The English documentary miniseries The World at War was produced in the early 1970s, the perfect time to solicit direct testimony from the men that did the fighting. The youngest soldiers of WW2 were still in their forties, and some of the generals and diplomats were still functioning as well. The production extended to 26 hour-long episodes, which today would equal two and half seasons of the average TV show. Beautifully researched and illustrated with an amazing array of authentic film footage, the miniseries is given a final stamp of quality by Laurence Olivier's brooding, pensive narration.
Although the slightly Anglo-centric point of view will generate a few surprises for Americans, the historical aspect of this epochal docu has not yet been bettered, not even by Ken Burns. A&E's massive nine-disc Blu-ray boxed set has been given the same price point as the older heavy DVD box that contained eleven discs. The new set contains all of the extras of the older DVD, and more (see below).
All in all, the set is an absorbing entertainment and an exhaustive reference document. It's been visually reformatted, so check out my evaluation at the end of the review.
Like the majority of American baby boomers, my immediate family background is WW2, a cataclysmic event that determined the course of my parents' life. The World at War arranges its film clips and facts with a decidedly English flair for dramatic understatement. The then-reigning American counterpart to this miniseries was the 1953 Victory at Sea, a stirring but emotionally driven series remembered mostly for its music score. Its self-righteous, vindictive narration script treats history like a hard-boiled "Revenge!" radio drama.
The World at War was made by producers in an Allied nation that lost much in the war. Yet it manages a balanced and objective view of events. Listening to Laurence Olivier's sometimes ironic but compellingly rational voice, the overwhelming context of The World at War is catastrophe on all sides. The German Nazis and the Japanese imperialists were the villains, yes, but in this newer miniseries the suffering of their people and soldiers is never seen as something to gloat over.
Only viewers insistent that their forces be acknowledged first and America enthroned as the saviors of the world will find fault with the show. The World at War tells stories about theaters of war rarely mentioned in American glory docus. There were major defeats in Norway and Finland I had frankly never heard of. It is true that we see campaigns involving the English in more detail, but we also get hours of eye-opening footage of the Russian front.
Several episodes of The World at War present insightful histories of the major combatant nations, carefully choosing film and newsreel materials to illustrate their points. There's a better distillation of German and Japanese politics than I've ever seen on film. The docu gathers excellent interviews from foreign combatants. Nazi architect Albert Speer goes on camera with his rather wistful memories of the darkest period of German history. We hear the story of Japanese air power directly from the two famous leaders of the Pearl Harbor raid. We see few self-appointed after-the-fact "experts" here; it's almost all prime-source testimony.
The show knocks us out with hours of excellent-quality on-the-spot film footage. When the narration speaks of action in a particular battle, we are shown footage from the specific event being talked about. In other words, when you see a certain airplane fighting in Russia, it's never some convenient stock shot from Burma. The level of detail is compelling. There's little emphasis on hardware or military machinery except as applies to the battles themselves; we see how frustrating and useless tanks can be when they start to break down in bad terrain. A smattering of Hollywood footage does sneak in when a couple of seconds of ships from Action in the North Atlantic appear in the U-Boat episode. But that's the exception to the rule. The editing is mostly above reproach. The single disappointing passage I noticed in the whole show was a lame couple of minutes that repeated the same soldiers shouting "Banzai!" to dramatize Japanese victories in Indochina.
Series producer Jeremy Isaacs sees that The World at War is overlaid with a layer of grim dramatic poetry. A concluding episode is an almost non-linear poetic appraisal of the enormity of the catastrophe, with the world saved from fascism only to be left in a scarcely improved state of disarray and hostility. And that's followed by "Remember", a sober reflection of the psychic calamity represented by the war's countless deaths. When victories are celebrated there's never the taint of arrogant righteousness. This is good history.
A&E's 9-disc Blu-ray set of The World at War tops their 2004 DVD box in all respects. The 26 hour-long shows were finished on film in 1974, allowing Freemantle Media to transfer them to HD anew. The major stylistic difference is that the original 1:33 frame has been slightly cropped to 1:78 for widescreen HD TVs. The wartime source material is almost all 35mm of good quality, and because the on-the-fly combat photographers rarely had the luxury of framing formal compositions, re-centering the image north/south on the screen leads to few problems.
The only footage to suffer are some of the less attractive talking head interviews filmed on 16mm. Heads can be tight on the top, especially when the telecine artist needs to retain "lower third" text identifying the speaker, etc. Overall the widescreen image enlarges the frame enough to give us a better focus on the subject matter. Combat cameramen haven't time to make a careful selection of lenses; they're more likely to just get their subject in the crosshairs, shoot and run.
The occasional color shots from Kodachrome originals look pretty good too, as do the maps and other visual aids used to clarify battle strategies. I approve of the widescreen reformatting choice. I feel that the new framing improves the film's look.
The menuing system makes navigating within the episodes easy. New features include episode synopses that allow one to find particular passages quickly (I located the docu's coverage of the Graf Spee incident right away), and little special contents locators within each episode permit the quick re-viewing of passages with songs, poems, special montages, maps, etc. This time out A&E has also taken the trouble to program removable subtitles for everything in the set, including extras. This means that the hearing impaired can finally enjoy this show, perhaps even some surviving veterans from the events depicted.
Much of the second Blu-ray disc is given over to Bonus documentaries:
These docus are on an equal footing to the main miniseries and can be considered as extended sidebars. The same creative names crop up in the credits. The shows range from concentrated looks at individual issues (the Holocaust, Hitler's demise), to the combat experience, to expert rumination on the meaning of the outcome of the war and how the postwar political environment had changed. These shows may be especially enlightening for those who get their history from Clint Eastwood movies or revisionist re-readings of the last century's upheavals.
The two fat keep cases holding the nine discs come in a thin card box that serves little purpose once the package is opened. Everyone lists the set as being distributed by A&E Home Video, but that logo doesn't seem to be present on the product. "History HD", History.com, NewVideo, Talkback Thames and Freemantle Media logos do appear.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The World at War Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.