Review of "The World at War (Blu-ray)"

published 13/04/2017 | hogsflesh
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Pro Classic series well presented on blu-ray
Cons None, as long as you appreciate when the series was made
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"Never before in the field of human conflict"

Spooky face in the flames

Spooky face in the flames

This set is currently, released by Network, about £50 on amazon (although I’m sure it was cheaper when I bought it, so shop around). There’s an older Blu-ray release from Fremantle, which carries the subtitle ‘The Ultimate Restored Edition’, but that crops a huge chunk of the image off and should be avoided (it’s also more expensive).

The World at War is an iconic documentary series that was first broadcast on ITV in late 1973. There are 26 episodes, each lasting around 50 minutes (they had fewer ad breaks in those days, so each episode fit into a one-hour slot).

It tells the story of the Second World War, from Hitler’s coming to power in Germany, to the start of the Cold War. Most episodes tell the story chronologically, although some focus on one aspect of the war and follow that from beginning to end (Atlantic convoys, for instance). Episodes feature a mixture of footage from the war and talking head interviews.

Laurence Olivier narrates it, as he was probably the most famous ‘classy’ actor in the world at the time. His narration is very good, with a slightly sardonic edge – I don’t think I’ve seen anything that justifies Olivier’s monumental reputation (he was primarily a stage actor), but this is certainly better than most things he was putting his name to by the early 70s. That said, some of his pronunciations are just weird (‘strarfed’ for ‘strafed’, ‘feeted’ for ‘foetid’. And I’m not sure I could even attempt to convey how weird his pronunciation of ‘Ukraine’ is).

It has a classic 70s opening sequence, with sombre music and flames illuminating haunting faces. (And before that is the Thames ident, which is guaranteed to give a nostalgic glow to anyone old enough to remember it.) There is some original, orchestral incidental music, all composed by Carl Davis. But most of the music used in the series is from the era – marching bands, pop songs of the day etc. That works well.

What works slightly less well is the fact that almost every bit of footage we see has sound. It’s highly unlikely that most of the clips were actually filmed with sound, which means it’s been dubbed in later. The ethics of this aren’t so much the problem (although dubbing the sound of gunfire onto footage of Jews being murdered in Russia – a piece of film that’s certainly silent – strikes me as a lapse of taste). It just makes it all seem a bit silly – especially since the most prominent sound that’s been added to the film clips is footsteps. You’re left with the impression that people during World War Two all wore surprisingly noisy shoes.

Is it worth watching? Yes, certainly – if you know little or nothing about the Second World War, it will tell you a great deal in an engaging fashion. If you already know a lot about it, you’ll appreciate the interviews and the footage. (‘Appreciate’ might not be the right word – some of the footage is absolutely horrible – there are a lot of bodies, some mutilated. Mercifully most of the clips are black and white, but I suspect that most documentaries made today don’t focus quite so relentlessly on images of the dead.) It can be argued that you don’t get much depth – every episode’s subject matter could easily yield a six-part documentary in itself – but I think the series strikes the right balance between giving us enough information and giving us too much. It also manages to put across all sides of the war fairly well, although inevitably it’s rather Anglo-centric.

The emphasis is different to what you'd expect to see in a modern series - it's very interesting to see how perspectives on history change. Out of 26 episodes, only one is devoted to the Holocaust, a subject which is now seen as perhaps the most important aspect of the war. Of course, in 1973 the majority of viewers had lived through the war, either as combatants or on the home front, and the series reflects their experiences more than a series made today would. It's only with the benefit of historical distance that certain events emerge as having been more important. The Holocaust episode features a very brief interview with Primo Levi, arguably the most famous Holocaust survivor; a modern documentary would have given him much more space. Anne Frank is mentioned briefly in passing in an episode about Occupied Holland, but again, gets a great deal less time than you suspect she would today.

There are also omissions. No mention is made of code breaking at Bletchley Park, now seen as one of the most important contributions to winning the war, for the simple reason that it was still a secret when the series was made. There's almost nothing about resistance movements in Europe, which is strange given how popular the French Resistance was in TV dramas in the 70s. Greece and Yugoslavia are hardly mentioned. And the Russian war is given less time than you'd expect, given that the war in Europe was decisively settled there, and that the number of deaths at Stalingrad alone was greater than the combined losses suffered by the UK and the US. But there was a Cold War on, so presumably access to surviving Russian politicians and officers was limited (Molotov was still alive when the series was made, but I'd guess they didn't even ask if they could interview him...).

Because Germany was still divided and the Cold War very much ongoing, Russia’s staggering losses aren’t given the emphasis they deserve. Again, this is all down to when the series was made. The quiet pride in Britain’s having stood firm against Hitler exhibited by people who were actually there is a far cry from the shrill nationalism the war evokes in this country these days. There also seems to be a bit less regret on the German side than you typically see nowadays (Albert Speer wheels out his usual self-exculpatory regrets, but they’re not very convincing).

The thing this series has that modern series don’t is a hugely impressive array of talking head interviews. Because it was only made 30 years after the war’s end, there were an awful lot of survivors. The Soviets and Japanese are a little under-represented, but there are some amazing interviewees from Britain (including Eden, Mountbatten, Vera Lynn and Bomber Harris), Germany (including Speer and Doenitz) and America (including JK Galbraith, who wears a hilariously loud shirt and tie combo, James Stewart and even Alger Hiss, who I’d thought was executed, but I daresay I’m confusing him with someone else). It’s not all high-ranking politicians and warlords, though – there is more emphasis on soldiers, civilians and victims. The way the interviews are shot is pretty unflattering – everyone looks particularly fleshy and almost all seem to have a thin sheen of sweat around their hairlines. It’s possible that all interview footage in the early 70s was like that; whatever the reason, it looks weird.

All in all, The World At War ranges from the amusing to the grim to the depressing. I don’t think there’s been a better general history of the Second World War on television, and it’s nice to have one that doesn’t just focus on the leading Nazis as so many documentaries seem to these days. It’s of its time – no one would try and make a series this long these days, and ITV wouldn’t touch this kind of material with a bargepole unless they could stick a detective in it somewhere. But as a reminder of how good British TV used to be and as a great factual resource, I’d highly recommend it. It may have been more than 60 years ago now, but we should still learn about World War 2, and this is a good place to start.
Blu-ray

There have been two Blu-ray releases of this series. Make sure you get the right one (the 2016 release from Network, which is the one I’m reviewing). The older release was letterboxed, making a widescreen presentation of something that was filmed to be shown in 4:3 aspect ratio. This meant a lot of information was lost at the top and bottom of the image. The newer release shows the full image.

As for picture quality, it’s necessarily a mixed bag. The interviews look much better than they did (you can see way more sweat!), but the archive footage varies in quality, as it’s taken from all kinds of different sources. Is it worth upgrading to HD for this series? I think so, personally, but equally, you’re probably not missing out on much by sticking with the DVD version.

Extra-wise, we get the special episodes that were included on previous DVD releases. Most are narrated by Eric Porter, a good actor, but it’s incongruous hearing his voice instead of Olivier’s. These episodes are rather like extended versions of existing episodes – there’s a long Holocaust two-parter, which expands greatly on the main series’ Holocaust episode, with longer versions of the interviews (some of which are, as you’d expect, absolutely horrifying). Another of these extra episodes features a lengthy interview with Traudl Junge, one of Hitler’s secretaries (her memoirs were a source for the movie Downfall). Snippets of these interviews appeared in other episodes, but here we get it all together.

There are also a couple of making of documentaries, made several years apart,. In one, Jeremy Isaacs, the show’s producer, sits and talks to camera about the series. In the other, Isaacs and several other participants are interviewed. They’re interesting, but there’s a lot of repetition.

With or without the extra episodes, though, the series is monumental. It’s not always easy to watch, and you are unlikely to watch more than one episode at a time. But it’s great to see it released on Blu-ray (especially now in the correct aspect ratio).

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Comments on this review

  • missrarr published 25/04/2017
    Sorry to report I am out of Es for the day, the detail here warrants it.
  • IzzyS published 22/04/2017
    I was aware of this show but I've never sat down and watched it before. Detailed review.
  • euphie published 22/04/2017
    e :o)
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Product Information : The World at War (Blu-ray)

Manufacturer's product description

Product Details

Sub Genre: Historical

EAN: 5027626806743

Sub Sub Genre: World War

DVD Region: Blu-ray

Director(s): Jeremy Isaacs, Hugh Regett, David Elstein, Peter Batty, Ted Childs

Actor(s) (Last name, First name): Olivier, Laurence

Production Year: 1973

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