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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Victory at Sea Blu-ray Review

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Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
In 1952, the NBC television network aired one of the most ambitious network documentary series ever attempted with Victory at Sea.  The concept for the series came from Henry Salomon who spent his wartime service assisting historian Samuel Eliot Morison who was then writing the 15-volume History of United States Naval Operations in World War II.  During that period, Salomon discovered how much footage of combat operations was available after the war which he later put to good use in Victory at Sea.





Once he left the Navy in 1948, he went to Harvard and eventually told one of his classmates Robert Sarnoff (whose father David owned NBC) about his idea of assembling all of the available footage to show viewers the course of the war through the footage.  When the project was approved by NBC in 1951 and given a $500.000 budget, Salomon assembled a veteran newsreel crew and began searching every government archive available.  He had the complete cooperation of the US Navy since they realized what a recruitment tool the show could be (think of this as an early Top Gun).  After a world-wide search, the team ended up discovering 60 million feet of film that was ultimately cut down to 61,000 feet.

Richard Rodgers (of the Rodgers and Hammerstein team) was brought in to write the score for the series and he wrote twelve theme songs that were expanded upon by Robert Russell Bennett.  The score for the series was very popular and went on to be released as an album four times in different arrangements.  Unfortunately for Bennett, despite writing the majority of original music for the series, he was only credited for arranging and conducting the score.  Rodgers would later re-use his track “Beneath the Southern Cross” by combining lyrics to it for the play Me and Juliet. In another interesting bit of trivia, Perry Como renamed the song to “No Other Love,” and released his own version of it which went to #1 on the charts.

The show was an instant hit as soon as it aired, and NBC sold it off into syndication where it was financially successful and it played through the 60’s very successfully both at home and abroad. An abridged movie was even made out of it for Universal Artists which was also shown by NBC in later years.  The show was not only a financial success but a critical one as well and it won many awards including an Emmy and the Peabody Award.

Film (4 out of 5 stars)

When it comes to World War II documentaries, there are two defining ones that stand above all others.  The first one (which has also just been released on Blu-ray) is The World at War and the second is Victory at Sea.  While Victory at Sea had a more limited focus as it dealt solely with Naval battles, it still had an impressive scope and comprehensiveness that most other documentaries can’t match.  With footage gathered from every theater of war and from every combatant involved in the war, the breadth of it’s scope is very impressive.

Although, it’s told from an Allies (especially an American) point of view, the footage filmed from other countries adds an authenticity and different flavor than the usual cut and dried proceedings these wartime documentaries usually are.  It’s one thing to say something about an enemy but another to actually see it preserved through history through film.  The series was a product of its time, with the war having ended not long before this aired and the uncertainty of world relations and the beginnings of world-wide upon us as events  lead into to the eventual Cold War between the West and the East.

The series also didn’t pull any punches and didn’t shy from showing bodies in the surf, or the dead scattered after an attack.  Our media coddles us so much now that it makes watching a series from 1952 even more powerful than anything on today due to it’s unflinching honesty. The scripts by Henry Salomon and Richard Hanser are masterful and dramatic.  The scripts are helped immeasurably by Leonard Graves who adds so much gravitas and presence that it really brings the impact home.

His line readings describing the casualties from the Pearl Harbor attack are direct, succinct, and delivered with an unforgettable combination of anger and sadness. “Never before, in modern history, has a war begun with so smashing a victory…188 planes and most of their hangars demolished. The Japanese have lost 29 planes, 68 of their pilots and sailors are dead…one of the cheapest military triumphs on record. Suffering, agony, death. 1,178 men – wounded. 68 civilians – dead. 109 marines – dead. 218 soldiers – dead. 2,008 sailors – dead.”  Even days later, I can still hear that description along with his voice and his somber delivery of it in my head.  I think that both The World at War and Victory at Sea should be required viewing in all of our high schools.

Here are the 26 episodes found on the three Blu-ray discs:
  • Design for War: Battle of the Atlantic, 1939-1941
  • The Pacific Boils Over: Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941
  • Sealing the Breach: Anti-submarine Warfare, 1941-1943
  • Midway is East: Western Pacific and the Battle of Midway
  • Mediterranean Mosaic: Gibraltar, Allied and Enemy Fleets, Malta
  • Guadalcanal: Guadalcanal
  • Rings Around Rabaul: Struggle for the Solomon and Admiralty Islands
  • Mare Nostrum: Command of the Mediterranean, 1940-1942
  • Sea and Sand: Invasion of North Africa, 1942-1943
  • Beneath the Southern Cross: War in the South Atlantic
  • The Magnetic North: War from Murmansk to Alaska
  • The Conquest of Micronesia: Carrier warfare and the Gilberts and Marshalls
  • Melanesian Nightmare: New Guinea Campaign
  • Roman Renaissance: Sicily and the Italian Campaign, South of France
  • D-Day: Normandy
  • Killers and the Killed: Victory in the Atlantic, 1943-1945
  • The Turkey Shoot: Conquest of the Marianas
  • Two if by Sea: Peleliu and Angaur
  • Battle for Leyte Gulf: Leyte Landings and the Battle for Leyte Gulf
  • Return of the Allies: Liberation of the Philippines, South China Sea and Borneo
  • Full Fathom Five: U.S. Submarines Against Japan, 1941-1945
  • The Fate of Europe: Black Sea, South of France, Near East, Berlin
  • Target Suribachi: Battle of Iwo Jima
  • The Road to Mandalay: China, Burma, India and Indian Ocean
  • Suicide for Glory: Okinawa
  • Design for Peace: Surrender of Japan and Aftermath of War

Video (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

With footage culled from many different formats (8mm, 16mm, and 35mm) and across many years, one can’t expect perfection.  While a lot of the footage shot during actual combat, there was reportedly additional footage inserted that was taken from other films, both commercial and documentary.  I did also notice that a lot of shots were recycled for padding I assume, but it’s really annoying when it happens a couple of times in the same episode.  Now that the footage has been restored and upgraded to a 1080p transfer, it has never looked this good before.  Due to the varying types of film used and their age, it’s impossible to offer a blanket review for the video quality as some shots look amazing and others are in bad shape.

The new high definition transfer does offer a lot more contrast and the detail is finer.  The sharpness of this new transfer allows you to read now be able to read the name tags of the military personnel and to notice little details that were never evident before.   Thanks to 24p technology, viewers will now see it exactly the way it was intended frame for frame.  Since the footage was shot in mostly black and white but some color as well, it affected the contrast levels of the color shots when the show was broadcast in back and white.  That issue is still present in this restoration but it’s an inherited issue and couldn’t be helped.  Naturally there is grain present due to the 8mm and 16mm film stock used but this still looks far better than it has a right to.

I think it’s safe to say that this is most likely the best video quality we will ever see for this series. Periscope Film did an incredible job on a very difficult project.  My only real issue with this edition, is the fact that Periscope Film added their logo to the bottom right of the picture that pops up every once in awhile which I really disliked.  I realize that they are just trying to protect their investment of time and money, but I really wish they could find another way to do that other than an annoying pop up.

Audio (3 out of 5 stars)

Since this was made in the 50’s, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that this is a Dolby 2.0 Mono track. That’s not to say that it hasn’t been greatly improved upon, because it has when compared to the earlier versions. The music no longer drowns out the dialogue of the narrator and it’s a much cleaner track than the other releases too. There’s still an occasional hiss and the sound briefly drops out every once in awhile, but if you had heard what the earlier versions sounded like you would think this was THX certified!   A lossless 2.0 Mono track would have been nice, but I think Periscope Film did an excellent job restoring the sound overall.  It’s also great to hear the much improved  score by Rodgers and Bennett too.

Special Features (3 out of 5 stars)

There’s not a lot of special features available for this set but what was added was informative and interesting and all of them are unique to this Blu-ray release.
  • Publicity PDF – The original NBC publicity booklet  that was sent in hardcover to all the affiliates who were going to air the series.  To access the .pdf, insert any of the 3 discs into a computer with a Blu-ray player, navigate to the “DATA”  folder, and open the .pdf file.  You will need a .pdf reader (like Adobe Reader) installed on your computer to view this file.

  • Disc 1, Episode 6: Guadalcanal Audio Commentary- A running commentary by Peter C. Rollins Ph.D. Rollins, Marine Corps veteran, author, and a professor of film and history, in addition to being known as a noted expert concerning Victory at Sea.  The man definitely knows his stuff and gives an insightful overview of the entire series.

  • Disc 3: Audio Interview – A  37 minute audio interview between Periscope Film’s Nick Spark and Dr. Rollins about the historical significance of the show.  An interesting interview that has the benefit of being recorded by two people who care quite a bit about the series.

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars)

I love history and my favorite period of history is during World War II which has fascinated and repelled me my entire life.  Works such as this and The World at War, should be treasured and revered for providing a snapshot into a different time and world.  Fortunately for us, Periscope Film feels the same way.  Although this series has been in the public domain for a long time and has had many different releases, none of them can match the effort that Periscope Film put into restoring this.

This isn’t the usual rip from a VHS like some of the other shoddy releases.  Periscope Film owns their own telecine facility where they do their own transfers and handle their own quality control. Based on one of the earlier versions of this series that I own, I can verify that this is without a doubt, the hands down winner across the board.  It’s obvious to see how much time and effort was spent restoring this series for high definition, and Periscope Film deserves much praise and support so make sure you buy this and their other restoration project on Memphis Belle!

Order your copy today!

  

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