The original airing of this series took six months. This only took Judge Neal Solon eight.
"Down this road, on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, a community which had lived for a thousand years was dead."
When I first sat down with The World at War, I told myself that I was going to write a review of the set that was more comprehensive than any to date. I realize now how foolhardy that aspiration was. The producers of The World at War did not set out to make the world's most comprehensive document of the Second World War; they realized how unwieldy and unsuccessful the product would be. Instead, they chose to tell a compelling story, carefully choosing which pieces of an expansive tale to include and which to omit. The result is a 23-hour mini-series that is as impressive today as I imagine it must have been when it first aired in 1974.
Facts of the Case
In the early 1970s BBC producer Jeremy Isaacs, now Sir Jeremy Isaacs, decided to make a television documentary about World War II. He asked his historical advisor to pick the 15 military campaigns that must not be omitted. From the resulting list, and his ideas for episodes focusing on the "human impact" of the war, Isaacs crafted The World at War. Each of the 26 original episodes is 52 minutes long and is intended to tell the story of one aspect of the war. They are all included here, along with a plethora of extra features. The discs break down as follows:
Disc One (one bonus feature)
Disc Eight (bonus features)
Disc Nine (bonus features)
Disc Ten (bonus features)
Disc Eleven (bonus features)
Traditionally, this is where I would say more about the content of the story. In this situation, that would be pointless. If you are reading this with any interest, you already know something about the history of World War II; if you don't, this set is not going to be immediately compelling to you. My telling the story of World War II will do nothing to affect the interest level of the inherently interested or uninterested. Instead, I will tell you what makes The World at War unique.
Jeremy Isaacs chose to focus his series on both indispensable military campaigns and on the human costs of the war. In one of the included "making of" documentaries, Isaacs says that he wanted to make a film that presented "Britain's war" and compare the suffering of the British people with that of others. The Anglo-centric approach results in a documentary that is refreshing to me, an American student of history. Too often, Americans look back at World War II and remember only December 7, 1941 to September 1945, ignoring the fact that a full third of the war took place before the United States was militarily involved. Certainly, Britain was never directly invaded like Poland and France, but the British war was much more immediate than the American one.
Adding to the appeal of The World at War is that Isaacs and his crew chose to tell only stories that they could present through first-hand film footage and personal accounts. The viewer is presented with hours upon hours of actual film of the events of World War II. rather than stuffy talking heads recounting what they, themselves, had merely read in a book somewhere. If there was no film available to tell a given story, the producers scrapped the story, unless it was of supreme importance.
Much of The World at War is this sixty-year-old footage of the events of World War II, accompanied by sparse narration by Sir Laurence Olivier (Rebecca. Richard III). The other parts of the film are, in fact, atypical talking heads. They are not intellectuals or academics. They are people who were directly involved in, or directly affected by, the events of the war. They are Hitler's valet; Hitler's secretary; a member of the SS. They are British generals and soldiers and politicians. They are concentration camp survivors, liberators, and guards. Even in 1971, these witnesses to the Second World War were dying off. Now, when veterans are dying at a rate reaching more than a thousand a day, these first person accounts are increasingly valuable.
The big concern with a documentary of this nature, then, is verifying the authenticity of both the footage being used and the personal testimony of the people involved. The first bonus feature included, at the end of the first disc, is a presentation by Jeremy Isaacs that addresses the methods used by the production team to find valid testimony and footage. It is an interesting piece that gives some insight into the process of making a documentary that will stand up to scrutiny and the test of time.
The other "making of" documentary is two hours of interviews and discussions with the production team that goes into greater depth regarding the collection of material and the construction of the film. It, too, is interesting, though a little long. Among the most engaging stories this documentary tells is that of how the team came to interview Hitler's secretary, Traudl Junge. That interview is included in the set, as is an interview with Stephen Ambrose.
The bulk of the remaining supplements are additional documentaries made in the style of the original episodes. These seven new episodes, of varying length; each focuses on a single aspect of the war. They give the filmmakers an opportunity to revisit some themes and time periods that were not originally covered as thoroughly as they would have liked. They are as good as the original episodes, and are now rightly packaged with them for fans of the series to see.
Wrapping up the extras are episode summaries on each disc, biographies of major players in the war, and a photo gallery. The episode summaries are the most useful of the three and the only information you could not find elsewhere, but none of these inclusions are unwelcome.
Sifting through this set, it is easy to tell which of the features were made recently and which were made thirty years ago. The audio and video on the original episodes is uneven, at best. On an absolute scale, the video is often terrible; but one must consider the original film elements being used. Most of the original episodes are primarily 8mm or 16mm documentary or newsreel film that was thirty years old when it was originally used; now it's closer to seventy. Most of the visual flaws were forgivable, if not unavoidable; though abundant, they were rarely distracting. In fact, the only annoyance I remember was a fleck right in the middle of the screen on the interviewees' faces, which appeared off and on through multiple episodes. There must have been something wrong with one of the cameras or one reel of film. Still, once I got up and confirmed that the speck was not on my television screen itself, it didn't affect my enjoyment of the series. As such, I refuse to hold it against such a worthwhile film.
The only complaint I have about the audio is that occasionally the soft, accented voices of the people on and off screen were lost in ambient noise. Without the option of watching with subtitles, I occasionally had to scramble to adjust the volume or repeat missed segments. Considering the age and nature of the film, however, the end product is respectable.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Why, then, should everyone not rush out and buy this set immediately? Well, it is expensive. While the cost is certainly worth it for what you receive, one must consider the time commitment this DVD package requires. As originally aired, The World at War was a weekly series that lasted for six months. In other words, one watched an episode a week for 26 weeks. When digested quicker than that, the set can be a bit overwhelming. Twenty-six hours is a long time, and watching more than two or three episodes in one sitting can be tough. If you are not a fan of history, it will be even tougher, especially when you realize that once you finish the original series, there are still 12 hours of bonus materials to watch. That said, as long as you know what you are getting into and you do not expect to finish watching this set in a matter of days, let alone weeks, the money and the time invested are well worth it. It is as set I can envision referring back to more than once in the future.
Hollywood retellings of World War II such as Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers, no matter how great they may be, focus on U.S. troops in the field. The World at War gives a broader picture, albeit one focused largely on the British experience. The film gives the viewer a chance to see and hear authentic first-hand stories of a war that ended sixty years ago. The result is interesting, enlightening, and, in the case of the episodes about the Holocaust, gut wrenching. The World at War offers so much unique material, even thirty years after its first airing, that it deserves all of the praise that has been heaped upon it. It is worthy of this extensive and thoughtful DVD presentation, and it merits your attention, even if 36 hours seems like an awfully long time.
The court is officially at a loss for words. All charges against A&E and the producers of this documentary are dropped. Court is adjourned!
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