Acorn Media's new "Athena" division gives us yet another perspective on World War II with Secret War, a 13-part series that focuses on espionage and covert operations. The bulk of this subject matter is told from a British perspective circa 1940 and beyond---when Hitler's armies occupied the bulk of mainland Europe---and concerns itself with Winston Churchill's development of the Special Operations Executive "secret army". Interviews with surviving members, relatives and historians are often mixed with lesser-seen WWII footage, creating a more intimate experience than your average by-the-numbers war documentary. This often proves to be an effective and thoughtful approach...and if nothing else, each 50-minute episode does a decent job of standing on its own and filling in pieces of a larger picture.
Episode List: "The Special Interrogation Group", "Hardy Aimes: Operation 'Ratweek'", "The Mafia Connection", "Double Agent Tricycle", "The Banker, The Norwegians and the Bomb", "The English Scholar and the Fight for Greece", "The Dutch Disaster", "The SAS Italian Job", "The Spymistress and the French Fiasco", "The French Triple Agent", "Christine Granville: Polish Spy", "Agent Garbo" and "The Aristocrat and the Balkan Communist". These 50-minute episodes are divided between 3 or 4 per disc.
Secret War does have its fair share of action, suspense and intrigue, which isn't always the case with historical documentaries. Here's the problem, though: some portions of the documentary are paired with overly dramatic music and occasionally heavy-handed narration, both of which distract from the subject matter at hand. The material on its own is often entertaining enough, but Secret War's presentation style habitually drifts into sensationalistic territory. To its credit, this 13-part series does more right than it does wrong, but it's hard to ignore such faults when viewing the material in larger doses. In any case, highlights include episode 3's profile on mobster Charles "Lucky" Luciano, a number of segments on foreign double and triple agents, episode 7's detailed synopsis of British Intelligence disasters, the nuclear arms race, a five-year focus on fated Polish spy Christine Granville and much more.
Secret War arrives exclusively on DVD just a few short months after its debut on Discovery's Military Channel in January...but in more ways than one, this four-disc set doesn't improve upon its broadcast counterpart. The A/V presentation isn't a bad effort, but a lack of bonus features makes Secret War's $80 price tag seem a bit excessive. So while this 13-part series definitely has its moments, the niche subject matter and overcooked presentation style don't make it universally required viewing.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio and enhanced for 16x9 displays, Secret War looks good with a few mild reservations and general nitpicks. For starters, the ample WWII footage looks understandably rough...but it's also been cropped, which certainly doesn't help matters. Mild amounts of interlacing and edge enhancement can also be spotted at times, though the vintage still photos and newly-recorded interview segments are generally crisp and clear. So while it's no surprise that documentaries can vary wildly in regards to image quality, some of Secret War's shortcomings could have been avoided.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix isn't ambitious but still gets the job done. Secret War's bad habit of using overly dramatic music may be irritating on a subjective level, but at least it sounds robust and dynamic. Dialogue, narration and occasional added sound effects exhibit no obvious flaws either, rounding out the audio presentation nicely. Optional English SDH captions are included during each and every episode, while occasional burnt-in subtitles are already provided for translation purposes.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the film's lightly animated menu designs offer smooth and simple navigation, although a number of forced trailers must be skipped beforehand. Each 50-minute episode has been divided into six chapters, no obvious layer changes were detected and these discs appear to be locked for Region 1 playback only. This four-disc set is housed in individual thinpak cases with attractive one-sided cover art and a descriptive outer slipcase. An informative Booklet
is also tucked inside, which includes a brief chronology of WWII and articles on Winston Churchill, resistance movements, MI6 and more.
Aside from the booklet mentioned above, no bonus features have been included. An audio commentary or two might have been nice, but the lack of deleted scenes is an even bigger disappointment.
Strictly for WWII history buffs, Secret War is a bit too prickly to be considered accessible entertainment for casual viewers. This proves to be a mixed blessing: the raw information presented here is two steps forward, but the somewhat heavy-handed presentation style doesn't do it any favors. Acorn Media's four-disc DVD package doesn't hit all the marks, pairing a decent technical presentation with no real bonus features. Considering this boxed set's inflated price tag, Secret War isn't necessarily recommended as a blind buy...but there's still more than enough here to warrant a closer look. Rent It first.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey from Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off and writing stuff in third person.