History Channel // 2009 // 455 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // January 20th, 2010
The only ones to see war like this were the ones who lived it. Until now...
If WWII in HD isn't quite the monumental event it's being sold as, that's only because the supposed selling point -- World War II footage in color remastered to HD -- isn't nearly as impressive as the actual human stories. Sure, the color footage looks nice, but sixty-year-old film shot under extreme conditions, some of which hasn't been well-preserved, is just never going to be as visually dazzling as the new Michael Bay schlockfest. In other words, don't expect to be blown away by the quality of the footage. It is what it is -- visually fascinating but not some sort of revelation.
What you will be blown away by, however, are some of the stories you'll hear during this program. Over nearly eight hours, you'll see and hear stories from all sorts of veterans and war correspondents, from a Jewish refugee who enlisted to fight Hitler (but was instead sent to the Pacific) to an aspiring novelist who piloted a bomber before getting to fly a fighter to a combat nurse to a Japanese-American medic. Stories are taken from journals, letters, and memoirs, but most of all, from interviews with surviving veterans and accounts from other soldiers who did not make it.
The stories they tell are so vivid that you'll be completely caught up in them. Some are gripping, such as when Shelby Westbrook, a black fighter pilot, is shot down behind enemy lines and must rely on Yugoslavian resistance fighters to help him find his way back. Some are harrowing, such as when sailor Jack Yusen's ship is sunk in the Pacific and he spends one grueling night clinging to a safety raft while sharks circle around him. Some are horrific, such as when Time war correspondent Robert Sherrod describes how Japanese civilians (including women and children) at Saipan committed suicide rather than surrender to U.S. troops. Some are heartrending, such as when combat nurse June Wandrey describes her conversations with wounded and dying soldiers. Some are even exhilarating, such as when soldier Charles Scheffel describes how he felt when, after four years of fighting in North Africa, France, and Germany, he finally landed in the United States after being discharged. The people profiled tell their stories simply but elegantly, and their words, interspersed with narration and simple title cards when necessary, paints a far more vivid portrait of the war than the typical History formula of reenactments and flashy graphics could ever do.
Because this focuses more on their stories and how they relate to the war, you might be surprised that some major battles and events are only mentioned in passing. For instance, the entire two years before Pearl Harbor are dealt with in a prologue, mostly centering on Jack Werner, the Austrian Jew who escaped Hitler's Europe and enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941. Because none of the profiled veterans fought in D-Day, that battle is only seen in film snippets. Similarly, the campaign in Italy and some major Pacific battles like Midway are also not explained in detail. Of course, you can always find information about those battles elsewhere and if the show tried to address every battle in detail it would be at least twenty times as long. Still, don't expect a thorough accounting -- this is more a look at the lives of particular American individuals who saw the war up close and how they remember it.
As for the actual footage itself, it's worth seeing, although not quite as dazzling as it's been sold. The fact that almost all of the film (with a few exceptions here and there) is in color is compelling. With most WWII shows, the fact that the footage is mostly in black-and-white makes it easier to distance yourself emotionally from the events depicted. With this show, however, the combination of color and the veterans' words makes you really feel like you're experiencing the war. Some of the images are horribly graphic, so sensitive viewers might find some of this difficult to watch. Also, the quality of the footage varies wildly, so that some shots are barely visible and others are surprisingly sharp for their age. There are also modern interviews that, of course, look much sharper.
Where History has screwed up is in the presentation. Considering that the whole selling point of the series is the HD aspect, the fact that the transfer is 1.78:1 non-anamorphic is inexcusable. Who on earth will want to see these extraordinary images crammed into a little screen? Isn't this show designed for people with HDTVs? They'll feel more cheated than anybody. Also, the packaging claims that there's an option for a 5.1 surround mix, but there isn't, not on any menus or alternate audio tracks. There's only a regular 2.0 stereo mix, although it does sound nicely balanced. The extras are also rather meager. They consist of three featurettes: Character Profiles (14:53), Finding the Footage (2:27), and Preserving the Footage (1:55). The two featurettes on how the footage was found and prepared are too brief to be all that informative, but the character profiles are at least worth seeing. Consisting of extended interviews with the surviving veterans, they add more biographical detail, including stories about what happened to these men after the war was over. It would have been fascinating, however, to get more information on the profiled veterans who did not survive.
Still, though you'll be disappointed in History's DVD presentation, as a series, WWII in HD is worthy of respect. There are no reenactments, no speculation, no hyperbole or meaningless flashy effects here. This is a lengthy and engrossing account of the most important war in history, told by the people who fought and witnessed it, and it's so masterfully crafted that you can't help being affected by it. Forget the whole HD gimmick and enjoy it as what History should be doing more often: quality non-fiction TV.
Not guilty as storytelling, but guilty as HD programming.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 455 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated