough to come off as exploitative or disrespectful. A small shift of tone in his voice is able to add significant weight to some of the more dreadful moments within (there are some shocking images of corpses and surgeries throughout), and a small shift in the other direction is able to produce a sense of honor and pride. There's also a noteworthy cast that provides their vocal talent to present the journal entries as well - Justin Bartha, Rob Corddry, Tim DeKay, Mark Hefti, James Kyson Lee, Ron Livingston, LL Cool J, Rob Lowe, Josh Lucas, Jason Ritter, Amy Smart, and Steve Zahn.
I've taught myself a great deal about World War II on my own time, but I was never truly able to imagine what it would have been like to actually be a part of it. I couldn't begin to fathom how it would have affected me, mentally or emotionally. I've always known that war is terrible thing and can forever change the lives of anyone who's brave enough to stand up for what they believe in, but now that I've seen WWII in HD, I think my newfound understanding is going to stick with me for a long time... and this is both good and bad. Bad, because this documentary never goes out of its way to glorify a single aspect about the war, and is therefore effectively able to produce the shock and horror that war should instill in everyone. Good, because after all is said and done, this series is able to produce an unimaginable amount of appreciation for those that have ever, or will ever, put their lives on the line to protect our way of life. Of course, this wouldn't have been possible without Lou Reda Productions going through the long and painstaking process of retrieving this lost and rare footage in the first place (it took them two years to collect and convert into a digital HD format). It's their presentation that makes this documentary series a real winner though, because more often than not, it's pretty easy to forget that WWII in HD is a documentary, and that to me, says more about the quality of the final product than I could ever hope to. If you're a history buff, or simply someone with a curiosity about history, but always find the standard fare to be too dull and boring, WWII in HD is definitely for you.
WWII in HD utilizes the VC-1 codec with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 (1080i), and although the video quality isn't anything like what people have come to expect from a high definition format - even when taking old black and white classics such as Casablanca or The Day the Earth Stood Still into consideration - the transfer isn't to blame. A lot of this footage was taken in some of the most intimate, and dangerous settings that World War II had to offer, and I highly doubt anyone was willing to carry big Hollywood picture cameras along with the rest of their gear. This means the footage for the time was most likely 8mm or 16mm, and being that a lot of this was shot by amateurs, this means the footage is jumpy and loaded with grain. The native aspect ratio of the film footage was obviously 4:3, so blowing it up in order to fill our 16x9 screens didn't exactly do the already aged and deteriorating footage any favors. That being said, it's worth noting that some of the footage looks surprisingly good for its age, especially when taking the film source into account, but there's also plenty of footage that shows its age with a substantial amount of deterioration. It's impossible to judge color accuracy as color tones can vary wildly from one handheld camera to the next, but then again, this is to be expected from this kind of source.
In the end, what really matters is how well this high-def encode is able to handle such a grainy and jumpy film source, and this two disc Blu-ray set seems to handle it pretty well. You're not going to see distracting amounts of macroblocking or anything troubling like that, and despite the fact the 4:3 source has been cropped for a widescreen presentation, it does come across looking surprisingly cinematic at times. I haven't seen the DVD as of yet, but from what I understand, it's a non-anamorphic presentation, and that alone makes this Blu-ray set easily worth the $20 or so it can be had for at retail. With such a grainy film source anyways, I highly doubt the DVD is able to do as good a job at reproducing whatever detail and color clarity the film source has allowed for. For the cheap price, this is a no brainer.
**EDIT** - I've recently had the opportunity to check out the quality of the DVD set, and I can say conclusively that the Blu-ray presentation is definitely better. Although the original 8mm/16mm film footage is presented very well on the standard def DVD set, it comes off looking like... well, old footage on a DVD. Where the Blu-ray trumps the DVD however, is with authenticity, because the high-def presentation is so spot on, it looks like you're watching old film on a projection screen. That makes this purchase over the DVD set a no-brainer.
**EDIT #2** - It seems Amazon had temporarily taken this item down for sale earlier in 2010, due to complaints about the quality of this release. Online complaints seem to indicate some people were having their discs only play in a resolution of 480. I would just like to confirm for anyone who may have doubts about purchasing this release as a result, that my review copy did not have this issue.
Wow. The sound design team has put together an excellent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 presentation together here. Documentaries often get the shaft when it comes to video quality care and especially their sound design, but the sound effects that have been edited through the entirety of this series practically brings modern day Hollywood sound to the war. This was quite a pleasant surprise, as I was expecting a minimalistic, lossy stereo track to accompany the series, but I was absolutely floored. Almost everything sounds realistic to make you feel as if you were really there, a detail that's critically important for this series, as that's what it really set out to do in every perceivable way. The severity and terror of everything that happens is only enhanced by the realistic sound design, as bullets, explosions, and planes will permeate every channel with nearly pinpoint precision. The dialogue remains crisp and clear throughout, unless the source itself doesn't allow for it, and rounds out a very satisfying, and surprising, experience for one of the most memorable documentaries in recent memory.
Character Profiles - Nearly fifteen additional minutes of interview footage from the surviving war veterans.
Finding the Footage - This is a brief featurette (2 and a half mins) that shows how this rare color war footage was tracked down over the course of two years.
Preserving the Footage - This brief featurette (2 mins) shows us the bad state some of the film was in when they were found due to various reasons.
That's all there is. There's really nothing here worth of interest outside of the additional interview time (which is a must watch for everyone), which is a shame. I would have love to have seen some more behind the scenes footage as to how the film was restored and transferred to digital high-def.
WWII in HD is the new standard that every World War II documentary from here on in should try to live up to. As someone who's grown tired of the 'textbook on film' style presentation of most other war documentaries thus far, History's mini-series was a breath of fresh air. A lot of time and care went into trying to tell a coherent story through the personal journal entries of these 12 American soldiers, with the end result being that I was able to identify andrelate to what these people were going through. Being able to hear how they felt, as well as being able to see the actual footage from the battles they were describing, brought numerous aspects of this war into a perspective I've never been able to find until now. I believe the most important aspect to any history lesson begins and ends with the human condition - the thoughts, the emotions, the physical strain, the aftermath - and WWII in HD was able to bring that to the table in a way that no other World War II documentary has ever been able to do before. Even more impressive is its ability to oftentimes make you forget this is a documentary at all, and being that that's almost unheard of in the documentary genre, that really says a lot about what History and the Lou Reda Production team was able to achieve. Despite the lack of extras, the Blu-ray is definitely worth the money over the DVD. How can you go wrong when this can easily be had at retail for $20? If you're not sold on the idea that this kind of footage can really look any different than its SD-DVD counterpart, take into consideration the DVD is non-anamorphic. And if even that's not enough to persuade you into picking the Blu-ray up over the DVD (although I'm not sure how it wouldn't), the lossless soundtrack on this release is definitely a crowd pleaser. Highly recommended all the way.