The World at War-Part 1 (1974)

If you create a user account, you can add your own review of this DVD

Released 19-Feb-2001

Cover Art

This review is sponsored by

Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Documentary Main Menu Audio & Animation
Featurette-Making Of
Synopsis-Episode Summary
Notes-A Brief History of The World At War
Web Links
Rating Rated PG
Year Of Production 1974
Running Time 412:55 (Case: 417)
RSDL / Flipper Dual Layered
Dual Disc Set
Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 1,2,3,4,5,6 Directed By Jeremy Isaacs

Warner Vision
Starring Laurence Olivier
Case Amaray-Opaque
RPI $59.95 Music Carl Davis

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 2.0 (224Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.33:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles None Smoking No
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    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

Don't wish to see plot synopses in the future? Change your configuration.

Transfer Quality


    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
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    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
Audio Sync
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.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Murray Glase (read my bio)
Tuesday, January 30, 2001
Review Equipment
DVDToshiba SD-K310, using S-Video output
DisplayPioneer SD-T43W1 (125cm). Calibrated with Video Essentials. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to amplifier/receiver. Calibrated with Video Essentials.
AmplificationPioneer VSX-D906S
SpeakersRichter Wizard (front), Jamo SAT150 (rear), Yamaha YST-SW120 (subwoofer)

Other Reviews
Web Wombat - James A
DVD Net - Anthony H (read my bio)

Comments (Add) NONE