Studio: History Channel
US Rating: NR
Film Length: 7hrs, 35 Mins
Video: 1.78:1 – Not enhanced for widescreen televisions
Audio: English Dolby Digital 2.0
“We are all of us children of earth—grant us that simple knowledge. If our brothers are oppressed, then we are oppressed. If they hunger, we hunger. If their freedom is taken away, our freedom is not secure. Grant us a common faith that man shall know bread and peace-that he shall know justice and righteousness, freedom and security, an equal opportunity and an equal chance to do his best, not only in our own lands, but throughout the world. And in that faith let us march, toward the clean world our hands can make. Amen."
The Film: 4.5 out of 5
The greatest generation. The last great war. World War II; arguably the most sprawling, devastating, and globally affecting conflict in the history of humankind, has yielded some of the most incredible stories of heroism and bravery that the world has ever known; though anyone you speak to from that terrible war would brush off notions of heroism with a quip about “just doing what needed to be done”. While the war was raging, Hollywood was telling stories of the fight – and for decades after Germany and Japan had surrendered, tales of battles lost and won would be explored, and the bold, brave, battered and bruised effort of the allied forces would have their stories told.
World War II raged across Europe and North Africa for years before Japan awakened the sleeping giant of the United States in 1942 with their sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. That devastating act formalized America’s involvement in the conflict, and opened up an incredible front in the Pacific theater. In short, WWII was one of the most remarkable periods in human history.
For two years, researchers scoured the globe in search of footage from the war. WWII is perhaps one of the most documented periods in history, but this effort to find footage was different. The footage being sought was little or never before seen color footage. After the two year global effort, researches had compiled a staggering amount of footage, captured by dedicated members of the armed services, embedded journalists, and others. The footage was assembled around the lives of 12 individuals in to a narrative, documenting many bloody and brutal battles from France, to Italy, to North Africa, and from Guadalcanal, to the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines. The footage is nothing short of incredible; a fascinating front-lines view, in color, of the gruesome and terrifying power of warfare.
The 12 lives followed by the documentary range from a field army nurse to an embedded TIME/LIFE journalist, naval officers, a Tuskegee Airman, and marines. Each life is explored through their words documented in diaries, war journals, books published, and recent interviews. The power and intimacy of battle – and the sheer magnitude of the conflict, come searingly into focus in an unparalleled way. There is heart and heroism drenched in the words which addle between hopeful and hopeless. Some of the 12 are alive today; some died in the conflict, but each are unique and their stories revealing of their fears. The 12 lives we follow, and the actors who bring their words to life, are: Jack Werner (Justin Bartha), Rockie Blunt(Rob Corddry), Richard Tregaskis (Tim DeKay), Archie Sweeney (Mark Hefti), Jimmie Kanaya (James Kyson Lee), Charles Scheffel (Ron Livingston), Shelby F. Westbrook (LL Cool J), Robert Sherrod (Rob Lowe), Bert Stiles (Josh Lucas), Jack Yusen (Jason Ritter), June Wandrey (Amy Smart), and Nolen Marbrey (Steve Zahn). Rob Lowe’s reading of TIME/LIFE war correspondent Robert Sherrod in particular is sobering – perhaps because of his journalistic eloquence, or the gruesome battles he witness, but Lowe delivers his words with the a somber and serious solemnity.
The overarching story of the war is narrated by Gary Sinise. Sinise provides a straightforward, emotionally neutral cadence and tone; a simple gravity which provides hints of the despair and desperation felt at points in the conflict, balanced with the trial and triumph of victory. His narration is perfect as we follow the mostly linear path from Pearl Harbor, to Japan’s reluctant surrender several days after the second atomic bomb destroyed Nagasaki.
WWII in HD documentation of war as seen and told through the lives of just 12 provides an dramatic power among the vastness of the fight. European allied forces gave countless lives, and their contributions, though not specifically documented here, are weaved in to the stories and battles covered. But this series is designed specifically to tell an American perspective, and with that understanding, this series is nothing short of extraordinary. This documentary is a marvel of editing, narrative construction, and thoughtful, emotional, storytelling. Assembling what must have been a vast, disparate array of footage culled from across the globe, in to a compelling, engaging, and at times tense experience, is a fine accomplishment, and riveting from the first shot, to the closing moments.
Images of the contorted dead; fields of fallen soldiers and civilians killed in the throes of battle, or caught in the ferocity of crossfire, strike a solemn tone frequently throughout the more than seven hours running time. These images are horrific and devastating; vicious reminders of wars’ brutal toll. The inexplicable mass suicides on the Island of Saipan; the emaciated, frail skin and bone survivors of Hitler’s holocaust of the Jews mark perhaps the most distressing images.
In the end, the guttural and awful reality of war is mixed expertly with the sweeping, swelling surge of victory. The balance of these sides is incredibly well maintained, and should be applauded.
Episode 1: Darkness Falls
Episode 2: Hard Way Back
Episode 3: Bloody Reserve
Episode 4: Battle Stations
Episode 5: Day of Days
Episode 6: Point of No Return
Episode 7: Striking Distance
Episode 8: Glory and Guts
Episode 9: Edge of the Abyss
Episode 10: End Game
The Video: 3 out of 5
The case does not specify the aspect ratio, however, this 10 episode documentary, split over 3 DVD’s, is presented in 1.78:1 aspect ratio – however, it has not been enhanced for 16X9 displays. A curious discover since the Blu-Ray version was so expertly presented, and I cannot recall the last disc I reviewed that failed to enhance for widescreen TVs. As for the quality of the image as it is presented, it’s actually reasonably good. The quality of the discovered footage varies, but regardless of the extent of damage, wear, tear, and fading, the meticulous effort to restore and transfer to High Definition certainly provides for good quality.
As I mention in the review for the Blu-Ray version, the footage was screened and shot with Red camera to digitally store the image, and was shot at a higher resolution to preserve the quality since quite a bit of what is visible in the original frame is cropped for the presentation. If this were enhanced for widescreen televisions, I would have been comfortable commending the image; however, as it is, I must caution buyers.
The Sound: 2.5 out of 5
Despite referencing a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track, the only audio option available is the Dolby Stereo track. While I concede the material – the compelling images and engaging narrative – can survive without a powerful audio track (which the Blu-ray version more than provides), the available audio option does not deliver the power of the experience. None of the immersive power from the original History HD broadcast, or the absolutely terrific Blu-ray version, are felt here. It pains me to not be able to recommend this disc, but I can strongly suggest that the blu-ray version of this should absolutely be in your collection.
The Extras: 2.5 out of 5
Character Profiles (14:55): Profiles of those followed through the series are examined – including additional footage not shown during the series of the conversations with them.
Finding the Footage (2:28): A brief look at the effort to research and find original color footage shot during WWII.
Preserving the Footage (1:55): A very brief look at the effort of transferring the footage to a digital medium.
Both the enormity and intimacy of World War II is shared through the remarkable assemblage of rare color footage. Most footage from this war seen through the years has been black and white –somehow separating us from that now long-past era. This color footage reminds us just how close in history we really are to that global battle for freedom. Like the footage commonly seen of the Vietnam war, the fierce fighting in the Pacific theater, and the deadly charge to reclaim Europe from the grip of Hitler, is seen here upon the weary, brave, smiling or sullen faces of marines, soldiers, and sailors, captured by journalists and correspondents following behind and among the hunkered charges of these men, and in the trenches, foxholes, and webs of jungle, where the many battles unfolded. WWII in HD is a fascinating experience, and in many ways, should be required viewing (on Blu, not DVD). Not just for the significance of what has been crafted here by the documentary, but for the constant reminder I feel we should all have of the magnificent sacrifice of the millions who fought, lived and died.
Overall 3.5 out of 5 (due to the audio and video quality)