Koch Vision // 1943 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // April 11th, 2009
The battle of El Alamein.
Desert Victory was awarded the Oscar for best documentary of 1943, and for that alone it would be at least worth a look. Whether or not you'll deem it a must-buy, however, depends on your interest in classic World War II newsreel documentaries. Because it deals with a battle that is more known to WWII buffs than the general public (especially in the United States, since no American soldiers participated) and because it was produced for 1940s viewers who would have gotten some of the references and language that modern viewers may not be so familiar with, it may be hard to watch for some. WWII buffs should snap it up, but others may find it a bit difficult to follow.
Much of the reason that Desert Victory is so important is that it explains the crucial battle of El Alamein in Egypt in 1942. This was, of course, the battle that decisively defeated German General Erwin Rommel (known famously as the "Desert Fox") at the hands of British General Bernard Montgomery, who commanded an army made up of soldiers from England, Australia, India, New Zealand, Greece, South Africa, and France. El Alamein was the last significant battle in Africa and Rommel's defeat marked the end of the Axis' presence there, allowing for the Allies to launch the invasion of Italy the following year. Unlike say, D-Day, this battle is not well-known to Americans since American troops didn't fight in it, but it remains an important turning point in the war and deserves a film devoted to explaining it.
Desert Victory does do a decent job of doing so. Because the film was produced by the British government for British audiences, it is not as immediately accessible as an American documentary might be. There are references to places in England and Europe that Americans who are not familiar with Europe might find confusing. What's more, there are also references to battles fought by the British in 1940 and 1941 before the U.S. entered the war, battles that WWII enthusiasts will instantly recognize but that casual history buffs will only have a passing knowledge of. Despite these caveats, however, Desert Victory does a very good job of explaining the battle by laying out the geography and explaining the significance of each assault. This is coupled with some extraordinary battlefield footage captured by both British and German cameramen that provides some extremely powerful visuals. There's nothing too gory or crude, but there are a few shots of dead bodies being recovered that may be uncomfortable for the squeamish. Though there are a couple of corny moments, particularly towards the beginning of the film when a pair of British soldiers lecture the audience about the basics of the battle using easels and pointers, this is generally a solid retelling that viewers who do have some basic knowledge of WWII history will find entertaining.
The DVD also includes four more WWII documentaries that help fill in some more stories and add some historical flavor. Land and Live in the Desert (33 min.) was produced by the U.S. Defense Department in 1945 as an instructional film for military personnel to teach them how to survive in the deserts of North Africa in case they were stranded there. It's actually a dramatization of a bomber crash in which the plane's crew figures out how to survive and seek help using their training. Clearly shot on a Hollywood soundstage and suffering from some rather corny dialogue and wooden acting, the film is more of an amusing curio than anything, although sharp-eyed viewers will note the presence of actors Craig Stevens (Peter Gunn) and Wally Cassell (Sands of Iwo Jima) as two of the crew members, as well as the narration by Van Heflin (Stagecoach). The other three films, Wavell's 30,000 (51 min.), The Siege of Tobruk (16 min.), and Defenders of Tobruk (9 min.), are more straightforward newsreel documentaries produced in 1942 that discuss the battles the British fought in Libya against the Italians that year. These are not as detailed as Desert Victory and only give very general overviews of these battles. They do contain some interesting combat footage, though, which makes them nice companion pieces.
Koch Vision, in short, has made an exceptional effort in presenting this material. Even the technical details are praiseworthy. The 4:3 full-screen transfer does show its age, but looks quite sharp and clear nonetheless. The PCM mono mix is surprisingly loud, giving plenty of volume to the combat footage. It might have been more practical to repackage this collection with The True Glory as a box set, but it's still good to have this rare material available commercially. Desert Victory is still a must for WWII buffs, and is at least worth a look for viewers curious about WWII history.
Review content copyright © 2009 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
* Full Frame
* PCM 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 1943
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Desert Victory
* IMDb: Land and Live in the Desert