Judge Victor Valdivia believes that if you label something essential, it should be more than just pretty good.
Our reviews of The Century Of Warfare (published July 31st, 2003), Victory At Sea (published December 16th, 2003), The World At War (published August 24th, 2004), and The World At War (Blu-Ray) (published November 16th, 2010) are also available.
The three most renowned WWII documentaries ever made.
Like most of History's megaset collections, the twenty-two-disc WWII: The Essential Collection compiles all of the episodes dedicated to a particular subject that aired on the channel. The one difference here is that instead of compiling various episodes of various series, this set just compiles three previous DVD releases on World War II in their entirety. This is a useful way to get three sets in one go and it certainly saves money, but it's not quite as definitive as you might expect.
The World At War is definitely a worthy part of this set. Much has been written about this series, particularly in the previous Verdict reviews by Judges Neal Solon and David Ryan, so there's little to add, other than to confirm that this is indeed one of the most extraordinary documentaries ever assembled. The interviews with people ranging from civilians to high-ranking military and political leaders are astounding, but coupled with some remarkable wartime footage (some of which was being seen for the first time in this form), they make for a truly arresting experience. The show also includes some equally impressive bonus episodes that focus on specific aspects of the war, mainly relating to Nazi Germany, and some may find their focus a bit narrow, most viewers interested enough to sit through all the episodes of this series will enjoy them. This was a landmark series when it first aired in 1973, and even years of WWII documentaries have not diminished its impact. It's a must for history buffs and, in many ways, alone justifies the price of this set.
The Century Of Warfare is not nearly as celebrated, mainly because it's not as ambitious, even though it covers a much greater period of time. This is actually not technically a WWII documentary, but rather an exploration of major wars of the Twentieth Century, focusing primarily on the United States. It's lacking in interviews, consisting entirely of archival footage and narration. Nonetheless, it's actually a compelling series. There is no shortage of fascinating revelations and astute insights. It's not so much a straight look at tactics and weapons (although there is plenty of that here) as it is an examination of how and why the century's major wars, from World War I to the first Gulf War, began and ended. It can be a bit stiff at times, as is the case with History shows from the early '90s. Viewers expecting a strict focus on WWII will wonder why this series was included in this set when there are far more relevant programs that could have been used instead. For the most part, though, it's hard to quibble too much with this choice.
It's the third series that's something of a letdown. Victory At Sea is famous as the first series that chronicled the war on TV, and while its use of naval combat footage was indeed fascinating back when it first aired in 1952, it's much less enthralling these days. Years and years of seeing this very footage recycled in countless documentaries has made it seem rather tame, especially since these episodes are too often content to merely run pictures without any commentary. Even worse is the narration, which, when it does deign to appear, is either hilariously corny and dated or infuriatingly shallow and jingoistic. In either case, it renders the series the least useful one here, even with hours and hours of films. As a period piece, it's mildly revealing, but only the most devout history buffs will be able to watch it more than once.
So is the set worth it? With a list price of $159.95, the answer is a qualified yes. The list price for The World At War alone is $99.95, while that for The Century of Warfare is $139.95 and for Victory At Sea is $39.95. So for a little more than half of what you'd pay for buying all three sets separately, you're getting them all together at once. These are the exact same previous DVD releases, with no new extras or remastering (just different disc and cover art), so if you're familiar with those issues, you'll know exactly what you're getting here. Still, calling this collection "essential" is misleading, since one of the series isn't completely devoted to WWII and one of the others is too dated and narrowly focused to appeal to most viewers. If you've never seen any of these before, you might want to preview an episode or two from each series before deciding to buy this set. If you already have these, you needn't bother.
Guilty of slightly deceptive advertising, but let off with a warning because it's actually a pretty good deal.
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