Our review of WWII: The Essential Collection, published December 11th, 2010, is also available.
The Legendary World War II Documentary
During the Second World War, the United States Navy used motion pictures to document its activities more thoroughly than any other military force in history up to that point. Technology had advanced to the point that portable cameras and quality film stocks, many of them color, could travel the globe in the hands of Navy camera crews. Other world navies, including the British, Germans, and Japanese, made similar extensive use of film to record their exploits.
A few years after the Allied victory, NBC television aired a remarkable documentary series. Cobbled together from almost 13,000 hours of footage shot by the major combatant naives, narrated by Broadway star Leonard Graves, and set to a rousing score by Richard Rodgers, Victory at Sea provided a firsthand look at every major naval engagement of the war via the new medium of television, which was making its initial foray into American homes. It marked one of the first opportunities for average Americans to have such major world events beamed directly into their living rooms. It also marked one of the first attempts to use television to create a comprehensive, public record of such major happenings. Victory at Sea was considered so important and such a milestone both in broadcasting and the preservation of history that NBC ran the entire series without commercial interruption. The series won both an Emmy and a Peabody award for its excellence in public affairs programming.
Now, all 26 groundbreaking episodes of Victory at Sea make their way to DVD, complete with new introductions for each episode created for the History Channel and featuring Peter Graves (no relation to narrator Leonard Graves) speaking from various locations aboard the USS Intrepid in New York Harbor.
Facts of the Case
Every major US naval action of World War II is chronicled here, from the threat of U-Boat wolfpacks in the months before the nation officially entered the war, to early setbacks at Pearl Harbor and in the Philippines, through Midway, D-Day, and the island-hopping campaigns, to the surrender of the Axis powers.
In order to fully appreciate Victory at Sea, one has to recall a world where people did not watch the latest war on 24-7 television news channels. It brought images of desolation and destruction that most people had never seen directly into their living rooms for the first time. To this day, much of the footage is breathtaking. For example, a night fight against kamikazes during battle for Okinawa, with antiaircraft shells and tracers and exploding airplanes lighting up the sky, is one of the most amazing things I have ever seen on film. Scenes showing a kamikaze plane hitting a ship and causing a massive explosion complete with shockwave and mushroom cloud are nothing short of awe-inspiring. In this day and age, it has become cliché to compare these sorts of scenes to the work of Hollywood, but the special effects wizards could still stand to learn a thing or two from real life. In the past 60 years we have all seen much of this footage used over and over again in other times and places. We have seen it used as stock footage in Hollywood films and as fodder for documentaries. Watching Victory at Sea, however, and seeing so much of this film in such concentrated doses helps bring it back to reality, and helps bring the viewer back to the understanding of these moments as real events that happened to real people.
One of the aspects of Victory at Sea that I personally greatly appreciate is that it tends, on the whole, to focus more on the Pacific War than the war in Europe. This is only natural, given the intense responsibilities of the Navy in fighting a war in the vast expanses of the Pacific. I have always been more interested in the Pacific Theater, but so many World War II documentaries and feature films tend to focus on the European Theater, so Victory at Sea makes for a nice change of pace. Also, since my grandfather served in the Navy in the Pacific, I've always been partial to the Navy over the other branches of the armed forces, so this series is a win-win proposition for me.
Picture quality is surprisingly uniform and pretty good given the disparate sources of this footage. There are lots of grain, nicks, scratches, and other age-related defects, but the picture is surprisingly sharp and clear overall, with excellent black and white contrasts. On the downside, there isn't much sign of digital restoration, but on the other hand, there's no sign of tinkering, either. There is some slight evidence of edge enhancement and haloing once in a while, but never severe or noticeable.
The audio shows its age, perhaps even more so than the image. There is a very pronounced hiss/scratchiness at all times. There is a warning right on the box that the "audio is presented in its original 1952 format, and levels may vary." Perhaps this is meant as an explanation of the differences in audio quality among the episodes. Some sound just fine, while others blare, distort, and warble. A good example of this is the fourth episode on Disc Three, "The Turkey Shoot."
Extra content is limited to Graves' narrations before each episode. These are quite helpful, and put the episodes in context for audiences 50 years after the original broadcasts. Handy chapter selection menus within each episode are a nice touch as well, but hardly count as special features.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
One of the major reasons that Victory at Sea is so valuable is its closeness to the actual events of World War II. Memories of the war were still fresh in the early 1950s, and Victory at Sea is a look at the war not so much as history, but as a current (or very recent) event.
On the other had, we have had 60 years to absorb the combat footage shown here, while people in the 1950s were often seeing these scenes for the first time. Victory at Sea is often content to allow images of the war dominate the screen with only Richard Rodger's score for accompaniment. For the original audience, this must have been breathtaking, and it was a wise choice to allow the images to speak for themselves with little to no narration. Now that we have all seen these images or variations on them countless times, however, the long stretches with no narration can be tedious. Not only are we much more familiar with footage of this kind than audiences were back then, but we have become accustomed to television documentaries that throw massive amounts of both visual and audio information our way at all times. Our sensibilities of what television in general and a documentary in particular should be have changed drastically, and long scenes of cranes loading tanks and trucks onto ships, with no sound but music, does not make for very good 21st century television viewing. Victory at Sea is further hampered by the half-hour running time of the episodes. For History Channel/Discovery/TLC buffs like myself, accustomed to watching hours on end of this kind of stuff, the episodes can seem maddeningly short and sometimes a bit shallow in content.
While the framing introductions by Peter Graves are nice, one would think that the History Channel could have come up with a few more special features for the DVD release of such a groundbreaking series. Maybe they could have put together a nice retrospective featurette, or a making-of, or even a few testimonials from celebrities or politicians discussing the importance of this documentary series. It seems that some effort along these lines would have been warranted; after all, without programs like Victory at Sea leading the way, there might never have been a History Channel.
Victory at Sea has a secure place in the history of documentary television. It remains a fascinating and thorough look at the naval side of World War II. However, for audiences raised on generations of successors to this groundbreaking program, it perhaps has not aged as well as it might have.
Not guilty! For all its age-related faults, Victory at Sea certainly deserves respect for being the first of its kind. It would have been nice if the folks at the History Channel had shown a bit more of that respect as well and done a little bit of restoration work or created some more supplemental features.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Episode Introductions by Peter Graves
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