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Case Number 19156: Small Claims Court

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World War I In Color

Acorn Media // 2003 // 284 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // June 24th, 2010

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All Rise...

Judge Victor Valdivia sees history in black and white, but that's because he's so rigid and unforgiving.

The Charge

Rare historical footage made vivid with new technology.

The Case

Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. The central conceit of World War I in Color is the use of old black-and-white footage that has been colorized using the same computer techniques used by Ted Turner back in the '80s. World War I was the first war to be captured by film cameras, but all of the footage that exists of the war is in black-and-white, since color film hadn't been invented yet. By colorizing the footage, the show's producers proclaim that you'll see the war just as those who lived through it did for the first time. That's not entirely true, since the colorization is so wildly inconsistent that at times it doesn't look any more realistic than black-and-white. What's more, by emphasizing the colorized footage as much as the show does, the producers end up skimping out on some fairly important stories about the war itself. You will learn a considerable about WWI if you didn't know anything about it, but it's not as thorough as it should be, not even with the colorization gimmick.

World War I in Color is a six-part documentary series that aired in England in 2003. Here are the six episodes compiled on two discs:

Disc One
• "Catastrophe"
The assassination of Austria's Archduke Ferdinand provokes Europe's biggest powers into launching a continent-wide war on each other.

• "Slaughter in the Trenches"
The border between France and Germany became a labyrinth of trenches and barbed wire that saw savage bombings, chemical attacks, and massacres alternating with moments of boredom and squalor.

• "Blood in the Air"
The invention of the airplane meant that WWI was the first war in history to be fought in the air.

Disc Two
• "Killers of the Sea"
Germany's U-Boats became the most feared and important weapon of the sea war.

• "Mayhem on the Eastern Front"
Russia launched a series of bloody assaults on Germany that could have ended the fighting, but the war's toll on the Russian people led to the rise of Lenin and the 1917 Russian Revolution.

• "Victory and Despair"
In 1918, the fortunes of all of the war's participants changed as Germany went from exhilaration to despair, while the end of war was so acrimonious that it would lay the groundwork for the disaster of WWII.

As a documentary, World War I in Color is good but not great. It does give an understandable and coherent summation of the war, so you'll understand the major players and why some things happened as they did. The interviews with surviving veterans can sometimes be hard to watch, as the aged men are sometimes difficult to understand, but their stories are harrowing. The depth of the emotion they still feel, so many years later, is affecting. Each episode addresses a different aspect of the war and tells some remarkable stories. Some important battles are dissected in detail and historians are also on hand to give some important perspectives. In that regard, World War I in Color is at least a reasonably well-crafted historical series.

That would have acceptable, except that the show tends to overemphasize the colorized footage so much that it omits some rather important stories. The first episode, in particular, doesn't really explain how the alliances between the countries that entered the war occurred. Why would the assassination of the Archduke provoke such a war? Why were Serbian anarchists so sure that assassinating him was important? The show doesn't say. It also glosses over how the United States ended up entering the war. Though it does mention the torpedoing of the U.S.S. Lusitania in 1915, it doesn't really explain why it took two more years before the U.S. formally declared war on Germany. The last episode is also incomplete. It attempts to explain how the final armistice treaty was so punitive that it ultimately led to Germany's resurrection under Adolf Hitler, but it botches this important point so thoroughly that you might end up confused. PBS made an excellent series about WWI in 1996, The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century, that explained many of these issues in far better detail. It would serve as an excellent companion piece to this series, because this one does have some stories and information that the earlier one doesn't, but it's too bad that this one couldn't be as comprehensive.

As for the colorized footage, it's a mixed blessing. There are several places where the color is indeed far more evocative. There's a shot of British tanks rolling through a field that's powerfully disturbing and the contrast between the beautiful French countryside and the squalor that soldiers lived through in the trenches is perfectly depicted. However, there are also far too many places where the colors are so garish that they completely ruin the effect. "Blood in the Air," in particular, just looks artificial because the colors make the footage look like cheap animation. Also, the film has only been colorized, not cleaned up, so you'll still see plenty of scratches and flaws. It's an interesting idea to make the footage seem more vivid to viewers and at times it does succeed. It just seems like the series rests too much on the novelty of colorized footage without actually doing enough to make it work as an overall portrait of the war.

The DVD set is reasonably solid. The anamorphic transfer and stereo sound mix are both satisfactory. Whatever flaws exist in the older footage, the DVD does show it off accurately. The set includes a third disc of extras. The best is a 50-minute additional episode of interesting stories that didn't fit into the original narrative. Unlike the main series, this episode uses CG to depict events that were never captured on film. Though it doesn't fill in all of the holes from the main series, it does have some remarkable stories and is worth seeing. The 15-minute "making-of" featurette, on the other hand, only has interviews with the series' producers, who don't really give much insight into how they decided to put the show together as they did or even how they actually colorized the film. It adds nothing to the package. The rest of the disc is filled with fairly dense text extras, including timelines and biographies, and the set also comes with a ten-page booklet of additional information.

Ultimately, if you already know something about WWI, World War I in Color is worth seeing. The colorized footage does sometimes capture what the war must have been like, the interviews are interesting, and the show does have some remarkable stories and information. Unfortunately, it's not as thorough as it should have been, and the colorized footage sometimes looks so cheap and silly that it ends up undermining the series. This could have been the definitive look at one of the most underappreciated events in history, but instead it's only a somewhat decent primer.

The Verdict

Guilty of emphasizing gimmickry over storytelling.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 75

Perp Profile

Studio: Acorn Media
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English
Running Time: 284 Minutes
Release Year: 2003
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television
• War

Distinguishing Marks

• Bonus Episode
• Featurette
• Text Extras


• IMDb

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