The World at War is expansive in scope and astoundingly informative. It offers 26 hour-long documentaries made with cutting-edge technology for its time and features WWII footage alongside eyewitness interviews. Unless you are slightly more than the average World War II buff, it’s an undertaking, sort of in the same way as Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Sir Lawrence Olivier must have been "the man" to have read the scripts over and over again as he narrated these 26 hours of material. Reading for that long must have been a battle in its own right, but one that hopefully left a stain of accomplishment beneath red, overworked cheeks. The World of War makes a different point than any other documentary I’ve ever encountered, and it does so with grace. In some moments we see allies creating sea caravans to stave off the wily U-boat wolf packs. Or we see malaria-ridden jungle battles, or good-old-boys hanging out in the African desert with scant supplies of water, or Burma’s oil supplies going up in flames. In other instances we see shot after shot of starving Russians given four ounces of bread a day to share with their families and to keep the factories running. We see British women pulling their ruined possessions from bombed-out buildings, cursing Churchill as he cruises past. There are the armies fighting away from home and the people fighting to survive at home, and we see these are separate tribulations, but often the same thing.
Like any series that spans more than 20 hours, you’re bound to have some exciting moments and some tedious moments. Often, thinking of points as tedious is sort of horrific: we see women and children suffering in Russian Leningrad for two winters, and this becomes the same old thing at some point. In fact, it becomes less exciting than a moment Americans are readying for war and planting victory gardens at home. This doesn’t seem fair or right, but it's the nature of encompassing every aspect, having different editors working on the various topics, and trying assorted visual tactics.
Much time is spent discussing battle plans, their weak points and strong points, flawed leader philosophies, and iron wills. There’s no real use in speculating what may have happened had certain decisions been made differently, but The World at War believes there is some use in suspecting instances could have played out differently, that every side was unlucky and lucky at different moments. Every side was human, and the series is only interested in laying out the facts.
It is important to note, because the series might spend an entire hour talking about France, and the next hour on Russia, then Japan, then the U.S.A, etc., that the films are not in chronological order. Following in these footsteps, this is meant to be less of a criticism and more of a fact. The people creating the documentaries could have gone one of two ways: chronologically or location oriented, and they chose the latter. This is not to say that the "preparing for war" segment comes last and the "aftermath of war" bit comes first; there is some stability in the way the documentaries are ordered. The format will work for some people and will be work for others, but should be worth it either way if viewers are really interested in the topic.
When the video wraps up, the war is fought, war crimes are tried, and the people begin to create their worlds anew. There is a feeling that something has been lived and must now be looked back on to preserve, preserve, preserve. It’s not like when you’re watching Anthony Bourdain eat pig meat in Costa Rica or wherever and he explains how the skin is crispy and delicious, and you can see how humid it is in Costa Rica by the curled hair at the nape of Bourdain’s neck and the way the juice from the pig slides down his unclean hand and you know the pig must be delicious and that you could go to that same place and recreate the moment all over again. In the World at War, something has passed, been finalized, and can’t be returned to. It’s a much heavier weight that is carried in this documentary: a realization that an event lives in limbo, a place where it cannot be recreated without ramifications, nor can it be forgotten for the same reason. This is the picture that is painstakingly painted, pieced together from newspaper headings and foggy memories and maps and photographs and fading film reels, and if that isn’t an achievement for a documentary, I would be hard pressed to explain what achievement is. The discs themselves are laid out pretty decently. There are two to five hours of film on each disc, with certain discs containing marked “bonus” documentaries. The last several discs include features only, namely the “Making of the Series” special and the “Restoring The World at War” featurette. The only criticism I would have with the layout is that the same three special features are included in the extras section of each disc. One of these is the highly sought-after episode summary, which would have served its purpose much better if it had been disc specific and laid out in a better location. It also seemed like a waste of space that the other two of these extras, the biographies section and the "Brief History of The World at War" article, are repeated on every disc.
Unlike many Blu-Ray releases, the special features for this Blu-Ray series are nearly exactly the same as those offered in the 2004 30th anniversary release of The World at War. New to the Blu-Ray edition is the “Restoring The World at War” featurette, which shows how the documentary was treated with high-definition picture and surround sound to make the series stand out like never before. High-definition editors focused first on color grading and then high definition using a program called Archangel. The process was meticulous, and the way the documentary approaches the process is equally so.
There are seven “bonus” documentaries that did not appear originally in the series. These documentaries were written and produced at the same time as the original series, with the same people, and were subject to the same HD treatment present in the 26 hour-long episodes (I feel I should add that the documentaries are not exactly on the hour mark, since I haven’t yet). The “bonus” documentaries mostly encompass topics relating to Hitler, including “Hitler’s Germany,” “Secretary to Hitler,” “The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler,” and “The Final Solution,” a documentary on the systematic annihilation of Jewish populations in various countries.
The making of the series and the retrospective making-of segments are full of interesting facts. 1) The film took three years with 50 people working to create. 2) The final budget for the film ended up being around 900,000 pounds. 3) The music in the opening sequence directly correlates to the images that appear onscreen. I could go on for hours, but you get the gist.
The other features are also worth a watch, including some of the full interviews that could not be included in the series in their entirety, famous songs, speeches, quotes and maps, and a photo gallery. Although the photo gallery feels a little pointless, as the series as a whole is already a giant montage of photographs with videos and interviews placed where cracks open up, each photo does include at least add some new information in its captions, so it might be worth a look for historical junkies.
If there’s anything that can be said about the accompanying extras, it is that they are encompassing.
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