World War I in Color
Athena // Unrated // $59.99 // July 13, 2010
Review by Nick Hartel | posted July 6, 2010
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The History Channel's 10-part miniseries "World War II in HD" used the gimmick of never-before see, stunning and uncut footage from World War II, to bring in viewers. The result was a very pleasing look at the stories of numerous men and women who served, including those who paid the ultimate price and whose story is only told in letters home. "World War I in Color" despite being a program produced before "World War II in HD," reminds me of the latter. It sells itself on a gimmick: colorized footage of World War I. To a film fan as myself, the very thought of colorizing anything feels like blasphemy, but to the series' credit, it addresses this concern from minute one and the reasoning behind doing so, ends up being acceptable. The gimmick however, is far from the only thing this program does right.

Running six, roughly 50-minute episodes, each narrated by Kenneth Branagh, does an admirable job of covering a key point in modern history that is often neglected by networks like The History Channel in favor of the major wars that followed it. Starting with a quick look at the buildup to the war, the series establishes its tone as accessible and feels very much aimed at those unfamiliar with the war. Once the quick history lesson is out of the way, the series attempts to follow events chronologically, but takes three episodes to look at the three unique landscapes of war: the trench, the sky, and the ocean. The second of these fronts is one of the series' strongest episodes due not only to treasure trove of actual footage, but also a handful of British survivors (who also share their experiences in other episode). While their contribution to the program is nowhere near as substantial as the men and women in "World War II in HD," their words are a fantastic gift for future generations and we are lucky to hear these men speak, especially given their extreme age.

Aside from these brief first hand accounts, historians are interviewed as well providing explanation of various tactics and events. There are no instances of any of the academics talking down to viewers and their contributions are another reason this series is very accessible. Kenneth Branagh's contribution is notable, but never overbearing; he does what a narrator should do, fill in the transitions and objectively explain facts that historians don't cover. The only disappointments of the show are the dramatic readings of the accounts of other people who experienced the war. The voice actors really lay on the cheese in the accent department and do an injustice to the real stories they are relaying. I would have almost preferred at times, they had not included these voice-over sections if not dramatizing the accents was out of the question.

"World War I in Color" doesn't set out to be the definitive documentary regarding World War I. I honestly can't say what program that distinction goes to, but this is still a solid series. It's straight and to the point accessible format may shock some, especially those familiar with The History Channel's attempts to cover similar ground in a much less organized fashion. The first four episodes of the series are the strongest, while the fifth, briefly covering the Eastern Front and glossing the Russian Revolution, is the weakest, feeling too constrained by the runtime. Most of all, the gimmick does what's intended. It makes the war feel far more real than the old grainy black-and-white footage we're used to. Unlike a feature film, I don't feel colorization sacrifices the integrity of the source material and the people responsible for the process have provided viewers with a product that shows time and effort was spent to make footage from nearly 100 years ago look much better than the slapdash efforts that Ted Turner applied to many classic films in the late 80s.


The Video

The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is not pretty, but given the source material being over 90 years old, it's much better than expected. It's low resolution and full of print damage, but is still very much watchable. I suspect there was some clean up done on the original black-and-white footage prior to the colorization. The one frustrating defect is some noticeable compression artifacts on the older footage, while the modern day interview scenes are free of these problems.

The Audio

The English Dolby 2.0 audio track is more than serviceable with Branagh's narration mixed well, although almost a bit quieter than a narrator usually sounds. Atmospheric score serves its purpose well without ever being obtrusive. The lone source of problem comes with interviews of the surviving British soldiers. These men, all over 100 years of age sound frail and at least one interviewee is extremely difficult to understand. Fortunately full English subtitles are provided.

The Extras

While the six episodes that comprise the title series cover the first two discs in this set, Disc 3 houses all the bonus features. Most substantial is "Tactics and Strategy" a 51-minute program covering exactly what the title says. It's a nice additional look at the heart of the fighting and utilizes some animated models to illustrate numerous pieces of information.

"Making the Series" is a 15-minute piece interviewing two of the men behind the series, discussing the structure of the series as well as the amazing footage that is a large selling point of the series and the decision to colorize it. Rounding out the disc are a series of text biographies for key figures of the war, a timeline of the war, and a series of various facts relating to causalities by country.

Last but not least, the standard Athena text supplement is included, although it's lighter than usual, only containing a few written passages about the global effect of the war, the role of women in the war, and advances in weaponry.

Final Thoughts

"World War I in Color" is a solid addition to the film library of war buffs if only for the quality of the archival footage. The base level approach to events is the biggest selling point for those with casual interest and would make a nice starting point before branching out to a more in-depth documentary series. Stronger than expected technical marks and a nice supplemental documentary round out the positives in yet another strong release from Athena. Recommended.

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