A&E has bundled together three of the most popular
documentaries on WWII into one very impressive set aptly named WWII: The Essential Collection. Consisting of a trio of in depth multi-part
series this includes the best of TV documentaries on the greatest
the past century: The World at War, Victory
at Sea, and The Century of
look at each series individually.
The World at War:
I once watched an interview with Richard
Nixon where he stated that 20-25 years have to pass before an event or
really be judged from a historical standpoint.
That comment stuck with me and the more I thought about it, the
came to realize that Nixon was correct.
It takes that long for emotions to cool, for long term effects
apparent, and for unintended consequences to reveal themselves. A good example is the Treaty of Versailles
that was signed at the end of WWI. A lot
of people at the time thought it was an effective way of keeping
with strict regulations and a crippling repayment schedule, but it
doing the exact opposite. Of course if
you wait much longer than the, the first-hand sources are no longer
historians have to rely on what documentation they've left.
The World at War
is a British TV production that was created in that short range of time
proper historical perspective could be gleaned, yet when many of the
witnessed the events unfold were still alive.
Thames Television also invested a lot of money in the production
the most expensive British TV show ever produced at the time) and took
time to do a thorough research and to track down the people who were
It took four year to create, and the result is the
definitive documentary on WWII. Told
over 26 hour-long episodes (with an additional 8 episodes of varying
that were compiled later from unused footage), the series covers all of
major events in the war, from the rise of the Nazi's in Germany, the
of the Sudetenland, and the invasion of Poland to the nuclear bombing
the Nuremburg trials, and the ultimate rift in the Allied coalition. It's an incredibly through series.
The story of the last century's greatest conflict is told
through film taken at the time (including some rare color footage)
culled from archives from all over the world.
(People who spend a lot of time watching The History Channel
recognize some of the shots. There are
some scenes that seem to turn up in every other WWII docu that airs on
channel, but a lot of unique footage too.)
The series is narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier (though the
were complied later are voiced by Eric Porter) whose voice is perfectly
to this sort of subject, and the film clips are tied together with
of witnesses and participants.
The thing that sets this show apart from all the other
documentaries on WWII is the people that are interviewed.
They don't get historians to give their
interpretation of events, the tracked down people who were there: The
officer who planned the attack on Midway Island, members of the German
Command, and advisors to President Roosevelt.
Those are supplemented with the recollections of the 'regular
folk': civilians who lived through the
Blitz, soldiers who fought their way up the Italian peninsula, and
stormed the Pacific Island beaches.
One of the brilliant things that they also did was to
concentrate on the aides and assistant to the people who made the big
rather than the bigwigs themselves. These
people were less likely to try to spin the story to make themselves
they were often just standing in the room, and therefore could speak
freely. One of my favorite anecdotes
from the series was told by a bureaucrat in the US War office. When the US entered the war they soon
realized that the country was cut off from all supplies of rubber, and
would be needed for tires on military vehicles.
Rationing was starting, but they didn't have the authority to
sales and manufacture of everything made out of rubber.
They finally decided to do it anyway. They
typed up a document and sent it through
the approval process. Once inside the
bureaucratic system it was pushed through and the manufacture of rubber
Though it is very long, the show is never dull and always
engaging. A magnificent documentary.
Victory at Sea:
This was one of the first big 'television events.'
Originally airing in 1952-53 on NBC without
commercial interruption (for the first episode at least) Victory
at Sea was an impressive piece of television. With
a huge (for the time) budget of $500,000
the 26 half-hour episodes garnered many awards, including an Emmy and
Award, and went on to establish documentaries as a practical, and
genre that TV audiences would accept.
This show was the first documentary to really search the
film archives of the world for footage from WWII. They
crew, as is explained by the introductions
to each episode by Peter Graves, went to Russia, Germany, and Japan, as
other countries to find as much footage of naval battles, fleets, and
they could. Ultimately ending up with an
astounding 11,000 miles of film from all sides of the conflict, this
very thorough look at the naval battles from all theaters of the war.
Starting with the buildup of the German fleet and the early
battles in the North Atlantic, the program gives a complete discussion
of the major
conflicts that occurred at sea. From the
attack on Pearl Harbor that severely damaged the US Pacific fleet, to
battle at Midway which cost the Japanese four aircraft carriers and
largest amphibious assault in history, the more well known battles are
extensively. The program is very inclusive
however, and lesser arenas are also examined such as the US defense of
engagements in the South Atlantic as well as the role that US
in the war.
This is an excellent show, though it's clear that the
writers were still a product of their generation. The
narration often strays over to purple
prose just a bit, which makes the series feel a little dated, but it
also has a
bias that isn't seen is The World at War.
When the show proclaims "for Fascism to
survive... it must kill" for example, it's clear that the feelings that
during the war were still present. Of
course, that in and of itself is an interesting historical data point
too. The flowery language and occasional
the Axis powers don't really harm the show to any significant degree. This is mainly due to the thorough nature of
the program. Even though it occasionally
boils a complex situation down to a simplistic sound bite, it always
goes on to
examine the event in more detail and never just glosses over important
The Century of
This final series is just as ambitious as the first two, if
not more so, but it fails to live up to the standards set by the other
documentaries in this collection. Released
in 1993, a bit premature to cover the entire 20th Century,
installment British show (each episode is about 52 minutes long)
a lot of new information to the table.
Starting with the arguable premise that the 20th
Century was the most violent in man's history, the program starts with
leading up to WWI, including the Boer War and the situation in Europe
turn of the previous century. It then
progresses through the major wars, though the focus is on WWII which
episodes devoted to it.
The first 20 installments bring us to 1945, and a mere six
episodes cover the rest of the century.
One episode is devoted to the Korean War (and that had to share
episode with the rise of communism in China!), and Viet Nam gets a
installment too. They do get kudos for
including a section on the Middle East, and another on the first Gulf
though the latter would have doubtlessly turned out differently if it
Aside from the uneven treatment of the main flaw with the
series is its low budget and bare bones approach to the subject matter. The show is made entirely of public domain
footage, much of it used to better effect in the other two
this collection, and generic background music.
After listening to the fantastic compositions that Richard
Rogers and Hammerstein) and Robert Russell Bennett created for Victory at Sea, hearing the dreary songs
used for this show was a real let down.
In addition, there are no historians or military experts
the story of every great conflict from
the past 100 years is explained by a narrator, Robert Powell, who tries
the events come alive but ultimately fails.
The single perspective gives viewers the feeling that they're
high school listening to a mediocre history teacher drain all of the
and excitement out of studying the past.
It's too bad that a little more money and effort couldn't
have been devoted to this project because it does have a lot going for
it. It gets points for the ambitious scope
does provide a lot of information.
Compared to the other two top-tier documentaries in this set
the series' flaws are all too evident.
This massive collection compiles all three documentaries on
22 DVDs. These are housed in six single
width quad cases that come in a slipcase along with a nice fold out
The two channel mono
soundtrack that all three shows feature does the job.
These are all dialog based, with just about
all of the vintage footage being silent and sound effects added, so
much call for anything other than a solid front-based mix.
It's too bad the last documentary didn't have
a subwoofer channel for some of the explosions in the later episodes,
is a minor complaint.
With a mixture of old, and sometimes ancient, footage and
new it's hard to give a grade that will accurately reflect what to
this set. The old film varies in
quality, naturally, and even the newly filmed parts to The
World at War are over 30 years old now. This
set does give a nice image I general,
with some of the WWII-generation film being astoundingly clean and
more impressive when you consider the conditions that it was acquired
under.) Some of the footage is scratched
to be expected.
Victory at Sea is
in the public domain and has been available from several different
companies but the version in this set looks significantly better than
copies that I've seen.
There are some nice bonus items for The World at War,
while the other two series don't have much in the
way of extras.
There are three discs of extras devoted entirely to The
World at War. As mentioned earlier, there
were some extra episodes made for the original videotape release of the
and these are all included. These 8
episodes include installments on life in Germany before the war, a look
final fate of Adolph Hitler, and a two-part show on the extermination
Jews. There's also a making-of special
that runs about an hour and is much more than just a fluff piece, a
retrospective from the show's 30th Anniversary, as well as a
of text biographies and photo galleries.
Victory at Sea has
a series of introductions by Peter Graves that were filmed for the
airing on the History Channel, and that's it.
The Century of Warfare doesn't come with any bonus items.
Consisting of two outstanding documentary series and a flawed but still
informational one, this set is a great buy for any history fan. The first two shows alone are worth the price
of admission, making this set highly