Our review of WWII: The Essential Collection, published December 11th, 2010, is also available.
"Man is the only animal that deals in that atrocity of atrocities, War."—Mark Twain
The most unusual war of the 20th century took place in 1969. El Salvador and Honduras faced one another in a qualifying set for the 1970 World Cup. Tensions were already boiling over in the two countries over the issue of Salvadoran workers in Honduras. But soccer sometimes brings out the worst in people, and the games turned from friendly competition into a full-scale military invasion by El Salvador on its neighbor. Although the fighting lasted only four days, the combat damaged two nations already teetering on the brink of economic collapse. And it all started over a soccer game.
And you will find few war stories this potentially interesting in The Century of Warfare, an interminable series from the History Channel. A low-budget 1993 British production that relies on public domain footage, library music, and a monotonous British narrator with a soporific voice, this 26-episode series somehow manages to make one of the most inherently interesting subjects stunningly pedestrian and dull.
After an introductory episode ("The Violent Century") that covers the major points of the series—the causes of war (colonialism, ethnic conflict, etcetera) and the technologies that developed during the century—the series launches into a thorough study of the major and minor conflicts in more or less chronological order. Six episodes run down World War I, from the trenches to the seas to the sky. Thirteen episodes cover World War II. Oddly, though these episodes offer a wealth of details on battles and historical events, we never learn much about the people involved. What was going on in the minds of the leaders of these conflicts? What was life like for the individual soldier at any given time? This is the sort of history that relies on memorizing names and dates with no personality.
The last half-dozen episodes cover the conflicts of the Cold War, the Middle East, and wind up with the Persian Gulf War. The series should be commended for its attempt to cover war from a global perspective, not just from a European slant. But while its intention is to be exhaustive, it succeeds in becoming little more than exhausting.
In spite of the wealth of archival material at the producers' disposal, it is surprising that this seven-disc DVD set comes with no extras whatsoever. Not even a timeline. And much of the footage is in disappointing condition—and not just due to the natural effects of age. Watching some of the footage here of concentration camp atrocities during World War II, I was struck by how shoddy the film quality was, even though I had just seen the very same footage used in Alain Resnais' Night and Fog, where it appeared to be in great shape. Even some of the more recent color footage in the series, from Vietnam onward, appears muddy. And a tinny soundtrack does not help the action.
At $140 for the complete set, the History Channel is clearly pricing this for libraries. This is just as well, since it is unlikely even war buffs will find anything fresh here. The series is more useful to students looking for an overview of a particular conflict and who can watch an episode or two. In other words, The Century of Warfare is a video textbook. If you know little about 20th century warfare or politics, you might learn something, if you can stay awake through the tedious presentation. Those looking for more depth can find better, more focused series to round out their knowledge.
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