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The World at War-Part 1 (1974)
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Details At A Glance
Main Menu Audio & Animation
Notes-A Brief History of The World At War
Year Of Production
412:55 (Case: 417)
Dual Disc Set
|Cast & Crew
NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.
55 million people is a lot of people. That would represent close to three times the current Australian population. It was roughly the size of the total pre-war German population.
It was the number of people killed during the Second World War.
I start my review in this fashion because it is the human toll taken by the war, rather than the pure recitation of historic facts, that is the primary theme of The World At War. I will admit to quite a bit of trepidation when I began the task of reviewing the series, containing, as it does, 32 hours of video spread over 10 discs and presenting a summary of the background and proceedings of the entire Second World War. This was to be a significant task, but I quickly realized that the task was nothing compared to that undertaken by the more than 50 production staff over 3 years to create the documentary series in the first place. Of course this, in turn, was absolutely insignificant compared to the unimaginable horror and suffering experienced by hundreds of millions of people from almost every part of the globe during the lead-up to and duration of the war. To this day, 55 years after the onset of peace, the European continent continues the process of recovery and rebuilding.
It is perhaps easy for young Australians to discount the significance of World War II in their day-to-day lives. After all, the majority of our population were born since the war's end - some children would now represent the third post war generation. With the exception of the Darwin bombings and the Sydney Harbour submarine attack our continent was spared the destruction of battle. However, our entire world has been shaped by the outcome of the war. The cold war, our alliance with the US and the impact that nation has had on our culture, the creation and subsequent breakup of the Soviet empire and the massive migration emerging from its former republics, the rise of Japan as an economic powerhouse (even with its political and economic difficulties of the last decade) and the break-up of global empires to be replaced by a myriad of frequently unstable and impoverished new nations can all be traced directly to the effects of the war. Even a short visit to central or eastern Europe will show the scope of cultural loss that will last forever.
So, enough of my poor commentary on the war itself. Let's say something about these discs and the series they contain. The World At War was made back in the early 1970s, about the same length of time after the war as we are now from the series' premiere. The "Making of" featurette included on Disc 1 sets out the aims of the series' producers, but in essence they can be described as bringing the first coherent telling of World War II to television in a format that showed both the large scale issues (those affecting armies and nations) and the more personal issues affecting normal individuals. The latter have been brought to life by the recollections of many people from a diversity of positions.
Clearly, no single work can describe in detail all of the important aspects of an event that involved so many people over more than six years. Television is good at some things, primarily in telling a linear story with the support of sound and images, but bad at others, in particular in providing detailed analysis of the "whys" and "hows" of complicated, interrelated strands of events. Jeremy Isaacs admits that he was only able to concentrate on 15 major battles plus a small number of related historical items during the series. Therefore, as excellently as the series achieves its goals, it is forced by the medium to ignore almost all of the posturing, ideology and argument that went into decision-making. This is a shame but that's practicality.
The entire series is contained in five double DVD box sets. Four of these sets each cram 7 hours of video material plus photo galleries and simple biographies onto their two discs, the other has 4 hours of material. To date I have only identified minor variation in quality between individual discs so I shall primarily consider the series set by set rather than disc by disc.
Part 1, Disc 1
Part 1, Disc 2
- The Making of the Series (48:14 minutes)
Perhaps this could have been considered to be an extra, but given the format of the discs into a series of 52 minute episodes, this item struck me as almost like "Episode 0". In fact it was made in 1989 and features the producer, Jeremy Isaacs, in a very personal, fireside introduction to the purpose and philosophy of the documentary makers. Isaac's obvious feeling for the human side of the war is clear. He also uses this as an opportunity to present an honest appraisal of the material being shown. In most of the cases of original newsreel and other film archives there was no soundtrack to go along with the pictures. One of the more significant jobs that went into the making of the series was the dubbing of widespread sound effects - it is worthwhile to remember this when viewing the material. Another admission is that wherever some uncertainty existed in the interpretation of events the producers presented their view as fact. This, of course, is a dangerous route to follow. I found the overall effect of this "episode" to be quite emotional and more than worthwhile. One lasting memory for me was an interview with a German housewife in which she relates the horrific secret she has lived with since the war. This, as much as anything else, shows the evil that was spread during those days.
- Episode 1. A New Germany (1933-39) (51:52 minutes)
As an opener to this episode and to the series as a whole, we are shown the ruins of a French town that traced its history back a thousand years - its inhabitants murdered by German troops as they retreated from the allied onslaught during 1944. We are told that many of the soldiers responsible for the murders were themselves killed in battle over the ensuing weeks and months. Thus we are presented at the outset with the fruits of war. The leadup to the appointment of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor and the subsequent activity of Germany leading to the outbreak of war can really be traced back to the end of the First World War. Hitler's imprisonment following his putsch of 1923 allowed him time to develop and publish his ideologies and strategies, and he remained remarkably true to these until his death. His actions after he came to power say as much about his opponents as they do about him. The rise of the Nazi Party and the political intrigues that preceded 1933 make fascinating reading, yet these are ignored entirely by this episode (see my comments above regarding the need to keep things simple for TV). However we are given a glimpse of the state of mind of the German people during the 1930s, living in a state of economic and political collapse, and the attitude of appeasement on the part of the British and French governments. The environment was right for the emergence of a strong leader but it would be more than 10 years before the German people realized the true nature of their new Fuhrer.
- Episode 2. Distant War (September 1939 - May 1940) (51:48 minutes)
Following Chamberlain's declaration of war in September 1939, the British population experienced the period of "phoney war". The German military machine ground on through Poland and made preparations for the invasion of Norway while France and Britain showed all the ability of a troop of boy scouts. Winston Churchill's venture to assist Norway met with similar success to his campaign at Gallipoli over 20 years previously.
- Episode 3. France Falls (May - June 1940) (52:24 minutes)
Britain's great hope in the early days of the war was the French army. The fact that both France and Britain were living in the past was shown by the speed with which the Wehrmacht swept through France and into Paris. Within a few months, the entire continent had been conquered by Germany, with Italy as her ally in the south. Russia used the chance to occupy eastern Poland and the Balkans. Great Britain stood as Hitler's sole opponent.
- Episode 4. Alone in Britain (May 1940 - June 1941) (51:35 minutes)
The evacuation from Dunkirk is shown (why do so many British military "triumphs" involve total defeat, e.g. Charge of The Light Brigade, Gallipoli, Dunkirk?) and the end of the Battle of France. There followed the Battle of Britain - the British Empire's "finest hour". London and many other English cities felt the might of the Luftwaffe, but British fighter command was able to defeat the Germans with a big dose of home ground advantage, cunning and not a small amount of technical advances. British and Commonwealth (that's us) armies attempted a counter attack in Northern Africa and Greece, but the latter again turned to disaster. The German inability to conquer Britain was one of the critical factors leading to her ultimate defeat.
- Episode 5. Barbarossa (June - December 1941) (52:26 minutes)
The German-Soviet Pact of 1939 had allowed Germany to pursue her objectives in Europe while giving Russia free entry to Eastern Poland and the Balkans. However Hitler's ultimate aim, described in full in Mein Kampf in the mid 1920s, was to defeat the "evil communist empire" of Russia. At the heart of this was the central Nazi principle of the superiority of the German race over that of the Slavic races to the east. Hitler saw the vast Russian nation as a rich source of raw materials, slaves and "living room" for the German people. That belief led to the biggest killing fields in military history as first the Germans, and then the Russians, seized the opportunity to slaughter their enemy. This episode includes a very small number of scenes from original film footage showing some of the victims of this slaughter - they are not pretty to watch. The suffering of civilians and soldiers on both sides was appalling, and the presentation in this episode is a passionate argument against war. Germany's defeat in Russia was the first step towards her ultimate defeat several years later.
- Episode 6. Bonzai - Japan Strikes (1941 - 1942) (51:58 minutes)
I found this episode to be the weakest so far. Perhaps this is a result of the Anglo-centric view of the producers, but the background to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour seemed to be presented in a particularly abbreviated fashion. That's unfortunate, because the average European, and Australian, viewer (including myself) probably has a lot to learn about that aspect of modern history. The Japanese campaigns in China (including several "horror" scenes from the Nanking Massacre), Malaysia, The Philippines, Singapore and, of course, Hawaii are presented here with little significant interpretation.
- Episode 7. On Our Way - USA (1939 - 1942) (52:38 minutes)
The episode begins with a solemn President Roosevelt proclaiming in September 1939 that he trusts that America will stay out of the war being fought in Europe. The US public was very much split on this topic. Film footage from a large meeting of the US Nazi party is a chilling reminder that not everyone around the world saw Nazism in its true light. This divide also extended in the opposite direction, with American trade unions disrupting shipping to England on the basis of their ties to Russia and that nation's 1939 pact with Germany. Pearl Harbour, and Hitler's immediate declaration of war on the US, changed that feeling immediately. If this episode does nothing else it clearly portrays the mighty industrial powerhouse of America, her resultant military capacity, and the impossibility of Germany's position as her adversary. The Battle of Midway is presented, almost as a sideline. This may be the particular view of the British, but of course it was the turning point for the war in the Pacific.
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It is important to bear in mind the nature of the material on show here. The majority of pictures are from original newsreel, propaganda and war film sources. This is supplemented by a large number of modern (i.e. 1970s) personal interviews and the odd modern scenic reference shot. A number of simple animated graphics, largely based on large-scale European and Pacific maps are also used. The quality of the material varies from the (rarely) terrible to the (slightly less rarely) excellent. Even the modern photography varies considerably, presumably because of the large number of filmmakers involved and the wide range of conditions and equipment with which they had to work. We can be quite relieved, however, that all of the footage was shot on film, rather than on video tape, so we never have to suffer through horrible video-induced artefacts.
Being made for television, the disc is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1. Even if this weren't the case, so much of the archival footage was shot in this format that it would have been senseless to attempt anything else.
With the exception of some of the personal interviews, predominantly those with former senior British political and military leaders, the pictures exhibit varying degrees of lack of sharpness. The few exceptions display quite marvellous clarity together with very realistic colours and skin tones. Graininess is a constant companion. Some of the best images are exhibited by footage from German propaganda films, which had achieved considerable sophistication during the year's following the Nazis' rise to power. The depth of blacks and the very good contrast and cleanliness of much of the footage suggest some form of restoration has been carried out. In fact, evidence of this is provided by The Making Of episode in which Isaacs illustrates some of his personal comments with excerpts from the series. The quality of these excerpts is rather ratty - colours are faded, pictures display considerable scratches and other artefacts and the sound is badly affected by crackles and pops (bear in mind that this episode was made in 1989). In comparison, those same scenes within the series proper are surprisingly clean. Obviously, footage captured by some very brave/foolish cameramen in the midst of battle suffers from lack of control over lighting and just about anything else. In Part 1 the material that suffers the most is from the Russian front, where fighting was particularly brutal and where the effects of cold weather further aggravated the situation. I would guess that the film stock used by Russian cameramen was of lesser quality than that of their German or American counterparts. In some cases the overall effect is reminiscent of very early, heavily-deteriorated silent films - clarity is close to nonexistent and scratches are prolific. Nevertheless I prefer these few absolutely poor cases to the alternative: a restaged event involving thousands of Soviet troops purely for the sake of the cameras (an example of which is included).
Other than the modern footage, all film stock is black and white. There is never any intrusion of phantom colours. The modern colour footage tends to show undersaturated colours.
I've already commented on the general nature of the footage. Film artefacts are, of course, abundant, but much less than expected given the age and nature of the material. I couldn't detect any MPEG compression problems, but in the midst of all the other marks they might be hard to find. All in all I got the impression of a quite competent transfer. This is commendable given the sheer volume of material on each disc and the need for heavy compression.
Although all the discs are formatted as Dual Layer DVDs (with 7 hours per disc, I'd hope so!), I never found the layer changes. I would have guessed they were placed at the end of episodes.
Video Ratings Summary
The soundtracks are made up of four distinct components: Lawrence Olivier's commentary, sound effects dubbed over the top of original film footage, modern personal interviews and some occasional original recordings of political leaders or entertainers. Olivier's voice is nigh-on perfect for the job, providing a level of authority that sets the series apart from many others. He is able to turn a single word or phrase in such a way as to make the horror of what he is describing just a little more real for the viewer. The sound effects are so natural that you simply accept them as being real (perhaps some are).
There is only a single English Dolby Digital 2.0 audio track. The bulk of the sound is modern, and is almost virtually totally free from noise. The interviews exhibit a mild style of hollowness that reflect their recording in living rooms rather than professional studios, but you would have to be very picky to notice. I found no audio sync problems.
The music is by Carl Davis, and I must say it brought back a flood of memories from the time when the series was first broadcast here. I was too young to either view or understand it so that the sound used to waft through to my bedroom from the family room where Dad would be watching it. It is simple but captures well enough the mood of the series.
The impact of the series is through pictures and the spoken word. There is no need or use made of the surround channels or the subwoofer.
Audio Ratings Summary
|Surround Channel Use|
Time Line Menu The menu is ingeniously designed in the form of a time line, with each episode represented by a bar showing its chronological relationship to the war itself and to the other episodes. The menu is common across all discs, and all episodes are shown even though only a small number would be accessible on the disc in the player. It takes a little while to get the hang of it all, but after 32 hours and 34 episodes you'll have well and truly mastered it.
Photo Galleries Each episode is presented with its own sub-menu, from which a small selection of relevant archival photographs can be accessed. The selections are not large, typically comprising only two photographs. For this reason I don't consider them to be of huge value, although I was fascinated to see Hitler and Chamberlain's entire Munich Agreement (the "Peace In Our Time" agreement) included, complete with signatures.
Insert Points Each episode's sub-menu also provides the viewer with the ability to jump directly to points of particular interest within the episode, generally under the headings of "Speeches and Quotes", "Graphics" and "Songs and Poems". This facility, again limited, could nevertheless be useful for history students searching for some particular item.
Episode Summaries Provides a short summary of each episode in turn.
Brief History of The World At War A history of the series itself, not of the world's wars. I think this is pretty much an opportunity for the series' makers to brag a little about their achievement.
Biographies of Major National and Military Leaders Painfully brief bios of 17 of the major political and military leaders from the US, UK, Germany, Italy, Japan and Russia. Handy if you've never heard of Douglas MacArthur or Joseph Stalin, but if that's the case you need a serious review of your history lessons!
Web Link Links to the sites of the series and the Imperial War Museum.
R4 vs R1
NOTE: To view
non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually
also NTSC compatible.
I could find no reference to the series either for sale or reviewed in the US, so I must assume that we have the definitive product available here.
This series provides an excellent overview of the story of the Second World War. The quality of presentation on disc is probably as good as we will ever see of this material. Perhaps its greatest strength is the obvious humanity it brings to the topic without ever making moral comment on the subject material, even though the viewer is frequently left with clear cues as to the right or wrong of any case. A wealth of film archive material is woven into the tale, and fair success is achieved in showing how the most important strands of events related to each other. No doubt books remain the sole source for any proper study of the period but this series remains as a very worthwhile contribution to the topic. It is a shame that the cost of the complete set is so high that it will prevent many people from owning it.
© Murray Glase (read my bio)
Tuesday, January 30, 2001
|DVD||Toshiba SD-K310, using S-Video output|
|Display||Pioneer SD-T43W1 (125cm).
Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
|Audio Decoder||Built in to amplifier/receiver.
Calibrated with Video Essentials.
|Speakers||Richter Wizard (front), Jamo SAT150 (rear), Yamaha YST-SW120 (subwoofer)|
Anthony H (read my bio)