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They Filmed the War in Color: The Pacific War

Koch Vision // Unrated // November 7, 2006
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by David Cornelius | posted November 15, 2006 | E-mail the Author
Visit any video retailer with a war documentary section, and you'll find a decent handful of discs promoting themselves as featuring footage of World War II in vibrant color. What's important to realize is that it's not the color (or lack thereof) of the footage that makes any war documentary good or bad, but the presentation itself. One of the better entries into this subgenre is René-Jean Bouyer's series "They Filmed the War In Color," produced for French television in 2000 and recently reworked for American television and video with a retooled English narration courtesy of Geoffrey Bateman.

Bouyer's series breaks down into two ninety-minute chunks: "France Is Free!," which details the history of the war from the French viewpoint, and "The Pacific War," which focuses entirely on the American conflict with Japan.

Being an American story told by and for the French, "The Pacific War" is a curious but effective and educational film - the only questionable part of this "outsider's version" comes in an overuse of a particularly bouncy rendition of "Yankee Doodle" on the soundtrack, as if that's the only patriotic tune the filmmakers could think up. There's also a seemingly out-of-place reference to a French leader witnessing Japan's surrender which was likely added to remind French viewers of the relevance of such things, yet may seem a bit odd to those unaware of the film's origins. Everything else comes from such a neutral perspective and with such attention to Stateside detail that you'd never realize it wasn't an American production if you didn't read the credits.

The entire film consists of vintage color footage - no modern footage is included at all; the only additions are the narration and the subtitles which reveal place and date - which makes for a highly effective storytelling tool. Bouyer lets the original films speak for themselves. He's dug deep, going all the way back to color film taken in Japan in 1939, which is presented here as an example of the only images of the Japanese people to reach the States; American soldiers were facing an enemy about which they knew almost nothing.

The impressive collection of found footage begins early, with a look at a recreation of the attack on Pearl Harbor as filmed for the government by John Ford, who wanted a propaganda piece to show to the public, yet canned the film when they saw how fake the models looked. Instead, we are told, President Roosevelt ordered documentarians to travel alongside the military with a limited supply of color film stock. Roosevelt, realizing the power of image, felt such footage would rally the American people behind the war effort. Later, he would come to learn of the power of restricting certain footage, creating a "restricted reality" to be shown to the public.

Because of such restrictions, much of the footage Bouyer presents here has long been unseen, squirreled away in archives and left out of newsreels and other such exhibitions due to their graphic nature. As much as the film is quick to explain the justifications for the war, it's just as quick to remind the viewer that war, as the saying goes, is hell. Raw imagery seen here includes footage of the earliest uses of napalm, the aftermath of the Battle of Saipan, and, most shocking, pictures of Japanese civilians leaping to their death to avoid being captured.

Bouyer refuses to whitewash the war, openly discussing morale difficulties, body counts, and the nation's greatest wartime embarrassment, the internment of Japanese Americans. The true terror of battle comes through in ways often avoided by such history projects. Yet as grim as the film gets, it's also eager to celebrate the more optimistic aspects of the war. This includes not only ample footage of the celebrations at war's end, but of home front efforts, such as rationing, war bonds, and the rise of women in the workplace.

"The Pacific War" is a surprisingly complex and comprehensive account of the war, cramming six years of history into an hour and a half with ease. History buffs may wish for greater detail regarding individual battles, but as a general overview, Bouyer's efforts are commendable.

But, of course, it all comes down to the main selling point: the color footage. Bouyer makes sure not to make this the lone focus of his film, and as such, we can be impressed with just how much valuable material he has found while simultaneously focusing on the history lesson. The film clips seen here are noteworthy (I'm quite fond of the color footage of Emperor Hirohito and the abandoned American propaganda works), and help make "The Pacific War" an admirable study of history's turning point.



All footage here is presented in their original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, with varying quality. Grain is everywhere, and many prints come with ugly scratches. But then, this is unavoidable, considering the origins of the footage; Bouyer's efforts were not to fully restore the films but to merely find them. For what it's worth, the majority of the film stock retains its vibrant color, and there are no digital artifacts gumming up the presentation. Not perfect, but much better than expected.


The Dolby mono soundtrack is clear, minus the rare occasion film stock has corresponding audio. The narration and music are modern recordings and as such sound crisp and clear, with one exception: in one scene, the narration accidentally speeds up for a moment, an overlooked error in the editing room. No subtitles are included.


None, except for a few previews for other Koch releases that start up when the disc loads; you can skip past them if you choose.

Final Thoughts

If your eyes lit up just a little at the first sound of the disc's title, then yes, this is for you. Bouyer has produced a solid documentary that may repeat information history buffs already know well, but it's repeated in top form. Recommended to anyone who can't live without the History Channel and its various cable offspring.
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