Monday, February 13, 2012

WWII in HD Collector’s Edition Blu-ray Review

The only people to see the war like this were the ones who lived it. Until now.  Seventy years in the making. Three thousand hours of color footage no one knew existed. The first documentary to show original color footage of World War II in immersive high definition, WWII in HD uses the journals and accounts of those who served in the war’s biggest battles to create a personal, introspective and detailed look at life on and off the front lines.  Follow twelve unforgettable Americans, and experience the war through their eyes, in their own words, as it really looked and sounded.  Culled from over 3,000 hours of rare color film found in a two-year worldwide search and converted to HD with meticulous technique, WWII in HD provides a picture of World War II as it has never been seen before.  Also included in this ultimate edition is The Battle For Iwo Jima, an immersive look at the momentous battle using gloriously restored, full-color footage, some of which has never seen before and WWII in HD: The Air War, the untold story of the American 8th Air Force’s bloody battle to defeat the German Luftwaffe in the months leading up to D-Day.

Film (5 out of 5 stars) 

I’ve reviewed a lot of excellent WWII series on Blu-ray recently including my favorite series The World at War, along with Victory at Sea, and Apocalypse: World War II (click on the titles to read the reviews) which was also one of the rare WWII color releases.  All of these releases seem to follow one of two approaches to presenting their programs – either it’s an all encompassing overview of the war (The World at War) or it takes a more narrow approach like this one.  In fact, the closest comparison to this series is Band of Brothers which focuses on just Easy Company’s travails during the war.  WWII in HD limits it’s focus even further to just twelve Americans in varying professions that include members of the Air Force, Navy, Army, the U.S. Army Nurse Corp, and even journalists.  Another similarity between the two is the inclusion of interviews with the surviving participants that the series follows.
The main difference between this and most of the other series is that this one spends more time covering the War in the Pacific than the European Theater.  The bulk of this series follows the U.S. engagements against Japan as they battled island by island to achieve victory.  That’s not to say that Allied fight against Germany is left out since there is still a lot of footage from that effort as well, but at least sixty percent if not more is devoted to the War in the Pacific. By choosing to follow the journeys of twelve people, the series becomes more personal and detailed since it follows their stories rather than the overall war effort.  That choice means that it’s easier for viewers to become more invested in these people, but that focus also means that many important events are overlooked if these people weren’t tangentially involved.
To give you an idea of the background of the twelve people whose stories were followed, here’s their documented biographies:
  • Jimmie Kanaya – The son of Japanese immigrants, Jimmie is devoted to both his family and his country. But his dual loyalties are challenged by the racist backlash of post-Pearl Harbor hysteria. In early 1942, Jimmie’s parents are relocated to an internment camp and although he is already in the army, the government initially treats him as a suspect and refuses to allow him to actively fight. In 1943, Jimmie joins the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a special unit made up of Japanese-American soldiers. Despite his best intentions to set an example of excellence in service, things tend to go wrong for Jimmie in combat, but he earns a Silver Star just months before he is captured by German soldiers. After multiple failed escape attempts, he is eventually liberated at the end of the war.  Jimmie is voiced by James Kyson Lee.
  • Jack Werner – Retired 1st Sergeant Hans “Jack” Werner (born in Vienna, Austria) is a retired Austrian American member of the7th Infantry Division, 13th Combat Engineers of the H and S Company, a division of the Army. Being Jewish, Hans fled Austria to the United States after the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. Hans, who changed his “far too German” name to Jack, traveled to Hollywood to become an actor.  He later joined the 7th Infantry, stationed at Camp Ord, California, as a Private months before the attack on Pearl Harbor and although he wanted to fight in Europe, he was stationed with “undisciplined” on Attu Island during the Battle of Attu.  After the Battle of Kwajalein and Battle of Leyte Gulf, Werner participated in Battle of Okinawa and after the war ended, he retired to live with his re-united wife and had 3 children.  Jack passed away on July 17th 2011.  Jack is voiced by Justin Bartha.
  • Shelby Westbrook – Shelby Westbrook was a Fighter Pilot in World War II fighting with the 332nd Fighter Group (Tuskegee Airmen).  He trained at the Tuskegee institute in Alabama in 1943 before fighting in Europe in 1944.  He was stationed in Italy in an all black airbase (since the army was still segregated).  On one day of combat, he was shot down and crashed landed deep in German controlled Yugoslavia.  He managed to escape with the help of resistance members that were being supplied by the allies.  Shelby is voiced by LL Cool J.
  • Jack Yusen – Jack Yusen was a navy member when he joined in 1944.  He was assigned the USS Samuel B. Roberts. Assigned to escort transport ships in the Atlantic Ocean from German U-Boat Attacks.  The ship was latter assigned to move to the Pacific theatre where it engaged in the recapture of the Philippines.  The ship was part of Taffy-3 escort when it engaged in the famous Battle of Samar on October 25, 1944.  The ship was sunk by the Japanese task force and he abandoned ship.  He spent several days in the shark infested ocean for 72 hours before he was finally rescued.  He is retired and lives with his wife.  Jack is voiced by JasonRitter.
  • Rockie Blunt – Roscoe C. Blunt, Jr. was journalist, jazz drummer, and veteran of the U.S. Army’s 84th Infantry Division from World War II.  When the aspiring jazz drummer was drafted, he went into the army with no sense of greater mission other than perhaps bringing back some Nazi souvenirs.  He entered the war with a thrill-seeking, daredevil attitude and though initially shocked by the incredible violence and horror he encounters, he quickly developed a grim attitude in which “killing becomes almost like a sport” and items stripped from the bodies of the dead are “souvenirs” to be sought after and kept.  But as he battled his way across Europe and into the heart of Hitler’s Third Reich, Rockie gradually found himself caught up in an internal battle in which he had to confront his own young ideas of humanity and righteousness.  He was the youngest soldier to be awarded the Expert Infantry Badge.  He was the author of three books, including “Inside the Battle of the Bulge” and “Foot Soldier: A Combat Infantryman’s War in Europe.”  Rockie passed away on February 10, 2011.  Rockie is voiced by Rob Corddry.
  • June Wandrey – June Wandrey Mann (1920–2005) was a First Lieutenant in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps with a fierce sense of independence that was decades ahead of her time. When the U.S. entered the war she enlisted almost immediately, but she was unprepared for the horrors and poor conditions she  faced overseas.  June battled not only the Nazis, but also hunger, exhaustion, inclement weather and sickness.   She often worked 18-hour shifts, 7 days a week, caring for the sick, the wounded and the dying.   She was also the author of Bedpan Commando, an account of her military service in Africa, Sicily, Italy, France and Germany from 1942 to 1946, during which she was awarded eight battle stars.  June is voiced by Amy Smart.
  • Bert Stiles – Bert Stiles (1920 – 1944) was an American author of short stories who was killed in action during World War II while serving as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Army Air Forces. The artistic, creative writer, Bert described himself as “a dreamer, a wistful seeker” whose short stories captured the attention of publishing giants in New York before the outbreak of WWII.  Bert enlisted in the Air Force almost immediately after Pearl Harbor, but was conflicted about his decision.  Although he was a pacifist who felt that “we aren’t solving anything with this war,” he realized “there is a time when every man must fight.”  Bert is voiced by Josh Lucas.
  • Robert Sherrod – Robert Lee Sherrod (1909 – 1994) was an American journalist, editor and author.  He was a war correspondent for TIME and LIFE magazines, covering combat from World War II to the Vietnam War. During World War II, embedded with the U.S. Marines, he covered the battles at Attu, Tarawa, SaipanIwoJima, and Okinawa. But when he first traveled to the Pacific, he is stunned by the tenacity and fanaticism of the Japanese enemy he encounters.  His press reports about the terrible nature of this new enemy are meant to warn what he sees as a ‘complacent America’ of the difficulties of the coming war. He also authored five books on World War II, including Tarawa: The Story of a Battle (1944) and the definitive History of Marine Corps Aviation in World War II (1952).  Robert is voiced by Rob Lowe.
  • Richard Tregaskis – Richard William Tregaskis (1916–1973) was a reporter for the International News Service who served as a front-line reporter for the Marines during both theatres of operation. Tregaskis was ineligible for the draft as he had Type 1 diabetes and he instead became a reporter during the Guadalcanal Campaign on a small island in the Solomon Islands in late 1942 and early 1943. He used notes written during the campaign to produce a novel entitled Guadalcanal Diary, which became an instant success.  The book was made into a film by 20th Century Fox, released in late 1943, while Richard transferred from the Pacific to Europe, covering the invasions of both Sicily and the Italian mainland.  After a shrapnel shell was lodged in his brain, he retired from reporting World War II and later returned to the front lines to cover the Korean War and Vietnam War.  Richard is voiced by Tim DeKay.
  • Archie Sweeney – Archie was a hard-working, quiet young man who worked two jobs while attending high school, tending his family farm, hunting for food and looking after his eight younger siblings.  When the peacetime draft was instituted in the fall of 1940, Archie was the first person in his town to be called up.  He was almost immediately shipped off to Ft. Bragg, NC, for basic training.  The attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s subsequent entrance into the war was a shocking experience for Archie.  His simple background had left him with no real sense of the impending war, and no way to understand the full scope of it. After he was sent to North Africa, Archie wrote home to his family during a quiet evening, telling them that he “thinks the war is coming to an end.”  He has no idea that North Africa alone was not “the war” and it is most certainly was not “coming to an end.”
  • Charles Scheffel – Charles is an athletic and intelligent perfectionist, a hard-working all-American guy raised during the Depression who was concerned about carrying on his family’s tradition of military service.  He was used to being big man on campus, so when he was assigned to train with an experienced British army unit, he wasn’t accustomed to playing second string. And when he first encountered combat, Charles’ naive illusions were immediately shattered. Facing the pragmatic pressures of a combat command, Charles quickly realized that his decisions can literally mean the difference between life and death for his men.  By the time he made it to Germany, he understood that there is no glory in winning, only in surviving. He was wounded twice, andasked to be sent back to his own unit after the first injury. He was sent home after a second injury resulted in the amputation of his trigger finger. He was married to his wife, Ruth, until her death in 1999. They have three children. Charles Scheffel passed away on June 24, 2011. Charles is voiced by Ron Livingston
  • Nolen Marbrey – A hormone-filled Alabama boy, Nolen loved three things: drinking, swearing and chasing women. He enlisted with the Marines because in Huntsville, “nobody has a future.”  When he’s thrown into intense combat, Nolan’s hard-partying attitude was quickly chastened.  On his first patrol into enemy territory his squad came under heavy fire, and three of his friends were killed while Nolen and one other survivor barely made it back alive.  In the following months, Nolen participated in brutal fighting on two more islands, suffering severe wounds in the process. His descriptions of the past are violently graphic and brutally honest, revealing the shocking, bloody realities of war.  Nolen is voiced by Steve Zahn.
This is an excellent series that really brings the war to life for the viewer through the addition of color and also high definition.  The footage itself is extraordinary thanks to an exhaustive search for lost and archived footage around the world.  Even after all of that recovered footage was found (3,000 hours worth!), only the best parts were taken to make this series the best it could be. With footage from more than just the Allied side, we can an even greater glimpse into both sides of the war and events that haven’t been before including the battles fought for Tarawa,AnzioAttu, New Guinea, Okinawa, and Normandy as well as footage for big events like the Battle of the Bulge and Operation Market Garden.  We also see rare footage of Roosevelt, Hitler, Patton, and Rommel as well as footage of Nazi concentration camps all captured for posterity in high definition.
Here’s the official breakdown of the series by disc:
Disc 1:
  • Darkness Falls - As Europe falls under Nazi control, America is unprepared for war and the attack on Pearl Harbor. The first bloody battles are fought on Guadalcanal and in North Africa
  • Hard Way Back – The Allies take on the daunting forces of the Axis, with victory far from certain. CharlesScheffel battles Rommel’s forces in Tunisia and Jack Werner faces bitter combat in the northern Pacific.
  • Bloody Resolve -The Marines assault Tarawa in one of the bloodiest battles yet waged. MacArthur island-hops and Italy’s front lines claim a casualty.
  • Battle Stations – The Allies lay plans for the invasion of France; Bert Stiles and the 8th Air Force attempt to clear the skies over Normandy, while the Pacific remains a quagmire. D-Day arrives.
  • Day Of Days – The Allies are bogged down in Normandy’s hedgerows in the aftermath of D-Day, while onSaipan, victory turns to horror.
Disc 2:
  • The Breaking Point – The Allies race toward Germany as American Marines battle for ground on Peleliu andacross the bloody Pacific.
  • Striking Distance – American forces storm the Philippines while Shelby Westbrook is shot down over Europe. Jack Yusen battles the dangers of the deep when his ship is sunk after a heroic duel.
  • Glory And Guts – The Marine assault on Iwo Jima brings horror and glory. Pilot Bert Stiles engages a German fighter with disastrous consequences. Reinforcements arrive in Europe to push the Allies toward victory.
  • Edge Of The Abyss – The Battle of the Bulge pushes the Allies to the brink, and Rockie Blunt barely survives the fight. Okinawa erupts as the Japanese make their last stand. Hitler is handed a final ultimatum.
  • End Game – With the end in sight, Okinawa is a bloody obstacle to victory. The Third Reich ends with a single gunshot. America delivers the final blow to Japan and the world celebrates the fall of the Axis.
  • Bonus Features – Character Profiles; Behind-the-Scenes Featurettes – Finding the Footage, Preserving the Footage
Disc 3:
  • The Battle for Iwo Jima – More details can be found in the special features section below.
Disc 4:
  • The Air War – More details can be found in the special features section below.

Video (3 out of 5 stars) 

These kind of releases are always hard to rate because while this is a new 1080p (1.78:1) transfer, it’s made up of some rough archival elements that includes a variety of film formats including 8mm, 16mm, and more.  It also doesn’t help that this was originally 4:3 and has been blown up to fill our 16×9 wide-screen televisions, which only exacerbates the problem.  Some of this footage looks good while other parts look as rough as can be expected.  There’s a lot of grain present which shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone and the colors are often muted andwashed out.  Despite these shortcomings, I still believe that this is the best this footage will ever look and it’s still the only way to go if you are looking to buy this set.  When the footage allows it, this transfer shines and there’s some moments that just look incredible.

Audio (5 out of 5 stars) 

This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix caught me completely by surprise as I wasn’t expecting much. The sound designers have added an amazing sound scape for this series that captures the events perfectly.  The mix is done so well that you can easily imagine being a part of the battle with it’s hyper-accurate directional effects that send bullets, explosions, and planes flying all around you. That approach works well with the direction of this series since it’s focused on creating a firsthand experience for the viewer which enhanced greatly by this mix.  The dialogue is also surprising clear and crisp for the most part and I was very pleased with this stupendous audio effort.

Special Features (4 out of 5 stars) 

This Collector’s Edition comes with two bonus discs that include: The Battle for Iwo Jima and The Air War.
  • Character Profiles – Some additional interview footage from surviving war veterans that lasts almost fifteen minutes.
  • Finding the Footage - A short look at the efforts undertaken over the course of two years to track down all of this footage, most of which had been lost.
  • Preserving the Footage – A look at the restoration efforts to repair and improve on the found footage.
  • The Battle for Iwo Jima – At almost an hour long, this look into one of the bloodiest battles of WWII gives a very nice overview of the battle and its aftermath.  While the war in Europe was ending, the fighting between the U.S. and Japan had only intensified by 1945. With many American planes getting shot down over the Japanese held island of Iwo Jima thanks to their radar, it was decided that the threat that the island posed had to be neutralized before the attack on Japan could proceed.  This difficult task was given to the Marines to achieve which they eventually did at a high cost in lives.  The Japanese not only had fortified positions, but also a maze of underground tunnels prepared that let them do guerrilla strikes on unsuspecting Marines.  The Battle of Iwo Jima remains one of the worst battles in American history and is the subject of several movies including two recent ones by Clint Eastwood including Flags of Our Fathers, and Letters From Iwo Jima.  If you’d like to learn more about this terrible battle, then take a look at this excellent documentary.
  • The Air War – When we were attacked at Pearl Harbor, our nation was woefully unprepared.  Much of our Navy was decimated or crippled in the attack and our Air Force was also lacking.  The 8th Air Force which was expected to take on the Luftwaffe, only had seven men and no planes which is amazing considering how it all turned out.  Through this documentary, we hear from four men who were a part of this effort including the late 60 minutes commentator Andy Rooney who was an embedded journalist at the time for the Stars and Stripes newspaper who flew with the bomber crews on their missions.  Despite not being prepared to go to war, the United States quickly began manufacturing new planes and training new pilots to take on the most fearsome aviation force in the world. This fascinating documentary will appeal to anyone interested it our aerial fight with Germany and Japan.

Final Thoughts (4 out of 5 stars) 

This is a nicely put together set that has a nice texture to the outside box and a glossy book to hold the discs on the inside.  This set is identical to the previous set in all ways except for the additional two new documentaries The Battle for Iwo Jima and WWII in HD – The Air War and the fancy packaging.  If you have the old set then you will need to decide if the two excellent bonus documentaries are worth the cost to upgrade.   If you don’t have the previous set, then I would recommend purchasing this Collector’s Edition since both of the those bonus documentaries are very good and I liked the packaging of this new set.  It’s one thing to see grainy black and white war footage and another to see in in full color in high definition, which adds an immediacy and more of an impact to viewers.  This is an excellent overview of the war that focuses more on the individual viewpoints more than the global effort which offers a new perspective from the usual historical retellings.
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