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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Century of Warfare
The Century of Warfare
A&E Video // Unrated // June 24, 2003
List Price: $139.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Holly E. Ordway | posted July 15, 2003 | E-mail the Author
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The movie

Like it or not, warfare has had a defining influence on the twentieth century. From World War I to conflict in the Middle East, wars have raged over the course of the century and in all corners of the globe. What caused these hostilities, what were the consequences of these wars, and what can we learn from past history that can help us to create a more peaceful future? The 1993 documentary The Century of Warfare takes viewers back to the very beginning of the 20th century to explore these issues, from pre-WWI to the Gulf War.

It's a massive set, and for good reason: it covers a tumultuous and violent century, in which the world suffered two major world wars as well as far too many regional hostilities. Explaining the various wars of the past century is no easy task: as we find in The Century of Warfare, there is rarely a simple cause for any conflict. The episodes here do a solid job of laying the groundwork for each war as well as explaining how it unfolded. The program starts out with an overview episode, "The Violent Century." Here we get a fast-paced overview of both the conflicts that have raged over the globe in the past hundred years, and the ever-changing technology of warfare.

The first war that's covered in detail is World War I, the "Great War." Six episodes in total are devoted to this conflict: "The World Goes to War," which explores pre-WWI conflicts around the globe and explains how escalating national tensions led to the war, "Blood and Mud," covering trench warfare on the Western Front," "War of the Eagles," switching to the Eastern Front, "Battle Fleets and U-Boats" and "Aces High," covering the naval and air aspects of the war, and finishing up with "War to End All War?", addressing the conclusion of the war and the Treaty of Versailles.

The intervening years between World War I and II are covered in "Enter the Dictators" and "The War Clouds Gather," before starting in on World War II in "Blitzkrieg," dealing with Hitler's invasion of Poland. Ten more episodes on World War II follow: "Britain Stands Alone," "Sand and Sea War," "Hitler Turns East," "The Long Road Back," dealing with Germany's defeat at Stalingrad and its response to this failure, "Normandy to the Rhine," "The End in Europe," in which we see the Allied leaders planning for the future, "Oriental Blitzkrieg," which steps back to look at Japan's entrance into the war, "Jungle and Ocean" on the U.S. island-hopping campaign, "The War at Sea," and "Air War."

Following the conclusion of World War II, "Iron Curtain" examines the cold war situation, while "Oriental Communism" takes us to the various regional and international conflicts in Asia throughout the century. "Wars in Peace" focuses on post-Cold War terrorism and civil wars. "Vietnam" and "War in the Middle East" follow, with the program concluding with "Gulf War and the Future."

As this description proves, The Century of Warfare certainly tackles a broad stretch of history; it's an ambitious project, and one that comes off well. Right from the start, we can see the solid style of presentation that will be followed throughout the program. Chronological order is generally followed; while at times an episode will move backward on the timeline to focus on a different geographical area (as with the Western and Eastern Fronts of WWI), the time and place of the episode is always clearly indicated. The style is sober but never dull, and the episodes are very informative, providing a definite sense of the development of events and technology over time. Maps are used to excellent effect throughout the program, which was a great help to me; I appreciated how the maps were used in both general orientation (for instance, indicating the political boundaries of the countries in a region) and to illustrate tactical moves during a war (as with the complex attacks and counterattacks of the German and Allied forces in World War I).

The most amazing part of The Century of Warfare is its use of archival material. As I've noted, the documentary begins in the years before the start of World War I in 1914, and incredibly, the program includes film footage from that time period and onward. "On the spot" footage is used from worldwide sources throughout the program, but I have to say that I was particularly impressed by the earliest material. The actual film footage of real soldiers, generals, and battles of World War I brought home a greater sense of the significance of this conflict, which in history books tends to pale in contrast to the better-documented World War II, although as we see in The Century of Warfare, it was indeed both devastating and influential.

The essential question, with a documentary this ambitious in scope, is whether it presents its material in both an understandable and an interesting manner, and The Century of Warfare comes out very well in both regards. In every episode, I always felt that I was learning something new, and that the material was being presented in an interesting and well-organized manner. Some of the material is highly complex no matter how you look at it, such as the history of the Middle Eastern conflicts, and the documentary does a very creditable job of presenting the facts and background information in a comprehensible manner. The Century of Warfare sets out on an ambitious program and lives up to its billing, offering an insightful and thorough look at the violent 20th century.

The DVD

The Century of Warfare is a seven-disc set, with the DVDs packaged in individual plastic keepcases inside a sturdy and nicely designed cardboard case.

Video

The Century of Warfare is one of those programs that is difficult to rate in terms of image quality, simply because of the nature of the source material. What we see is footage from news cameras, material captured in rough conditions with cameras and film that were definitely not "feature film quality." Furthermore, the "century" of the program's title is no joke: what we're seeing is archival footage from an entire century, and you can imagine that it hasn't all been stored in exactly ideal conditions all that time.

So it's not surprising that the image quality of The Century of Warfare is pretty rough, compared to what we're accustomed to in films and documentaries filmed in the modern day. But what's truly amazing is that we're seeing this material at all... and that it's as good as it is. Considering the age and origin of the video material, it's unexpectedly good.

The earliest material is the most impressive. We get a substantial amount of film footage from pre-World War I, as well as a great deal of World War I material. That's right, the first world war: material that's nearly a hundred years old, captured by the very first of the modern breed of camera-toting news reporters. Understandably, there are a lot of scratches and other print flaws, and the image quality (especially contrast) is fairly rough, but the amazing thing is that we're seeing these images at all. I would venture a guess that this early footage has also been restored at least to some degree.

The modern material is also a bit rough around the edges: not in terms of wear and tear on the print, but in the low resolution of the images and the often washed-out colors. Again, though, we have to give credit where it's due for even seeing this footage at all: we're seeing the action on the front lines, right in the thick of things.

All in all, I've given The Century of Warfare a solidly positive score for image quality, reflecting the fact that while the image quality is not ideal in the absolute sense, they're really very good considering their sources. The episodes are all presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio.

Audio

The Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack is perfectly satisfactory for this program. The most important aspect of the soundtrack is the quality of the narrative voiceover, and here The Century of Warfare does fine, with Robert Powell's narration always clean and clear. Background music is frequently used, and is always nicely balanced with the other parts of the soundtrack.

Extras

There are no special features included on the set, but with 22 hours of documentary to watch, you're getting your money's worth in any case.

Final thoughts

Warfare was sadly a defining feature in the history of the 20th century, and even more sadly, promises to be of great importance in the 21st century as well. The Century of Warfare takes on an ambitious task, to examine the multitude of wars both great and small that have shaped the modern world over the course of the past century, and carries it off very well. From World War I to the Gulf War, the 26 50-minute episodes offer an insightful and interesting look at a tumultuous century, and I highly recommend this set.

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