The World at War
Studio: A&E Home Video
Rated: Not Rated
Program Length: 36 Hours, 16 Minutes (including extras)
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 1080p
Languages: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, English 2.0 Stereo LPCM
Subtitles: English SDH
The World at War, originally broadcast on television in 1973 and 1974, remains the definitive documentary about World War II. However, this new Blu-ray version from A&E Home Video is a mixed bag. The good news is that it has undergone a painstaking restoration which has removed most of the damage which was present in much of the original newsreel and combat footage. Purists have complained that the 4:3 television image has been zoomed and cropped to make it fit 16x9 screens, but that turns out to be less of a problem than one might expect. The primary issue that I have is that a direct comparison with the HBO Home Video box set which was released in 2001 demonstrates that the restored version has significantly less contrast and vividness. The deep blacks of the DVD set are now grays, and much of the color footage now has a relatively washed-out look to it. This is not a bad presentation, but anyone expecting a dramatic upgrade from the HBO Home Video DVD release is likely to be disappointed.
Down this road, on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community which had lived for a thousand years was dead. This is Oradour-sur-Glane, in France. The day the soldiers came, the people were gathered together. The men were taken to garages and barns, the women and children were led down this road and they were driven into this church. Here, they heard the firing as their men were shot. Then they were killed too. A few weeks later, many of those who had done the killing were themselves dead, in battle. They never rebuilt Oradour. Its ruins are a memorial. Its martyrdom stands for thousands upon thousands of other martyrdoms in Poland, in Russia, in Burma, in China, in a World at War.
I assume that most readers of this review are already familiar with The World at War, so I will not dwell on the content. Suffice it to say that the telecast was spread out over 26 weeks and is as thorough an examination of World War II and the events leading up to it as a viewer could hope for. Narrated by Sir Lawrence Olivier, The World at War has deservedly earned numerous awards and accolades. It covers everything from the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis in 1930s Germany to the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to the war's aftermath. The success of the documentary even led to the knighthood of its creator, Sir Jeremy Isaacs. Exceptional newsreel, combat, and even home movie footage is interspersed with interviews of subjects such as Marquis Kodo (advisor to Emperor Hirohito), Karl Wolff (Hitler's adjutant and SS General), Traudl Junge (Hitler's Secretary), Alger Hiss (State Department advisor to President Roosevelt), and Paul Tibbets (pilot of Enola Gay, the bomber which dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima). Also included are the recollections of ordinary soldiers, housewives, survivors of bombings and death camps, and the insights of historians.
The World at War belongs in the collection of anyone who is seriously interested in World War II. Whether owners of one of the prior DVD sets will want to get the Blu-ray version is a decision which will undoubtedly be influenced by the following issues, both good and bad, regarding the video presentation of the Blu-ray set.
Note: All comparisons to the prior DVD set refer to the 2001 release by HBO Home Video. There also is a 30th Anniversary box set which was released by A&E Home Video in 2004, a set which I have not viewed. It is possible that the contrast and color issues which I mention here are not apparent when compared to the 2004 box set.
Most of the pre-release discussion about the Blu-ray release of The World at War concerns the decision to convert the original 4:3 television image to the 1.78:1 aspect ratio. As it turns out, this is less problematic than I had anticipated. This, after all, is not a feature film or even a television drama. The newsreel and combat footage which makes up most of the program was not, for the most part, framed with artistic expression in mind. The restoration team decided to go through the original footage frame-by-frame and make every effort to retain all essential information. The only way to convert a virtually square image into a rectangular one is to zoom and crop. Depending upon where in the frame the essential information is located, the cropping might be greater on the top or bottom, or it might be equal. In any event, when compared to the original, the high-definition picture contains less information on the top and bottom without adding anything to the sides. This cropping has been done in a very skillful way, and I suspect that a viewer who has never seen the original and is unaware of the differences would not guess that anything has been lost.
The restoration team also has made extensive repairs to the newsreel and combat footage, much of which shows a great deal of damage in the DVD release. Scratches, dirt, and other problems have been painstakingly cleaned up. The results are impressive, leaving us with images which are generally smooth and free of digital artifacts. Still, the overall look is on the soft side. Some of this softness undoubtedly can be attributed to the limitations of the source material, while some of it may be attributable to the zooming which was necessary to change the aspect ratio.
What immediately struck me, and which was driven home when I did a comparison with the original DVD set, is that the producers of the Blu-ray disc have inexplicably turned down the contrast. The deep blacks which are seen on the HBO DVD have been reduced to shades of gray. The color footage, which is generally quite vivid on the DVD set, now has a somewhat washed-out appearance. One needs only to compare the footage of Hitler's home movies to see how the color intensity has changed. The color sequences on the Blu-ray actually remind me of black and white films which were colorized by Ted Turner, so color me disappointed.
Thankfully, there are no issues with the audio. The remixed lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is very good. The narration and dialogue remain centered, but the new mix gives a larger soundstage to the music. The program defaults to the 2.0 stereo LPCM soundtrack, and I do not detect a great deal of difference between the two. Both soundtracks are more than satisfactory. A complete audio restoration has been performed and the result is clear, undistorted sound. The original audio had inherent limitations, of course, so it is difficult to imagine than anything more could have been done to further improve it.
Most of the extras on this Blu-ray set have been ported over from the previous DVD releases, and all of them are shown at 1.78:1. The most significant new supplement is a 31-minute featurette, "Restoring The World at War." It is a fascinating look at how technicians use sophisticated computer programs to clean up damaged film. A considerable amount of time is given to demonstrating how the original 4:3 images were converted to 1.78:1 and the steps which were taken to preserve the essential information in each frame.
"Experiences of War" is a series of interviews with eight individuals who have different perspectives on the war. Those who are interviewed include former officers, military men, and even a German woman who censored the mail of allied prisoners of war. This featurette has a running time of 61 minutes.
There are some extra features on each disc in the set. They include concise written biographies of the major historical figures who were involved in the war, still photographs from the Imperial War Museum Collection, and direct links to footage from the series which contains famous songs and speeches.
"The Making of The World at War" is, as the title suggests, a conventional "making of" featurette. Jeremy Isaacs explains that he wanted to make a documentary which reflected the experiences of all the countries which were involved in World War II, rather than just looking at it from the British point of view.
"Secretary to Hitler" is an in-depth interview with Traudl Junge, who was a secretary to Hitler up until the day that he committed suicide. When the documentary Blind Spot: Hitler's Secretary was released in 2002, the filmmakers claimed that it was Ms. Junge's first-ever on camera interview. Presumably they were unaware of the fact that she had been interviewed extensively for The World at War.
"From War to Peace" is a discussion with the late World War II historian Stephen Ambrose. On the HBO DVD set it was known as "Who Won World War II."
"Hitler's Germany" focuses on how the men, women and children of Germany lived under Nazi rule. On the HBO DVD set this featurette was known as "The Third Reich."
"The Two Deaths of Adolph Hitler" is a look at the questions which arose about the manner in which the dictator took his own life. Germans preferred to believe that he shot himself, while the Russians insisted that he took the "cowardly" way out by taking poison.
"Warrior" consists of archival footage of and interviews with men who did the fighting during World War II.
"The Final Solution" is a chilling two-part documentary about the Holocaust, Hitler's systematic attempt to exterminate the Jewish population.
"Making the Series: A 30th Anniversary Retrospective" was made for the 30th anniversary DVD box set which was released by A&E Home Video in 2004. It is feature-length, with a running time of 128 minutes.
The menu screens are attractive and intuitive, and they can be navigated with ease.
The entire program is spread across nine Blu-ray discs which are secured in two wide Blu-ray keep cases (five discs in one, four in the other). The keep cases come in a rather flimsy cardboard box, a disappointment considering that the DVD sets came in sturdy slipcases. The good news is that the Blu-ray set takes up just half the shelf space of the DVD sets. The original 26-part series takes up five full discs and part of a sixth. Discs 7-9 are devoted entirely to extras.
The Final Analysis
As noted, this Blu-ray set is a mixed bag. The vintage footage has been cleaned up and the audio shows definite improvement. The conversion from 4:3 to 1.78:1 will undoubtedly make it a non-starter for some, although I do not find it to be objectionable. I am, however, disturbed by the low contrast and relatively weak colors when compared to the HBO Home Video set. Those who already own one of the DVD sets will have to decide if this high-definition version actually qualifies as an upgrade. In fairness, it should be noted that other reviewers who have compared it to the prior A&E Home Video set have not been critical of the contrast and vividness of the Blu-ray version. Viewers who have not seen this series before may not be troubled by any of the video issues which I have raised in this review. Regardless of how one feels about how it now looks, The World at War is a superb documentary and remains one of the best war documentaries ever made.
Equipment used for this review:
Panasonic DMP-BD50 Blu-ray player
Panasonic Viera TC-P46G15 Plasma display, calibrated to THX specifications by Gregg Loewen
Yamaha HTR-5890 THX Surround Receiver
BIC Acoustech speakers
Interconnects: Monster Cable
Release Date: November 16, 2010