The phrases a testament/tribute/honor to "the sacrifice of our fighting men," is an idea I've heard spouted more times than I can remember. I didn't expect to find such a fitting one attached to the History Channel's 10-part miniseries "World War II in HD." When the show made it's much hyped debut late last year, I tuned in midway through the week out of nothing more than curiosity of what the newly discovered footage looked like. Unfortunately, I couldn't sit through the program's commercial breaks when I found myself less interested in the footage and more interested in the narration attached to it.
Fortunately, "WWII in HD" works tremendously well on home video, allowing viewers to follow the war through the words of 12 American's of different backgrounds and ethnicities from the shores of Normandy, to the deserts of Algeria, and all the way to the hellish jungles of the Pacific. The series narrated by Gary Sinise employs some notable names (Rob Lowe and Amy Smart to name a few) to voice the stories of people no different than you or I, who found themselves involved in one of the biggest conflicts that the world has ever seen.
Even more fortunate is a handful of the men are still with us today and there are times when the narration fades mid sentence into one of these men recounting the tales first hand. Their words are humble, free of flowery metaphor, and brutally honest. As I sat in awe of these men, I realized no amount of literary praise can do their stories justice. I can't begin to convey the emotion behind a man now in his 80s recounting how he had to cut the throat of a German soldier to save the lives of himself and his men, or how he still shows guilt for a soldier under his care, disobeying an order and dying before his eyes. When the same man says that, "he knows what it's like to kill a man and it doesn't feel good," very plainly, it strongly distinguishes the line between reality and Hollywood fantasy. It's far more heartfelt than Clint Eastwood barking the same line for dramatic effect in "Grand Torino," despite the latter still being entertaining.
The reality featured in "WWII in HD" is its strongest point. It's not an easy show to watch and it took me ten separate evenings to make my way through the set. Even at roughly 45-minutes an episode, there is a lot to take in. As brutal and honest as the stories are, so is some of the much-hyped footage. I would likely underplay its impact in the long run, but it is just as powerful, used throughout the series not as the gimmick it was hyped to be, but instead, to provide the visceral, visual impact to supplement the soldiers' stories. There is a disclaimer at each of the episodes of the graphic nature of the footage and please heed it. I rarely find any violent atrocity Hollywood commits to celluloid to be shocking; I always try to figure out how they did it. Here, the atrocities, while almost always the aftermath, are gut wrenching. They simultaneously confirm the reality of films such as "Saving Private Ryan" and "Letters from Iwo Jima," but also prove that until you've seen it, you'll never understand the horror. What little the program shows here, makes me thankful I've never had to experience it first hand.
There are only a few aspects of the program that hold it back from being a perfect presentation. Firstly, the packaging claims the makers had access to three thousand hours of footage. The program runs a total of seven a half-hours, with a moderate amount being present day interviews. That being said, there is some noticeable repetition of footage. Secondly, there were instances of the actors pulling me out of the stories they were telling with a small number of overplayed line readings. Finally, the overall ambitious feel of the project can be overwhelming. Twelve stories told in seven a half hours, ends up forcing some disjointed cuts, especially when the viewer is deeply engrossed in the battle of Iwo Jima and is pulled to the opposite end of the spectrum, for instance, the story of a nurse (sadly the only female perspective on the entire program) who served four years treating victims of combat. There are times when the program seems to be trying to outdo "Ken Burns' 'The War'" but ends up in a very close, second place victory.
The bottom line is "WWII in HD" is a must-see. It is by no means a substitute for a more comprehensive, broad telling of the war, such as in "The World at War." It is instead, a vivid document of the human aspect of the war told from those who were there. Each year we lose more and more of our WWII veterans and to have some of the stories of those who lived to tell their tale and those whose stories ended abruptly in combat tied to some of the most vivid, uncensored footage seen is a true blessing.
In the interest of not having an aneurysm from frustration, I'll quickly say "WWII in HD" comes with a 1.78:1 non-anamorphic presentation. There is a great irony when a presentation with HD in its title comes with a non-anamorphic transfer. For the record, it still looks good considering the lion's share of the footage comes from 1940s era 8mm and 16mm stock. The HD in the title doesn't mean modern HD quality, but again, no one should have expected that. I can't say too much in terms of color levels since they vary considering the nature in which the footage was originally shot. The bottom line is it's a real treat to have color footage from all the American fronts in this good of shape preserved for future generations.
The only technical flaws pop up in the more recently filmed segments of the surviving soldiers. I noticed some aliasing and light compression artifacts here. It's also worth noting to some purists, especially given the uniqueness of the footage, that it is cropped for the 1.78:1 presentation. That fact might have set better with me, if History decided to make this the title to finally get with the program and release an SD anamorphic presentation.
The English Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix is not nearly as impressive as one might expect. The tales of the soldiers are the focal point audio wise, and the simple English 2.0 track also included would have been more than enough. The 5.1 track only distinguishes itself in moments where the obviously newly created audio gets a chance to shine. Fortunately all audio is clear and easy to understand, even through aspects and voices that at times, become shaky with age and emotion.
Three minimal extras appear on Disc 3. "Character Profiles" are extended looks at the surviving men who had their tales told during the miniseries. It's nice to have their standalone footage in one place, but when it's all done and said, it's all stuff you've heard, and obviously only a fraction of what was recorded. "Finding the Footage" and "Preserving the Footage" could have easily been combined into one four-minute featurette instead of the two-minute segments. They are far too brief to be of any value and only make me interested even more in seeing the behind-the-scenes aspect of bringing this project to fruition.
Looking past the unsurprising sloppy technical presentation of "WWII in HD" on DVD, the program itself will easily stand the test of time. It will hopefully serve as a powerful teaching tool for young and old alike. As I said above, no amount of gussied up praise and critical analysis will substitute for the heart and soul of this program. Highly Recommended.