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Thursday, August 25, 2011

World War I in Color DVD Review


World War I claimed the lives of 10 million soldiers and shaped an entire century. Narrated by four-time Academy Award nominee Kenneth Branagh, this extraordinary documentary brings the war’s horror and heroism to life in a way never before revealed. Rare archival film—meticulously colorized under the guidance of expert historians—makes the past fresh, relevant, and alive.  In addition to these newly reclaimed sights and sounds, surviving WWI veterans share their experiences, personally testifying about life in the trenches, the terror of “going over the top,” and the courage and sacrifice of battle.  Analysis by military historians, detailed maps, and excerpts from the diaries and letters of men and women in the struggle offer a full range of perspectives on this unimaginably brutal, bloody clash of empires.




Film  (4 out of 5 stars)

I’ve reviewed a bunch of World War II documentaries here at the site but I’ve never watched anything concerning World War I as it seems to be the war that doesn’t get a lot of attention.  Part of that is because it happened so long ago that people can’t relate to it, especially when all of the footage is in black and white which a lot of people have no interest in watching.  With the success of various World War II documentaries being shown in color, it was just a matter of time before the events of World War I would get the same treatment.  While many people are leery of colorization, when it’s done right, it really adds an immediacy to the viewing and makes it even more relatable to modern audiences.

Surprisingly enough, the added color did add a vitality to the footage that would have been missing otherwise. History came to life as they say, and I found myself engrossed in events that seemed similar to what’s going on today.  When I used to think of World War I, I always pictured trench warfare and Sopwith camels dog-fighting German aces like the Red Baron high above the battlefield.  While all of that is accurate, there was a lot more to the war than I knew.  Advances in naval technology like sonar, depth charges, submarines, and more were in use during the first World War and not exclusively in WWII as I believed.  In addition, tanks and horrific weapons like flamethrowers, and poison gas also changed how war was traditionally conducted.  Horse mounted cavalry was getting phased out by tanks and other mechanized vehicles that changed the entire dynamic of the war and would eventually lead to Germany’s devastating use of them in their Blitzkrieg attacks.

The series uses old footage along with first hand accounts of both living and dead soldiers through old letters and interviews.  It’s amazing that the show’s producers were able to still find some survivors of The War to End All Wars but they did and the men tell their sad, harrowing tales of fighting in the trenches and ships during the war.  Sadly, in doing research for this review, all of those survivors have now passed on so I’m glad their memories were captured on film.  It’s incredible that these men ( all in their hundreds) not only could remember events from that far back, but that they could do so in such great detail.  I’m not sure that it’s a blessing to still have those memories at their age but it does say something of how powerful those memories were for the men to still remember them with such clarity.  The show is broken up into six sections that follow the course of the war:
  • Episode 1: Catastrophe – On June 28, 1914, Serbian terrorists assassinated the heir to the Austrian throne. Within weeks, the Central Powers engaged the Triple Entente and their allies to begin the bloodiest, most far-reaching conflict the world had ever known.
  • Episode 2: Slaughter in the Trenches – For four long years on the western front, the Central and Allied Powers pummeled each other across hundreds of miles of trenches. The stalemate introduced a horrific new phrase into the war’s lexicon: “going over the top.”
  • Episode 3: Blood in the Air – Fighter planes, bombers, and primitive aircraft carriers opened the skies as a theater of warfare for the first time in history. Aviation also created a new breed of lonely, romantic, and daring war hero: the ace.
  • Episode 4: Killers of the Sea – Instead of the anticipated bouts between heavyweight dreadnoughts, naval warfare settled into fighting by stealth. German U-boats preyed upon military and civilian targets, and smugglers attempted to run blockades by night.
  • Episode 5: Mayhem on the Eastern Front – Rapid advances, retreats, and counterattacks characterized the war on the eastern front. But when the Russian troops became dispirited and their country succumbed to revolution, Germany threatened to break the stalemate in the west.
  • Episode 6: Victory and Despair – American troops arrived to help the Allies repulse the German offensive and push deep into the Rhineland. But victory came at a high cost, and peace brought social, political, and economic upheaval all over Europe.

Video  (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

For these kind of documentaries, it’s always hard to rate the picture and audio quality since it varies greatly depending on the film stock used for each shot, and how time has treated it since then.  For this show presented in anamorphic wide-screen (1.85:1), another layer is added on top of all that since it’s been colorized as well. Personally, I liked having the color added since it was done carefully and it’s still very muted anyway.  There’s nothing that is so glaring that it stands out.  In fact, several times, I completely forgot that I was watching World War I footage since the color and the vehicles could have been shot during World War II.  There is a lot of print damage from the original sources that haven’t been cleaned up including scratches and the like but that helps balance the addition of color and keeps it from feeling artificial.

Audio (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

World War I in Color’s Dolby Digital 2.0 is acceptable considering the elements used for the film.  It’s often difficult to hear the veterans talk because of their age and their weak voices but that’s understandable.  The narration by Kenneth Branagh is excellent and you’d be hard pressed to find someone else do as fine a job.  His dialogue is crystal clear and well balanced with the sounds of battle as he takes us on a journey through the entire course of the war.

Special Features (3 out of 5 stars)

I wish there were more special features but it is what it is.
  • Tactics & Strategy – A  50-minute special showing how new technology and bold thinking changed warfare through the use of CGI.  This extra covers a lot of the stories that weren’t included in the series and some that were.  There’s some interesting information here but it will most likely appeal to hardcore history buffs.
  • Making the Series – A look behind-the-scenes with a talk with the producers of the series.  This should have been a lot more comprehensive (it only lasts fifteen minutes) and surprisingly enough, and unlike the other colorized documentaries, there’s no mention of adding color to the footage at all.
  • Biographies – For those people that want more information on the political and military leaders of the war including general facts and a timeline of events, this is for you.
  • 12-page viewer’s Guide – A nice but short booklet that has historical background, including the Global War, Women at War, and Revolutionary Weaponry.

Final Thoughts (3 1/2 out of 5 stars)

This was a very interesting series and I learned some new facts that I wasn’t aware of.  The addition of color to the show really adds a lot of impact and I thought it was a good choice.  My main complaint with the series is that it recycles some footage over and over which is distracting and annoying as if they don’t think people will notice it. The same thing  happens with some of the recollections as well as they are repeated as well.  Still, this is a nice addition to my history of war collection I’ve been building and I think it does a good job providing a general overview of the war, but I would have liked more details added.

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