First Run Features // 2011 // 57 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // April 23rd, 2011
The story of World War II's conscientious objectors.
The Charge says it all. Narrated by Ed Asner (Up), this documentary combines archived war-era footage with testimonies from conscientious objectors (COs) that struggled to find a non-violent place within America during World War II.
The Good War and Those Who Refused To Fight It works well enough. Its approach is generic, situated somewhere between a Ken Burns documentary and something you might see on the History Channel. Interviews, wartime footage, droning Ed Asner narration-that's all we get for a solid hour. Thankfully, the content is compelling enough to look past the pedestrian presentation.
The story of the COs during this time in American history feels lost within the cinematic context of one of our country's finest hours. After all, what better, black-and-white villain is there to kill off in a film than a Nazi? Given World War II's glorified state in world history, it is easy for Hollywood and the rest of us to forget that not every man went off to fight the good fight.
Most of the COs refused to fight for religious reasons, coming from Amish, Quaker, or related non-violent spiritual backgrounds. In turn, they were met with a government that didn't quite know what to do with them. Many were imprisoned or forced to work in military-ran farm colonies. Others would try to prove their bravery by becoming wartime medics, firefighters, or, in one particularly ghastly case, scientific guinea pigs for U.S. researchers.
As a reviewer, it is difficult to detail these aspects of the documentary without spoiling too much of the narrative. I will only say that, whatever complaints one can level at the conventional style of the documentary, the format only heightens the drama of these COs story. Anyone with a shred of tolerance in them will be hard pressed not to sympathize and be inspired by the personal accounts of those who simply couldn't resort to violence as their answer to World War II. Their efforts, thankfully, wouldn't go unnoticed, as COs would receive the Noble Peace Prize for their efforts after the war, legitimizing a pacifistic place in America's Greatest Generation.
So, aside from Asner's narration (that voice is not soothing to my ears), the documentary is fine and dandy, solid stuff that deserves any WW2 or history buff's attention. The DVD presentation, however, is a bit less admirable.
The documentary is about ten years old, so I wasn't expecting an eye-popping HD picture, but the transfer just appears to be slapped on without any remastering whatsoever. The result is a picture that is dull enough to look fifteen years old. The stereo mix is about the same. Overall, I'd call the technical presentation barely passable.
This makes my feelings toward the special features substantially more complicated. The extras are plentiful, especially for a documentary of this sort, but the content comes with a prize: just about every feature on the disc is CO propaganda.
The disc doesn't make any bones about it, boasting a series of featurettes called The Conscientious Objector Handbook, which contains interviews introducing the concept, putting it in a contemporary perspective with the conflict in Iraq, and taking us through an entire CO workshop. Other special features include interviews with famous figures the likes of Daniel Ellsberg (of The Pentagon Papers), civil rights leader James Farmer, former Ambassador Max Kempelman (WWII CO and Regan-era arms negotiator), poet Will Stafford, and Pulitzer Prize winner Studs Terkl. Most of these are a bit dry (or in the case of Terkl's, cheesily overproduced), but pick up the themes The Good War and Those Who Refused To Fight It by placing them in the context of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam, and the Cold War. The Story of America's Conscientious Objectors, a 1943 piece of Peace Church propaganda, rounds out the features, along with some poster galleries and DVD-ROM content.
I'll sum up my feelings on these special features by saying this: I don't have anything against COs or even their propaganda, but I take umbrage with the fact that an excruciating amount of effort seems to have been put into this propaganda given the fact that it is almost all ancillary to the film itself. In fact, if the DVD producers spent as much time on the technical specs as they did the special features, I might be more compelled to give the DVD a higher score. As is, this jumble of propaganda, somewhat interesting interviews, and vintage archive material actually detracts from The Good War and Those Who Refuse To Fight It, making it feel like a supplemental feature to the propaganda itself. That saddens me, as the film itself makes a greater case for CO lifestyles in a way that doesn't shove the message down the viewer's throat.
Not guilty, but how about we let the film speak for itself next time?
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 57 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Bonus Interviews
* DVD-ROM Content
* Official Site