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Desert Victory: The Battle of Alamein

Koch Vision // Unrated // March 10, 2009
List Price: $24.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Jeffrey Kauffman | posted March 10, 2009 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:
London's Imperial War Museum is one of the most impressively vast collections in the world of archival data in various forms on man's apparent inability to "just get along." Originally founded to document Britain and Canada's involvement in The Great War (WWI), the museum has kept pace with each succeeding conflict, amassing huge amounts of material just in its film archive alone. That archive has been used for many relatively recent compilations like the classic The World at War series, segments of which are still being hawked today by Time-Life Videos. However, the archive also maintains some fascinating material shot during WWII and released either during that conflict, or directly after it, and the Museum is now releasing these in a new series which includes this title.

I was born to one of the members of "The Greatest Generation," and my father was a much decorated World War II infantry battalion commander who just happened to spend quite a bit of his overseas exploits in Northern Africa, so I heard about several of the campaigns covered in Desert Victory and its supplemental documentaries first hand. Desert fighting had its own perils, including the obvious ones like dehydration and heat prostration, not to mention perhaps less immediately obvious ones like what to do during sandstorms. Couple that with Rommel's revolutionary tank strategy and it's little wonder that the ultimate Allied victory throughout that arid region is rightfully seen as one of the major turning points of the conflict.

Desert Victory, which won the 1943 Best Documentary Oscar, is a thrilling account of the British 8th Army's advance, centered mostly on El Alamein. This visceral piece of filmmaking includes some gut wrenching battle scenes which, despite their age and source element damage, still contain enough literal punch to take the viewer's breath away. What is amazing about this particular piece is the array of archival footage featured, not just from the expected British and Allied sources, but also from film captured from the Germans.

The British strategy of pounding Rommel's Afrika Corps supply lines ultimately led to some halting give and take victories (Tobruk, for example, which is covered in some of the supplemental material), but ultimately led to the showdown in El Alamein. Interspersed with the battle footage are the standard animated maps showing the strategies about to be deployed.

Augmenting Desert Victory on disc one is something 180 degrees from that film's absolute veracity. It's a studio bound American training film called Land and Live in the Desert, a sort of 1940s version of Survivorman ostensibly recounting the "real life" tale of a bomber crew shot down in the desert. It's amazing to contrast the American Hollywoodized version of desert survival, with elegant tracking shots and wisecracking airmen, with the actual footage from Desert Victory. It's not always a pretty comparison, but I guess it can be forgiven in that Land and Live wasn't presented to the audience as a documentary, but to soldiers and airmen about to embark on a life and death enterprise overseas where their survival skills might come into play.

Disc Two includes three pretty good to excellent features, the longest of which is Wavell's 30,000. It's interesting that while British Generals like "Monty" Montgomery have entered the public lexicon, perhaps due to their larger than life personas, workaday people like Field Marshall Wavell, who came within a hair's breadth of singlehandedly defeating the Axis powers in Northern Africa, are largely forgotten today. This excellent piece documents the Libyan campaign, which leads naturally into the subject of two shorter featurettes, The Siege of Tobruk and Defenders of Tobruk. Both of these secondary documentaries show the heroic efforts of the Australians in holding out during the six month siege of the North African port when they were surrounded by land and only had tentative contact with other Allied forces via the sea.

While history at large may tend to concentrate more on the big ticket items like D-Day (covered in the other Imperial War Museum set I just reviewed), it's important not to forget these just as important auxiliary campaigns which paved the way for the Allies to ultimately take back Europe. Desert Victory and its kin documentaries included here are thrilling, of the moment pieces that help modern audiences relive one of the epochal series of battles of the 20th century.


All of these full frame black and white documentaries are pretty spotty, to say the least, and in fact are noticably worse than even the pretty bad image quality of the other Imperial War Museum set I reviewed recently. Overcome with nonstop scratches and abrasion, there's also really bad crosshatching in some of the footage captured from the Germans, and some of the night battle scenes are so dark and contrastless as to be virtually impossible to see. Historical value always wins out in situations like this, but forewarned is forearmed--none of these features, with the possible exception of Land and Live in the Desert, which is in relatively good condition, is in very good shape.

Again, as I often say in cases like this, the soundtracks have made it through the gauntlet of time much better. The narration is always clear, and underscores by such vaunted talents as Richard Addinsell all sound reasonably good. There is occasional hiss and compression issues, but no real egregious drop-outs or other anomalies. No subtitles are available.

As I indicated in my Imperial War Museum True Glory review, I'm sure Koch considers the "bonus" documentaries aside from the main title to be extras, but, honestly, would anyone buy any of these items as standalone DVD titles? All of the supplemental documentaries are interesting in their own way, as described above, so you can alter your own Extras star rating accordingly.

Final Thoughts:
Desert Victory provides a good overview of one of the great battle locales of World War II. If the supplemental documentaries are more narrowly focused, they're no less compelling. This is a fascinating set of pieces about an often forgotten aspect of the Allied offensive. Recommended.

"G-d made stars galore" & "Hey, what kind of a crappy fortune is this?" ZMK, modern prophet

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