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Victory at Sea
The Legendary
World War II Documentary

Victory at Sea
History Channel/NBC, New Video
1952-'53 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 26 x 30 min. episodes / Street Date September 30, 2003 / 79.95
Narrator Leonard Graves
Coordinator Robert W. Sarnoff
Tech advisors Frank Coghlan Jr., Captain Walter Karig, USN
Film Editor Isaac Kleinerman
Original Music Richard Rodgers, conducted by Robert Russell Bennett
Written by Henry Salomon with Richard Hanser
Produced by Henry Salomon
Directed by M. Clay Adams

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

A staple on television in the 1950s, Victory at Sea seems to have been running in my head for the last 50 years. The first long-form documentary about WW2 made just seven years after the end of hostilities, this NBC program was for many the first time the combat story of the war, at least the part in which the Navy participated, was told on television.

With a sweeping music score as memorable as the newsreel footage from which it was made, this series helped form the accepted standard for WW2 memorabilia - that the war was a righteous sacrifice that saved the world from chaos and tyranny. Although it strains most of the rules of documentary filmmaking, it still carries potent emotions.


World War Two at sea is told in 26 half-hour episodes that start 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.

The first thing is Richard Rodgers' symphonic music. 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 gives Victory at Sea a distinction apart from other TV war docus; when the choice of material gets repetitive or questionable, the way the music works with the images saves the day. This show was a music video for sailors. Millions of ex-servicemen undoubtedly felt ennobled by the tribute.

Nothing like this had yet been done in 1952, gathering miles of newsreel footage to tell such a broad story. When we were young, we marveled at the amazing footage. Now it's more than a little suspect, because besides authentic war newsreels, much of the docu consists of film taken from wartime signal corps and training films, and Hollywood feature films. Pearl Harbor 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 getting lots of use. Eiji Tsuburaya, the special effects whiz who created Godzilla, restaged 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 has the face of a Japanese star familiar as military men in scores of Japanese 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.

Until I was an adult, I never questioned the source of much of this 'documentary' footage. It certainly makes the show exciting. If the intention was to create a docu-drama, it's successful.

The narration is equally effective, albeit rather dated. Leonard Graves' voice sounds like an avenging angel. There's no doubt or ambivalence toward anything happening in Victory at Sea; the narration is harsh and pure. The enemy are mostly 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' was the name of a Rogers music cue) and enemy actions are always described with sinister malevolence. There's little 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 sunk, there's a definite tone of a blow being struck for God and the victims of Axis aggression. It's certainly a valid approach, but Leonard Graves made us kids feel that the war was still on, and we needed to jump up and defend America right now! Unlike the ubiquitous 'voice of doom' Paul Frees, Graves must have used a different pitch on other work; I don't recognize him from anything else.

Seen all at once, the episodes of Victory at Sea aren't as perfect as modern war docus. Early shows with limited footage to use 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 there are 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 Rogers tune for a show about Romeo and Juliet. A folksy violin refrain returns for scenes of men relaxing or reading mail from home.

The editing is often remarkable, and sets a standard that many modern shows could learn from. There are many montages, such as one of war production activity, that are beatifully 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)

The show finishes with an emotional curve that at the time captured America's hearts and reinforced the feeling that the whole country had experienced mighty epochal times. There are some major heart tugs employed in the score. Rogers uses a Hollywood-style 'breathless musical moment' to synch with a famous shot of a Navy officer running down a gangplank to embrace his wife. It must have grabbed the entire nation when the series aired for the first time. The last 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.

NBC/The History Channel/New Video's DVD set of the legendary World War II documentary Victory at Sea is an overall good presentation. Each show is introduced by The History Channel's Peter Graves, on a cold New York Navy dock. Although many of the shows look terrific, with crisp pictures and bright sound, some appear to come from older masters or perhaps even 16mm sources, as if the library had sustained loss or damage over the years. These differences won't seem as great on a smaller monitor.

There are four tough plastic slim cases in a card box, alternating between six and seven episodes each, a nice balance. The dates for each episode's first broadcast are there - the initial run of the series was between October 26, 1952 and May 3, 1953. The menuing is attractive but gets in the way. One must sit through the score fanfare before getting to the show choices, and the episodes are not playable without the Peter Graves intros.

I'm curious as to what became of the cut-down feature version of Victory at Sea that constantly used to play on Television. Without the need to pad footage or repeat music, it packed a lot of impact into two hours, and had a particulary strong emotional ending. It might have necessitated a fifth disc, but it would have been a great extra - Victory at Sea lite.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Victory at Sea rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good (variable)
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: None
Packaging: Slim cases in card box
Reviewed: October 2, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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