History Channel // 2009 // 455 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Dan Mancini (Retired) // January 28th, 2010
The only ones to see war like this were the ones who lived it. Until now...
The Second World War has been so thoroughly dissected in countless documentaries and feature films, is there anything unique to say about the conflict, anything to see that we haven't already seen? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. WWII in HD is a 10-part miniseries that aired on the History Channel in the winter of 2009. Its novelty is that most of its footage is culled from thousands of hours of recently unearthed color footage from the war (though some of the footage is from Louis Hayward's Academy Award-winning documentary short from 1944, With the Marines at Tarawa). But while it's impressive (and sometimes odd) to see authentic World War II footage in color, it is the content of the material rather than its technical qualities that impresses. In the past, film from the war has appeared sanitized and romanticized; its presentation clinical, as though it had received the stamp of approval for inclusion in an official historical record more concerned with strategy and tactics than with the vagaries of death and human suffering. The color footage in WWII in HD often shows the true cost of war in graphic detail: decaying corpses splayed on beach heads, bodies of Japanese soldiers charred and twisted by flame throwers, a Nazi soldier executing a civilian at point-blank range with a Luger, or the broken, scattered bodies of Japanese civilians -- men, women, and children -- who threw themselves off of cliffs in Saipan because they'd been told that, if captured by U.S. marines, they'd be raped, tortured, and murdered. The sequences are uncompromising and deeply affecting.
Through a combination of archival letters and journal entries, as well as modern-day interviews with surviving veterans, the show melds its spectacular footage with the stories of twelve individuals, including Jack Werner, an Austrian Jew who fled to America before the war began and ended up fighting in the Pacific; army officer Charles Scheffel who fought in Italy and North Africa; June Wandrey, an army nurse who served in North Africa, Italy, and Germany and was present during the liberation of a concentration camp; Time magazine war correspondent Robert Sherrod, who witnessed action all across the Pacific theater; and International News correspondent Richard Tregaskis, who was embedded with troops in both the Pacific and European theaters and whose memoir, Guadalcanal Diary, remains one of the most respected pieces of writing on the war. Through these twelve perspectives we get snapshots of the war from Hitler's rise to power until VJ day, as each episode of the series crisscrosses back-and-forth between the Pacific and European theaters of war. The letters and diary entries are read by actors. Werner is played by Justin Bartha, Scheffel by Ron Livingston, Sherrod by Rob Lowe, Tregaskis by Tim DeKay, and Wandrey by Amy Smart. Actors performing the remainder of the principles include Steve Zahn, Josh Lucas, LL Cool J, and Jason Ritter. The series is narrated by Gary Sinise. The overall effect of the professional voice acting, actual words of participants in the war, and raw footage is to maximize the drama and focus the intensity of the images, without letting the show devolve into cheap sentimentality or crass exploitation. It mostly works.
If WWII in HD has a problem it is the poetic license that it takes in knitting together the soldiers' true stories and the color footage. The History Channel is often accused of being more interested in drama (which generates ratings) than facts. To a certain extent, that's true of this show. When, for example, Charles Scheffel describes a vicious fire fight he experienced in North Africa, his words are accompanied by footage of soldiers in battle in North Africa. But, of course, the footage isn't of Scheffel and it's not of the battle he describes. Some viewers may not give that a second thought, but I found myself wondering what I was really watching. What battle was this? What was its significance in the war? Who were these soldiers? While this newly found footage is billed as the star of the show, it is too often made the handmaiden of the soldiers' stories of tragedy and heroism. There's something annoying about that. History purists may also be bothered that the show adds sound effects like gunfire and mortar explosions to the otherwise silent footage. Viewers who are not history obsessed won't be troubled by these small acts of dramatic invention. And given the quality of both the veterans' stories and the archival film, I found these flaws only minor.
WWII in HD looks pretty good in HD, though you won't be using it as a demo disc. The archival footage (cropped to 1.78:1) is understandably rough. Detail is sometimes fuzzy and colors washed out. Major source damage mars the occasional frame, and minor flecks and scratches are nearly omnipresent. Still, some of the footage is in surprisingly good shape, delivering bold colors, reasonably sharp detail, little in the way of source damage, and satisfying grain. For 16 mm footage from the mid-1940s, all of it is impressive. In terms of its historical importance, it is priceless.
The default audio option is a DTS-HD lossless stereo track, but a DTS-HD 5.1 surround option is also available. Both tracks are pristine since all of the audio, including gunfire and explosions, was recorded in the modern day. The surround track isn't as well mixed as the stereo -- sometimes dialogue is cramped slightly by the score and sound effects -- but it's still a solid piece of work for a television production.
For extras, we have three featurettes. Character Profiles provides a bit more background on some of the soldiers whose stories provide the dramatic framework for the series. Finding the Footage and Preserving the Footage are ultra-brief pieces about, well, finding and preserving the color archive footage. They're each worth watching once.
The show's ten episodes are spread over two discs, with all of the extras on Disc Two:
* "Darkness Falls"
* "Hard Way Back"
* "Bloody Resolve"
* "Battle Stations"
* "Day of Days"
* "Point of No Return"
* "Striking Distance"
* "Glory and Guts"
* "Edge of the Abyss"
* "End Game"
I went into WWII in HD expecting a novelty piece exploiting color footage of the war. Instead, it's a surprisingly stark and no-holds-barred look at the gruesome toll war takes on real human beings. Though it takes some poetic license in the way it knits together its drama, it's a must-see for anyone interested in the history of the Second World War.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 455 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Official Site