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 conflict of the past century: The World at War, Victory at Sea, and The Century of Warfare. I'll 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 time can really be judged from a historical standpoint. That comment stuck with me and the more I thought about it, the more I came to realize that Nixon was correct. It takes that long for emotions to cool, for long term effects to become 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 Germany down, with strict regulations and a crippling repayment schedule, but it ended up doing the exact opposite. Of course if you wait much longer than the, the first-hand sources are no longer around and 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 when a proper historical perspective could be gleaned, yet when many of the people who witnessed the events unfold were still alive. Thames Television also invested a lot of money in the production (it was the most expensive British TV show ever produced at the time) and took their time to do a thorough research and to track down the people who were there.
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 length that were compiled later from unused footage), the series covers all of the major events in the war, from the rise of the Nazi's in Germany, the annexation of the Sudetenland, and the invasion of Poland to the nuclear bombing of Japan, 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) which was culled from archives from all over the world. (People who spend a lot of time watching The History Channel will recognize some of the shots. There are some scenes that seem to turn up in every other WWII docu that airs on that channel, but a lot of unique footage too.) The series is narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier (though the episodes that were complied later are voiced by Eric Porter) whose voice is perfectly suited to this sort of subject, and the film clips are tied together with interviews 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 Japanese officer who planned the attack on Midway Island, members of the German High 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 marines who 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 decisions rather than the bigwigs themselves. These people were less likely to try to spin the story to make themselves look good, they were often just standing in the room, and therefore could speak more 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 that would be needed for tires on military vehicles. Rationing was starting, but they didn't have the authority to halt the 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 items ceased.
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 Peabody Award, and went on to establish documentaries as a practical, and profitable, 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 well as other countries to find as much footage of naval battles, fleets, and ships as they could. Ultimately ending up with an astounding 11,000 miles of film from all sides of the conflict, this presents a 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 the battle at Midway which cost the Japanese four aircraft carriers and D-Day, the largest amphibious assault in history, the more well known battles are covered extensively. The program is very inclusive however, and lesser arenas are also examined such as the US defense of Alaska and engagements in the South Atlantic as well as the role that US submarines played 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 raged 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 jab at 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 events.
The Century of Warfare:
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, this 26 installment British show (each episode is about 52 minutes long) doesn't bring 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 events leading up to WWI, including the Boer War and the situation in Europe at the turn of the previous century. It then progresses through the major wars, though the focus is on WWII which has 12 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 an episode with the rise of communism in China!), and Viet Nam gets a single installment too. They do get kudos for including a section on the Middle East, and another on the first Gulf War, though the latter would have doubtlessly turned out differently if it was being made today.
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 documentaries in this collection, and generic background music. After listening to the fantastic compositions that Richard Rodgers (of 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 interviewed. Instead the story of every great conflict from the past 100 years is explained by a narrator, Robert Powell, who tries to make the events come alive but ultimately fails. The single perspective gives viewers the feeling that they're back in high school listening to a mediocre history teacher drain all of the interest 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 and it does provide a lot of information. Compared to the other two top-tier documentaries in this set however, 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 episode guide.
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 there wasn't 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, but this 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 expect for 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 clear (even more impressive when you consider the conditions that it was acquired under.) Some of the footage is scratched but that's to be expected.
Victory at Sea is in the public domain and has been available from several different discount DVD companies but the version in this set looks significantly better than the cheap 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 series, and these are all included. These 8 episodes include installments on life in Germany before the war, a look at the final fate of Adolph Hitler, and a two-part show on the extermination of the 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 series of text biographies and photo galleries.
Victory at Sea has a series of introductions by Peter Graves that were filmed for the show's 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 recommended.