Each of the 26 episodes of this five-DVD set, narrated by Laurence Olivier, focuses on a particular, specific aspect of the war, starting at the beginning with Hitler's rise to power in Germany and progressing through the end of the war. Because of this focus, each episode examines its subject in detail, going beyond the names-and-dates style of history that I remember being subjected to in high school, to delve into the much more interesting and important issues of "how and why." I learned something new from every single episode, starting with the very first one.
The episodes proceed overall on a regular timeline from the beginning to the end of the war, but since a great deal often happened over a short period of time, the series backtracks at several points to fill in what was happening in different places. For instance, after we are taken through the events from Hitler's rise to power in Germany in the late 1930s to the Battle of Britain and Hitler's attacks on Russia, the next episode focuses on Japan from 1931-1942. An accompanying timeline on the DVDs helps to put things in perspective by showing where each episode fits in the overall course of the war.
The series does an excellent job overall of presenting a well-rounded view of events. We don't just get the Allies' view of things, we also get to see behind the Axis lines, at the forces that impelled the German people onto the course of action that led to World War II. The documentary presents the facts objectively while still capturing the subjective aspect of the war through interviews with people from both sides of the struggle. The one fault of the series is, admittedly, that it tends to go a little heavy on Britain's role in the war, favoring that country in coverage while skimping a bit on how some of the other countries in Europe became involved in the war.
What makes The World at War so gripping is not just its depth and command of detail: it's the incredible use of archival footage. Nearly all of the video included in the series is genuine footage of the events being discussed. For instance, the episode covering the Battle of Britain includes not just interviews with both British and German pilots after the war, but footage taken from actual fighter planes during combat...on both the British and German sides. We are shown footage of battles, preparations for battles, soldiers, politicians... and ordinary people, from the inhabitants of London going about their business even during air raids, to innocent children at Hitler Youth activities, to Jewish shopkeepers whose businesses were destroyed early in Hitler's regime, to the refugees and concentration camp prisoners. There are home videos of Hitler and Eva Braun, and footage of Nazi rallies and meetings, as well as glimpses inside shelters, bombed villages, and death camps. The World at War truly bring the events of the war to life for the modern viewer.
The World at War, which was produced for television, is presented in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio; most of the archival footage is, naturally, in black and white, while interviews and some other footage is presented in color.
The quality of the image is tricky to evaluate. Compared to typical movie or TV program image quality, the archival footage is, objectively speaking, of poor or very poor quality. The key fact to keep in mind, however, is that these images are taken from material that is very old, was of low quality to begin with, or that was never meant to stand the test of time... or all three, as with Hitler's 1930s home videos, or actual fighter-plane camera photos. It's simply amazing that the makers of The World at War even found this material to begin with, and even more incredible that it's watchable at all, which it most certainly is. The picture is often scratched, grainy, and noisy, with harsh contrasts in the black-and-white film... but it's the real thing. A lesser documentary might have taken the easy way out and used clips from movies that re-created WWII events, but The World at War takes the high road and shows the real thing.
In short, I'd sum up my evaluation of the video quality to say that the wear and tear visible in the image doesn't interfere in the least with the effectiveness of the program; it only attests to the authenticity of the material.
The mono audio track includes both the original soundtracks to the archival pieces, and the modern voiceover soundtrack with Olivier's narration; both are quite good. The sound for the older archival footage tends to be a bit muffled, but overall is still perfectly audible. Olivier's voiceover comes across clearly and distinctly, well balanced with the other elements of the soundtrack.
The World at War comes with a fairly extensive set of special features, many of which are solidly integrated into the series overall. Information about the making of the series is presented in a special episode titled "The Making of The World at War," which is oddly presented as the very first episode in the set, though I'd logically think of it as something to watch after viewing the whole series. There is also a brief text section giving background information on the creation of the series.
Historical background information is supplied in each of the DVDs through an overall World War II timeline, a brief history of the war, a photo gallery, and biographies of leading figures. History teachers who are interested in using The World at War's rich content for their classes will be delighted with the detailed scene access for each of the episodes. The chapters in each section are descriptively labeled, and it is also possible to select specific speeches, songs, and maps in the episode, allowing the DVDs to be used highly effectively as a teaching tool.
The fifth DVD in the set contains nearly four hours of additional material in the form of three "special presentations" dealing with topics that, while not directly addressing the course of the war, are closely related. "The Third Reich" takes a look at the cultural and political situation of Germany under Hitler's regime; "The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler" examines the circumstances around Hitler's death; and "The Final Solution" examines the horrors of the concentration camps. Narrated not by Olivier but by Eric Porter, these episodes provide a more in-depth look at the topic, but also use a lot of repeated footage from the main series.
If you want to truly understand World War II – the reasons for it, the people involved, the events themselves, and the consequences of those events – then The World at War is an essential part of your documentary collection. This series is incredibly detailed, highly interesting, and extremely informative.