Seven years ago Savant reviewed a History Channel multi-disc DVD set of the old Victory at Sea docu TV series. As the quality of that release was good but not great, I jumped at the chance to review a new boxed set from a company called Mill Creek. It's ridiculously cheap, and comes in either normal packaging or a "Collectible Tin". More on my discovery below.
Victory at Sea seems to have been running in my head for the last 50 years. A staple on 1950s television made just seven years after the end of hostilities, this NBC program was a must-see for veterans, the first time their story of combat (emphasizing the role of the Navy) was told in an extended format. Edited from hundreds of hours of (at the time) unseen combat footage, and with a sweeping symphonic Richard Rodgers music score, this series set the standard for WW2 nostalgia, affirming that the war was a righteous struggle that saved the world from chaos and tyranny. Although it violates most of the rules of fairness in documentary filmmaking, Victory at Sea still evokes potent emotions.
The show is organized in 26 half-hour episodes that tell the story of WWII at sea, starting with the English Navy's efforts against the Axis in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, America's entrance into the war after Pearl Harbor, the battle for the North Atlantic and the Navy's key role in the South Pacific Theater.
Richard Rodgers' impressive music brought Victory at Sea to life. I remember the opening theme as the first 'soundtrack' a four year-old kid could understand: a giant ship pitching in high seas, steaming against the elements on some valiant mission. Perhaps not great art, the specially commissioned score holds Victory at Sea distinct from other TV war docus; when the choice of combat footage becomes repetitive (or questionable), the thundering music usually saves the day. Call the show a music video for armchair admirals: millions of ex-servicemen undoubtedly felt ennobled by the tribute.
Nothing like Victory at Sea had yet been done in 1952. Miles of newsreel and combat footage were gathered to tell a story with a very broad scope. When we were young, we marveled at the amazing footage. Now some of it is more than a little suspect. In addition to authentic war newsreels, much of the docu consists of film taken from wartime signal corps and training films, and even Hollywood features. The Pearl Harbor episode has many shots taken from John Ford's WW2 docus, one of which restaged the attack.
Foreign footage gets into the act as well, with seized Japanese feature films about the war in the Pacific seeing plenty of use. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects whiz who created Godzilla, created his own Pearl Harbor in miniature, and many of his shots show up here, intercut with real images taken on Dec. 7. One 'newsreel' shot of Japanese fliers preparing for battle shows the face of a Japanese film star noted for playing as military men in scores of Toho fantasy films. Likewise, footage of activity in the Atlantic borrows liberally from German features about the submarine service. The half-dozen oft-repeated angles of torpedoes firing and coursing through the water are from Warners war pictures.
I personally never questioned the source of much of this 'documentary' footage until I was an adult. It certainly makes the show exciting. If the intention was to create a docudrama, it's successful.
The narration is equally effective, although its attitude can startle modern viewers. Vocal talent Leonard Graves sounds like an avenging angel. There's no doubt or ambivalence expressed about the Allies' actions in Victory at Sea; the narration is harsh and pure. Our enemies are pitiless monsters and every act of war is an outrage to be answered with blood and steel. The war is compared to a calamity of nature ("The Pacific Boils Over" is the name of a Rodgers music cue) and enemy actions are always described as sinister and malevolent. There's little actual name-calling -- I believe I heard the word "Hun" once or twice, but never "Jap" -- but the voice of Victory at Sea is definitely that of righteous vengeance. When opposing forces are brought to heel, or enemy ships are sunk, the lesson is that a blow has been struck for God Almighty, not just the victims of Axis aggression. The approach is certainly effective, but it's all tailored for a Cold War stance. Leonard Graves made us immature kids feel that the fighting was still on, and we needed to jump up and defend America right now! I'm sure the movie was a great enlistment booster.
Victory at Sea isn't as polished as modern war docus. Early episodes recycle some shots three and four times over, and the same gunnery views of Japanese planes being shot down over the Pacific crop up scores of times over the 26 episodes. And as the score has only six or seven main themes the music can become repetitious as well. A romantic piece for pretty shots of ships cruising out of harm's way was apparently re-purposed from a Rodgers tune for a Broadway show about Romeo and Juliet. A folksy violin refrain returns for scenes of men relaxing or reading mail from home.
Just the same, the editing is often remarkable, and sets a standard that many modern shows could learn from. Many montages, such as one of war production activity, are beautifully cut for rhythm and content. All are free of the debasing 'cut-to-the-music' post- Top Gun editorial masturbation that passes for montage cutting today. (editor's sour opinion) Victory at Sea's editor Isaac Kleinerman was also the cutter for Stanley Kubrick's RKO short subject, Flying Padre.
The show finishes on an emotional note that reinforced the feeling that the whole country had experienced mighty epochal times. The score brings out some major heart tugs. Rodgers uses a Hollywood-style "breathless musical pause" to synch with a famous shot of a Navy officer running down a gangplank to embrace his wife. That moment must have grabbed the entire nation when the series aired for the first time. The final episode ends like a sermon, with familiar but soul-wrenching oaths sworn over the waters that were a grave for so many. The big 'V' fills the screen with all the emotions of Victory, as bells ring and the music plays on.
My intention in buying Mill Creek's DVD set of Victory at Sea was to perhaps improve on the earlier History Channel DVD set, which looked good but had plenty of room for improvement. This new set only convinces me that Victory at Sea must have fallen into the public domain. Potential buyers also need to know that a new Blu-ray edition may be on the way (its status is uncertain at the moment; perhaps General Tojo wants residuals). Amazon identifies it as a three-BD disc set.
The first thing we find out about this new Mill Creek release is that it encodes all thirteen hours of the show on just two DVD discs. And the review copy I received in the mail came with a disclaimer banner assuring me that the Mill Creek copy is far better than an unnamed "other" release. Highly suspicious. The two overloaded discs remind me of an ad campaign from back in the 1960s: "How did they get four whole tomatoes in that itty bitty can?"
The fat DVD case is a ruse, for when opened it reveals that the two discs are perched in a pair of paper sleeves; the extra thick package is totally unnecessary. For a few extra dollars, the Mill Creek release comes in a "Collectible Tin", suitable, I suppose, for hiding cigarettes or car keys, or perhaps smuggling drugs. The surprise comes when one pops on the disc and takes a looksee. The shows are all there, intact, with a reasonably watchable picture and okay audio. I stress this fact to acknowledge that if you just want to watch this on a small monitor, the disc is not an insult. Folks looking for a quality presentation will not be thrilled, however. On a large monitor the picture is washed out and betrays expected encoding limitations. A very detailed shot might show patterns of itty bitty box-like digital artifacts, and fades lack a decent gradient from light to dark -- black oozes across the screen like a digital tide.
One positive remark is that the shows do without the pointless Peter Graves intros on the old History Channel discs ... inanely written speeches that were difficult to skip. And as I've yet to see a really good video presentation of this show on DVD, this Mill Creek two-disc set (Amazon only wants $6 for it!) might be a good placeholder until a definitive release comes along. Just don't give it as a Christmas gift to a video-savvy person, and expect to see back flips of joy.
I still wish that someone would resurrect NBC's cut-down feature version of Victory at Sea that once played constantly on Television. Without the need to pad footage or repeat music, it packed a maximum impact into two hours and was very nicely edited, with a particularly strong and emotional ending.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Victory at Sea rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.