Monday, December 20, 2010

The World at War Blu-ray Review

The World at War is without question, the definitive historical documentary account of World War II.  The scope and breadth of this documentary series is unparalleled as it covers events from 1933 through the war’s end in 1945.  Commissioned by Thames Television in 1969, it took four years to assemble all of the footage (including some rare footage in color) and it ended up costing what would now cost around $12 million dollars to produce.

Film  (5 out of 5 stars)

There have been many documentaries about the war but none of them are as comprehensive as this one.  Some of them like Victory at Sea (see review here) have a definite point of view and take sides, while The World at War does an admirable job of remaining balanced and objective while presenting the facts, which has made this documentary series popular across the world.  As usual, interviews were combined along wartime footage to tell the complete story, but in an interesting break from tradition, the producers intentionally went after the lesser known, but highly placed aides and assistants who were observers to the  main participants in the war.

Many notable people  on both sides of the war also asked to participate which led to interviews with Albert Speer, Karl Dönitz, James Stewart, Lord Mountbatten of Burma, Alger Hiss, Adolph Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, and historian Stephen Ambrose.  There’s also interviews with housewives, enlisted men, officers, and politicians as well, which offers a wider perspective of the conflict than most documentaries allow.

Watching the course of the biggest conflict this world has ever known from the beginning to the end is a sobering experience.  It’s also fascinating and terrible as well and it’s always been my favorite period of history to research.  It’s  horrifying to see how easily miscommunication, assumptions, indifference, arrogance, and appeasement led to the deaths of over 70 million people.  Never before had a conflict been so clearly distinguished between right and wrong and it’s heartening to know that the majority of the world united to stop a force for evil from world domination.

Out of the series twenty-six episodes, fifteen of them are devoted to major campaigns and the remaining eleven detail other events such as life in wartime in Britain and Germany, the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, and also the Third Reich’s implementation of genocide.  Here are the list of episodes that are spread across seven discs excluding the last two disc of extras:

  1. A New Germany: 1933 -1939
  2. Distant War: September 1939- May 1940
  3. France Falls: May-June 1940
  4. Alone May 1940 – May 1941
  5. Barbarossa: June-December 1941
  6. Banzai!: Japan 1931-1942
  7. On Our Way: U.S.A. 1939 – 1942
  8. The Desert: North Africa 1940 – 1943
  9. Stalingrad: June 1942 – February 1943
  10. Wolf Pack: U-Boats in the Atlantic 1939 – 1944
  11. Red Star: The Soviet Union 1941 – 1943
  12. Whirlwind: Bombing Germany September 1939 – April 1944
  13. Tough Old Gut: Italy November 1942 – June 1944
  14. It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma 1942 – 1944
  15. Home Fires: Britain 1940 – 1944
  16. Inside the Reich: Germany 1940 – 1944
  17. Morning: June – August 1944
  18. Occupation: Holland 1940 – 1944
  19. Pincers: August 1944 – March 1945
  20. Genocide: 1941 – 1945
  21. Nemesis: Germany February – May 1945
  22. Japan 1941 – 1945
  23. Pacific: February 1942 – July 1945
  24. The Bomb: February-September 1945
  25. Reckoning: 1945… and After
  26. Remember

This Blu-ray is the result of the biggest restoration project ever done for a television show and done by using exclusive machines (of which there are only two in the world) and a new software program that isn’t even on the market yet.  It’s easy to see that a considerable amount of money and effort has been expended in an effort to to make this look and sound as good as possible.

Each frame of the series has been restored individually, and as much effort was spent restoring the audio to the highest possible quality.  To give you an idea of how much work this was, on average each episode has over 140,000 fixes, which means there were more than 3.6 million fixes for the entire series!  The World at War won many awards and also spawned two companion books also called The World at War, with the last release including interview material that wasn’t included in the series.

Video (4 out of 5 stars)

Much has been said about the restoration of this series by FremantleMedia which resulted in their decision to convert the ratio from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1 so it would be ready to be shown on 16:9 televisions.  Many people are unhappy with that decision and wanted it to remain in its original ratio, but they may not realize the process of how it was restored.  This conversion was not one that was done in some kind of an automated conversion.

In actuality, it was a human supervised process where a team of people decided frame by frame where to zoom in the shots to make sure that the image would retain it’s original impact and coverage.  In almost every case, I don’t believe anything major is lost and I believe they did an incredible job.  It’s understandable that major television programmers are going to want the 16:9 ratio for HD channels and FreemantleMedia justifiably wanted to recoup the money they invested in restoring it.

I own the previous DVD box set of this series, and I can honestly say that this is by far the superior release.  The image is so much better now with a lot of the previous damage painstakingly taken out.  There is still some grain present but a lot of care has obviously been taken on when to use DNR and when not to, so the resulting image looks amazing.

The few issues I had can’t be faulted to this Blu-ray , but due to the fact that a lot of the footage was taken during combat and the type and age of the the film stock does have limitations.  Contrast seems dialed down for this release, but in exchange, detail has been improved.  There are some points where the image looks soft but that may also be from the result of the conversion.  The parts that utilize 33mm film look exceptionally good.  Overall, I think they did a phenomenal job on this restoration and the conversion as well!

Audio (4 out of 5 stars)

Along with it’s newly restored visuals, a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track has also been included which is considerably better than the earlier version.  It’s noticed mainly during combat action, where the action pans across the channels providing an immersive effect.  The rest of the time, Sir Laurence Olivier offers his excellent narration through the front channels very clearly and with no distortion.  Carl Davis’ famous score is well served by this mix and powerfully introduces each segment.  There are still some audio flaws due to the footage, but overall this is as good as it’s going to get and it’s an extremely impressive restoration job from film taken as far back as 1933.

Special Features  (5 out of 5 stars)

This box set has a staggering amount of extras that provide a wealth of information that really expands on the episodes.  All of the extras from the previous DVD set have been ported over to this and all of the extras are in HD and have been converted to 16:9.  On each disc there are biographies of the historical figures involved, pictures from the Imperial War Museum, and links to footage from the series that contains, songs, speeches, quotes, and maps.

Blu-ray Extras:

Experiences of War- Interviews with eight different people and their perspective on the war.  Included are former military men, and a German woman who censored allied prisoners’ mail.

The Making of The World at War -  A talk with Sir Jeremy Isaacs  who states that his intention was to make a documentary series that would represent every country involved in the war and not just show Britain’s point of view.  This approach led to the popularity of the series world-wide due to it’s fair and balanced look at the war.

Secretary to Hitler -  Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, was with Hitler all the way up until his suicide in his bunker.  Junge talks about her experiences working for Hitler.

Blind Spot: Hitler’s Secretary This documentary focused on Traudl Junge was released in 2002 and the filmmakers promoted the fact that it was Traudl Junge’s first interview about her time with Hitler. Of course that wasn’t true, as she was previously filmed  for The World at War.

From War to Peace -  A talk with the late World War II historian Stephen Ambrose who is probably best know for writing Band of Brothers.  I’ve always enjoyed his books and this was an interesting featurette about the events concerning the end of the war.

Hitler’s Germany -  A look at what it was like for the population of Germany to live during the war and under Nazi rule.

The Two Deaths of Adolph Hitler -  Some people feel that Hitler shot himself, while other believe he took poison to end his life.  Both theories are discussed here even though the Germans that were with him in the bunker state that he shot himself.

Warrior -  Archival footage and interviews with some of the men who saw combat during World War II.

The Final Solution -  A  two part documentary about the Holocaust and the Final Solution policy that enabled the systematic murder of millions of people once it was implemented.

Making the Series: A 30th Anniversary Retrospective -  Ported over from the 30th anniversary DVD box set, this covers every aspect of the making of the series.  At over two hours long, it offers a ton of information on how this all came about.

Restoring the World at War – A look at the restoration project and the controversial decision to reframe the series.  Anyone complaining about the conversion should watch this extra as they will see that it wasn’t a decision made lightly and just how much effort went into maintaining as much of the original focus as possible.

Final Thoughts (5 out of 5 stars)

This is without a doubt, the  most comprehensive and balanced documentary series on World War II.  Not only is the content first rate, but the added restoration adds a sheen to this release that renders all previous versions obsolete.  Like I said earlier, I think that the care taken by the restoration team when they reframed shots is extraordinary and I think it’s a fair trade in exchange for this kind of quality.  You can look below to see the before and after shots that show off the stellar restoration.   This series should be in every history buff’s collection and it should be mandatory for every school-child to see.

Order your copy today!


A talk with creator Sir Jeremy Isaacs and a look at the restoration process and its results can be found below.

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