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World at War

A&E Video // Unrated // August 24, 2004
List Price: $149.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted September 5, 2004 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The British Imperial War Museum, Thames Television and Fremantle Media collaborated on this epochal docu miniseries on World War II. It has not yet been bettered, even though the Anglo-centric point of view will sometimes generates surprises for Americans.

The massive boxed set is perhaps best suited for library purchases; at $150 it's not going to be an impulse acquisition for most of us. If the miniseries weren't staggering enough, it's accompanied by four discs of bonus documentaries. None of them are filler, but full-on docus detailing sidebar aspects of the war.

All in all, the set is an absorbing entertainment and an exhaustive reference document.

The 26 Episodes (52 minutes each):

A New Germany: 1933 -1939; Distant War: September 1939- May 1940; France Falls: May-June 1940; Alone May 1940 - May 1941; Barbarossa: June-December 1941; Banzai!: Japan 1931-1942; On Our Way: U.S.A. 1939 - 1942; The Desert: North Africa 1940 - 1943; Stalingrad: June 1942 - February 1943; Wolf Pack: U-Boats in the Atlantic 1939 - 1944; Red Star: The Soviet Union 1941 - 1943; Whirlwind: Bombing Germany September 1939 - April 1944; Tough Old Gut: Italy November 1942 - June 1944; It's a Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma 1942 - 1944; Home Fires: Britain 1940 - 1944; Inside the Reich: Germany 1940 - 1944; Morning: June - August 1944; Occupation: Holland 1940 - 1944; Pincers: August 1944 - March 1945; Genocide: 1941 - 1945; Nemesis: Germany February - May 1945; Japan 1941 - 1945; Pacific: February 1942 - July 1945; The Bomb: February-September 1945; Reckoning: 1945 ... and after; Remember.

I've read Shirer's The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich which is itself a staggering experience; like the majority of American baby boomers, my immediate family background is WW2, the cataclysmic event that made most of my parents' life decisions for them. The World at War puts all the best film clips into order and the facts into line with a decidedly English flair for dramatic understatement. The reigning American counterpart to this miniseries is the 1953 Victory at Sea, a stirring but emotionally driven series remembered mostly for its music score and its vindictive, almost ferocious narration.

The World at War was made by an Allied nation that risked and lost much in the war, yet maintains a balanced view of events. Viewers are encouraged to become emotionally involved and to choose sides in the American show, made only a few years after the armistice. Listening to Laurence Olivier's sometimes ironic but compellingly rational voice, the overwhelming effect of The World at War is the catastrophic loss 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 not something to gloat over.

Only Americans insistent that their forces be always acknowledged first and America be enthroned as the saviors of the world will find fault here; The World at War tells stories about theaters of war that are never mentioned in American glory docus. There were major defeats in Norway and Finland I had forgotten about. The powers of Europe dawdled in political mires while Hitler gobbled up the middle of the continent, and America waited for two years before becoming involved in the struggle to save the world. It took the dramatic attack at Pearl Harbor to finally get things going, while politicians stuck to WW1-era isolationist policies.

The World at War uses several 50-minute shows just to do beautiful historical backgrounds on the major combatant nations, carefully choosing excellent film and newsreel materials to illustrate their points. There's a better understanding of German politics (Hitler consolidating power by using one secret police organization to liquidate another) and Japanese politics ("government by assassination") than I've ever seen on film. Made just short of thirty years after the events depicted, the docu was able to compile hundreds of excellent interviews from the real participants. It's an eye-opening experience, for example, to hear the story of Japanese air power right from the two famous leaders of the Pearl Harbor raid. There are no self-appointed after-the-fact "experts" here; it's almost all prime source testimony.

The best aspect of the show is the faithfulness in its visual representations. There are hours of excellent-quality on-the-spot film footage that I've seen nowhere else. When the narration speaks of action in a particular battle, we aren't shown generic shots sloppily thrown together, but 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 accuracy is convincing and the level of detail is compelling. There's little emphasis on hardware or military machinery (a major fault of newer cable docus) except as applies to the battles themselves; we see how frustrating and useless tanks can be when they start to break down from bad terrain and bad maintenance. There is a smattering of Hollywood footage that sneaks in, a couple of seconds of ships from Action in the North Atlantic 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 used a repeat of 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. His final episode is an almost non-linear poetic appraisal of the enormity of the catastrophe that WW2 was, with the world saved from fascism only to be left in a scarcely-improved state of disarray and hostility. This is good history; when victories are celebrated there's never the taint of arrogant righteousness.

Bonus Documentaries:

Secretary to Hitler (Traudl Junge), The Two Deaths of Adolph Hitler, Warrior (archival interviews about combat), Hitler's Germany: The People's Community 1933-1939, Hitler's Germany: Total War 1939-1945, The Final Solution Part One, The Final Solution Part 2, From War to Peace. Plus a new show, Making the Series and Experiences of War (unseen interviews from the archives of the Imperial War Museum). Bios, photo galleries.

These docus are on an equal footing to the main minseries and can be considered as extended sidebars. The same creative names crop up in the credits. They 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. This all comes under the heading of precious documentation. It will be especially enlightening for those who get their history from Clint Eastwood movies or revisionist re-readings of the last century's upheavals.

A&E's colossal disc set of The World at War is one of their best. The shows are all in excellent shape and the remastering has included a cleaner audio mix (2 channel Dolby digital stereo) than I remember from television. Color footage shows up from time to time to remind us of the great job done by the film archivists and researchers.

The eleven discs are neatly packed in individual slim-type keep cases in a sturdy cardboard box. Menus and artwork are functional and attractive but not distracting. An A+ presentation.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The World at War rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: 12 hours of additional docus, bios, photo galleries
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: September 4, 2004

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