The World at War (2010 Blu-ray Set)

World at War Blu-ray

Pros:  Better video quality, subtitles for deaf/hearing impaired viewers

Cons: The restored version was reformatted for widescreen TVs.

In 1971, a young British television producer named Jeremy Isaacs and a team of writers, directors, editors, and other production staff began work on  The World at War a 26-part documentary about World War II.

Isaacs knew that the war is too vast and complicated a topic; not even 26 hours of television air time (including commercial breaks) is enough to cover every campaign, battle, or major personalities.  After consulting with Noble Frankland, then the director of the Imperial War Museum, Isaacs decided to cover 15 decisive campaigns and battles, with the rest of the episodes devoted to such specific topics as the rise of Hitler in Germany, life in occupied Europe, day-to-day life inside the Third Reich, and the Holocaust.

The emphasis of the series is not so much the history of the war but rather the human story, not only because simple dry facts and endless clips of censored war footage are mind-numbingly dull, but because television works best when presenting a dramatic narrative.

So while there are many minutes of combat scenes culled from the archives of all the major warring powers, there are many interviews of civilian, political and military participants, ranging from low-ranking British “Tommies” who fought in North Africa to Traudl Junge, Hitler’s youngest secretary. These personal recollections, interwoven with animations, maps, a sparse narration (each episode has around 2,000 words of written narration), and war footage, helped make The World at War one of the best documentaries made for television.

The World at War was a big hit  in Britain when it premiered in 1974, and it had equally good viewership when it crossed the Atlantic, earning an International Emmy Award for best documentary and becoming a staple on public television and such cable networks as A&E and its spinoff, The History Channel.

The World at War  co-produced by A&E Home Video, Thames Television and Fremantle Media, is a 9 Blu-ray box set that not only presents all 26 episodes  digitally remastered with a Dolby Digital Stereo audio track, plus  the Special Presentations : “Secretary to Hitler,” “The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler,” “Warrior,” “Hitler’s Germany: 1932-1939,” “Hitler’s Germany: 1939-1945,” “The Final Solution,” and “From War to Peace”

Although the series was hampered by the limitations of the television medium and the fact that the breaking of the German Enigma code was not made public until after the series aired in early 1974, The World at Waris still one of the best history-themed series to date, partly because of its excellent production values, but mostly because Sir Jeremy Isaacs and his team attempted to be fair and balanced in their coverage of the war.

The World at War contains no dramatizations, no overt attempt to pass judgment, and no revisionism or attempt to present World War II through the extremes of nostalgia on one hand and the imposition of 1970s cynicism on the other.

Instead, the series strives to engage viewers and asks them to make their own minds based on what the series shows. In the case of the episode “Occupation,” the viewer is challenged to think about what he or she would have done during the Nazi occupation of a country such as Holland. In “Whirlwind,” the episode about the Allied bombing of Germany, not only are there interviews with the British and American bomber crews that dropped the bombs, but also with German survivors of the air raids.


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