Shout! Factory // 1978 // 990 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // May 24th, 2011
An essential addition to the recorded history of WWII.
Actually, The Unknown War: WWII And The Epic Battles Of The Russian Front is just another average World War II TV documentary. That's disappointing because the story it tells, and the story behind it, are both so exciting that this really should have been much more compelling than it is. This is a worthy story but the series doesn't do it justice.
In 1978, the Soviet Union assembled The Unknown War as something of a response to the 1973 series The World At War. The Soviet government felt that The World At War shortchanged the role that Russia played in WWII, especially since it was Russia that suffered the worst losses and endured the most horrific atrocities from Nazi Germany. For The Unknown War, the Soviet government unearthed hours of combat footage, much of which hadn't been screened in decades, and put together a documentary miniseries that covered Russia's WWII experience, from the November 1941 invasion by the Nazis to the battles with the Japanese in Manchuria in the summer of 1945. Hosted by actor Burt Lancaster (Elmer Gantry), the series aired once on American TV but was withdrawn in 1980 after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. It was not broadcast since, nor was it released on any home video format. This DVD set, which compiles all twenty 47-minute episodes, marks the first time this series is available to American viewers since its initial airing.
From the beginning, The Unknown War had its detractors. One criticism of the series is that it's little more than pro-Soviet propaganda. To be sure, the show does glorify the Soviet Army much in the same way that Victory At Sea glorified the U.S. Navy which is, of course, kind of the point. There's no outright proselytizing for Communism, but you will get lots of heroic shots of Soviet soldiers and people. It is true that the show doesn't mention any of the atrocities Joseph Stalin inflicted on his people during the war, nor does it mention the horrific revenge Soviet soldiers visited on the German people during the final months of the war as retaliation for Nazi war crimes during the invasion. There are many other sources that give these stories in greater detail, so viewers should be aware that this is rather a sizable omission.
An even more devastating criticism is that the series is rather dull and stodgy. The footage is assembled in a prosaic manner, the narration is functional without being evocative, and there's little in the way of drama or tension. For a WWII documentary, that's a fairly significant statement. If you can't make the battle of Berlin or the tank battle at Kursk (the largest and longest tank battle in world history) gripping, then you haven't done a good job of conveying the atmosphere of war. There are a handful of interviews with veterans and some important figures, such as Marshal Georgy Zhukov, the commander of Soviet forces, and U.S. ambassador to Russia W. Averell Harriman, but these are too short to be illuminating. Mostly, it all has the feel of a dull scholarly lecture that's good for you but not at all enjoyable, which, given that it was commissioned by the Soviet government, is probably not all that surprising.
That's not to say that The Unknown War is a total loss. The footage of combat, from Stalingrad and Kursk to the Arctic and the Caucasus, is a revelation. Though some of this has since been reused in other WWII documentaries, there's still plenty of material that's fascinating to see. There are also several stories that only this series can tell that are at least intriguing. The show has episodes about the battles in Manchuria, about everyday life for Russians during the war and about how the Soviet government moved their production facilities to Siberia to escape the Nazis (and ended up being the most productive country during the war). These are interesting to hear, but the series does a poor job of telling them. The episodes make you want to dig up another source to find out more about these stories, because the storytelling here, despite the rare footage and intriguing details, is so sketchy and dull that you won't get actually get the full picture, or even a particularly good one. It's another mark of what a letdown The Unknown War is.
The technical aspects are not great. The full-screen transfer is downright unpleasant. Shout! Factory doubtlessly did the best they could with what they were given but the series looks murky, dirty, and grainy. Even considering the age of the footage, this is still hard to watch. The stereo mix is acceptable at least. The extras consist of an "Interview with Rod McKuen" (23:04), who contributed some scripts and music to the series and the featurettes "Analysis by Professor Willard Sunderland," a professor of Russian history at the University of Cincinnati, which is divided into parts One (18:59) and Two (32:34). Both are fairly dry and overlong, though they have some nuggets of interest scattered about here and there.
The Unknown War, then, is not nearly essential. While it's significant that it unearths and presents some interesting combat footage and stories that had not been told before, the program is simply not in the same league of the best WWII documentaries. Only the most devout WWII buffs will find The Unknown War watchable and even then they will be disappointed with how tedious and incomplete it is, even with its extended length. A better program on this subject is the PBS production Russia's War: Blood Upon the Snow, which tells the complete story of how the Russian people suffered during the war, both from Hitler and Stalin. It makes a far better introduction to this story than this series.
Guilty of being too dull and whitewashed to be worth recommending.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 990 Minutes
Release Year: 1978
MPAA Rating: Not Rated