All Judge Dave Ryan is saying, is give The World at War a chance...
Okay, so there was this world, you see…and it was at war, and…Say, if you have 26 spare hours or so, I think a legend of stage and screen could explain it much better than I could…
There is little I can say about Sir Jeremy Issacs' 1973 documentary epic The World at War that hasn't been said already—most recently by Neal Solon in the thorough review of the 30th Anniversary DVD set you see linked above. It is the World War II documentary to end all World War II documentaries. It's basically the origin document of the History Channel; its access to and use of previously unseen film footage of the war and the people who fought it was unprecedented, and (when you include the "bonus" additional documentary hours included with the 30th anniversary edition) it's a full day and a half long. Never have the descriptors "monumental," "epic," and "sprawling" been more appropriate for a documentary. Even Ken Burns is jealous of this. The only word you can't really use is "definitive"—but that's not a knock. The World at War spends a good deal of time exploring the human side of war: the impact of warfare on both the soldiers themselves and the civilians in the way. Because of this focus, and because of the series' desire (as Judge Solon put it) to "tell a compelling story" instead of just laying out a dry military history of the war, The World at War occasionally skimps a bit on certain peripheral battles/theaters/campaigns. Having said that, this is nonetheless the most exhaustively complete World War II documentary in existence.
The 30th Anniversary DVD release of The World at War was the DVD equivalent of the documentary series itself: thorough, exhaustive, vast, epic in scale and content. This new Blu-ray release wisely retains all the bonus features of the original set—mainly a set of newly-assembled documentaries in the style of the original series plus some "Making of" material. The only addition for this release is a documentary feature on the restoration of the series for this release. But oh…what a restoration!
With one major, major caveat (to be discussed later), the video and audio restoration done for this Blu-ray release is utterly spectacular. It's not because of the absolute quality of the picture, the fidelity or fine detail of the high definition transfer. That's an unachievable goal, since it would be categorically impossible to raise the video quality of what is, essentially, 60-year-old 35mm and 16mm film footage to the level of a contemporary BD feature. It's the relative quality of the picture that's breathtaking. It's all still clearly 35mm and 16mm film footage—but it almost looks as if it was all shot yesterday. I was blown away by the clarity and the immediacy of the restored footage. Images from 1937 look as if they were just developed and printed last week. It's truly an unbelievable job of restoration, one I didn't think possible with this kind of source material. Note that this technically isn't just a restoration of the documentary itself. It's actually a restoration of the source material used to create the series in 1974. The producers have digitally restored all the archival newsreel and military footage from the '30s and '40s itself, then reassembled the series' episodes using that restored footage (along with restored versions of all the interviews filmed in the early '70s). This isn't a coat of paint on a couple of walls—it's a top-to-bottom renovation of the whole house.
So what's the big, big caveat? Answer: It's all cropped.
Yes, The World at War, one of the all-time great television documentaries—i.e. one originally formatted at the "Academy standard" aspect ratio of 4:3—has been cropped down to the widescreen 16:9 aspect ratio. And despite the best efforts of the restorers, it's not transparent at all. You're constantly reminded that you're not seeing the whole original, most noticeably in the "talking head" interviews that make up such a large portion of the series. The original interviews, centered in a 4:3 shot, look like the snapshots of an inexperienced photographer in the restoration. The "making of" documentary covering the restoration attempts to demonstrate how these aren't blind crops, especially when it comes to the original contemporaneous footage—an effort was made to "track" what the editorial team felt was the key focus item/person in the image, something that's easier to explain when it's demonstrated in practice. But the documentary doesn't go into the "why" behind the decision to go this route—it just notes that "much discussion" went into the decision, and that everyone (including Isaacs) was on board with it. An article on UK home theater enthusiast website Home Cinema Choice, which is linked in the sidebar, indicates that commercial concerns were a non-trivial factor in the decision (broadcast HD channels, according to the producers, are reluctant to purchase and air 4:3 content). Regardless of the reason, the unavoidable fact is that visual information has been lost in the transfer. The producers assert that only non-essential information has been lost (due to their efforts to "track" the shot in editing), but ultimately you, the consumer, will have to decide whether you're willing to believe them.
I, your intrepid reviewer, did my own comparison for purposes of this review. I own a copy of the original 2004 DVD set, which was presented in the original 4:3 framing. After watching the restored first episode in the series ("A New Germany"), I popped in the 2004 DVD and re-watched it in the original broadcast format. I had been keenly aware of the cropping while watching the BD episode, and viewing it as originally formatted make it look…well, more "correct." Even though it does appear that the producers are being honest when they say that you're rarely losing important information in the cropped picture, you are nonetheless losing the original composition of the frame, which can make the cropped image look a little off. I can't say that it rose to the level of outright annoyance, but I can't say that it wasn't a distraction, either.
Beyond that, though, the BD version simply annihilates the 2004 SD release. Not only is the restored footage infinitely better than the original version, the sound has taken a quantum leap as well. The BD version gives you the choice of two mixes crafted from fully-restored original mono masters: a quality uncompressed LPCS 2.0 stereo mix (basically an improved version of the sound on the 2004 SD release), and a sumptuous DTS HD Master 5.1 surround track. The stereo track is perfectly good, but the DTS track…wow. It really isn't anything fancy—there aren't a lot of directional cues or other surround tricks—it's just good. Sir Laurence Olivier's legendary narration shoots crisply from your center channel, while the side channels are filled with tactfully edited sound effects and the series' rich orchestral score. It's a very well-balanced soundtrack, providing room-filling sound when needed, and fading effortlessly into the background when dialog calls for it. The BD presentation of The World at War is so much better than the original SD set that I, personally, can live with the cropping.
Both of the World at War sets represent significant chunks of your DVD-buying change. Ultimately it's up to you whether the cropping issue is a deal-breaker for you or not. Purists will resent this intrusion on the original with the same fury they normally unleash on the similar pan-and-scan technique for converting widescreen formats into 4:3. Hardcore BD enthusiasts will probably gladly reject the 4:3 original in favor of a vastly superior HD transfer. But a lot of people will probably be right on the fence. In my opinion—and believe me, I can fully understand how someone could rationally disagree with me—the stunningly superior quality of the Blu-ray restoration outweighs the unquestionable negatives that arise from cropping the series down to a widescreen aspect ratio. Again, that's just my opinion, and you may have a completely different take on it than I.
In theory, a 4:3 version of the restoration could still be released, since all of the source material was restored before the cropping was done, and therefore could still be assembled in an uncropped form. I'd ding the producers for not providing both a 4:3 option and a widescreen option in this set, but given that this would almost double the size of the set (and probably double the price), I can understand that business decision. Cynics, on the other hand, might argue that the "business" decision was to make sure that completists double-dip on the Blu-ray and the SD sets, to the tune of almost $300 (at retail list price), as it would seem the incremental cost of producing two sets (a widescreen and 4:3 set) wouldn't have been prohibitive.
Unfortunately, The World at War on Blu-ray results in a hung jury.
It's a monumentally great release of a monumental documentary series, but one
that will nonetheless be clouded by a controversial decision to crop the series
from 4:3 to 16:9. But for that cloud, this set would be the ne plus ultra
definitive version of this important documentary. I personally think the
improved quality justifies the sacrifice of the 4:3 picture, but it's a shame
that any sacrifice had to be made.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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