They fought for our freedom and guaranteed the lives we live today.
Making broad scope, comprehensive documentaries about an event the magnitude of World War II is a tall order, often with less than satisfactory results. Where Heroes of World War II succeeds is in its focus on personal, human stories with the war as a backdrop, rather than an attempt to tell the complete story of the entire war.
Facts of the Case
Heroes of World War II is a look at the men who experienced the war, from Pearl Harbor right up through VE and VJ Day. The major battles and events of the war are sketched as a rough outline to organize the candid, vivid recollections of these honored aging veterans.
Heroes of World War II benefits immeasurably from the distinguished presence of Walter Cronkite as narrator. Cronkite still manages to ooze gravitas by the bucketful, even more than twenty years since he retired from the CBS Evening News.
The memories that Cronkite helps stitch together into a narrative are sometimes shocking in their detail. Men speak of friends blown to bits, of explosions carry arms, legs, and other assorted body parts. In war, the disturbing is commonplace, and these men speak calmly about experiences like the salvage operations at Pearl Harbor, with the bodies of unrecovered dead men going through the pumps as the living worked to raise damaged ships. We are now far enough removed in history from the war that the veterans included here feel free to speak their minds about their experiences. Survivors of the Bataan Death March and subsequent brutality at the hands of the Japanese are not shy about expressing their lingering resentment over FDR's "Europe First" policies. We are so accustomed to seeing World War II as a sanitized "good" war that remembering its horrors is jarring; we forget sometimes that it was just as hellish as any of the later, less popular wars. Hearing these honest accounts from the men who were there is fascinating and moving.
Picture quality is all over the map on this release. A lot of the running time is taken up by grainy war footage shot under less than ideal circumstances. With so much grain, along with nicks, scratches, and other source defects, it is hard to pick out any transfer-related issues in these segments, but they do exist. Edge enhancement, the perennial devil of video transfers, is conspicuous in some archival segments, as is a lot of digital breakup and noise in backgrounds. Footage of planes in the sky, whether shot from the ground or other aircraft, is particularly vulnerable to artifacting, just as blue skies and clouds are often troublesome in DVD transfers of much more recent films. On the other hand, Cronkite's introductory segments, along with the veteran interview segments, are sharp and clear. This allows them to show a lot of shimmer and moiré, as well as edge enhancement. A good example of this occurs in Chapter 3, where the insignia on one veteran's cap shimmers quite badly.
Whatever the condition of the film, however, the use of this original footage intercut with present-day interviews is a real strength of the presentation. There are also some nice computer-rendered animated maps used where appropriate, which take on a nice, crisp, 3-D topographic look. There is some reliance on historical stills, but the bulk of the 180-minute running time of this feature is actual combat footage.
Audio is presented in Dolby 2.0 Surround and is surprisingly vibrant. I heard a lot of music and sound effects that made use of the rear channels of my sound system, creating a much more enveloping audio environment that I would have expected. I did not detect any distortion or hiss to the audio; for example, Cronkite's rich baritone comes through as strong as ever.
Special featured include "archival footage," which is really over an hour of old United News newsreels included on both of the discs in this set. The newsreels used seem to date mostly from 1945, and cover various military campaigns, homefront stories, and post-war occupation and aftermath. I always find old newsreels fascinating, regardless of topic; the interesting topics here make these newsreels even better.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
For a historical documentary, I would have liked to see a little more attention to detail and accuracy. For example, early on in the presentation we are greeted with the assertion that the Treaty of Versailles was signed in a railroad car. It's a small mistake, confusing the 1918 Armistice with the Treaty that finalized it, but it is disappointing. Also, the filmmakers relied to a great extent on archival World War II footage. This is fine, but it would have been nice if they had paid more attention to detail and were more careful to match visual images to the audio narration. For example, footage of American planes on torpedo runs is used in the segment describing the attack on Pearl Harbor. In another sequence, a veteran talks about a specific model of plane that played an integral role in the defense of Guam; the filmmakers show clips of just about every other plane in the US inventory, but not the right one. None of these are huge errors, but they show a certain sloppiness in how Heroes of World War II was put together.
Another criticism could be that the coverage of the events of the war is relatively cursory and shallow, but in-depth textbook-style history is not the goal here. Heroes of World War II is geared to tell the small stories of the war in context, rather than telling the big story of the war itself.
Heroes of World War II strikes a very nice balance in its presentation. There is just enough "big picture" history included to refresh viewers' historical memories and provide context for the "small picture" human stories that are its centerpiece. There is also a nice balance between the European and Pacific Theaters; I appreciate this very much, because it seems that documentary efforts to cover the entire war often tend to favor Europe and slight the Pacific. Students of history probably won't find a lot of new "hard" information here, but anyone who has had a World War II veteran in the family, or frankly anyone living in North America, will appreciate the personal stories of sacrifice and heroism to be found here.
Not guilty! Heroes of World War II accomplishes its intended mission with grace and dignity. Koch Vision is acquitted as well, although the technical presentation leaves a bit to be desired, especially in the area of picture quality.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Koch Vision
• Bonus Newsreel Footage
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