One of the titans of documentary television, 'The World at War' is a work of astounding ambition, even by today's standards. Broadcast between October 1973 and May 1974, this 26-part series attempts to encompass the full scope of the Second World War, a conflict fought on multiple fronts across multiple continents, on land and on sea and in the air. There have been many documentaries made in the subject in the decades since (such as Ken Burns' extraordinary series 'The War'), but most have stuck to one aspect or country within the wider conflict. 'The World at War' had the audacity to attempt to tell the whole story - and even after nearly fifty years, the results are incredible.
The series was created by producer Jeremy Isaacs for Thames Television as a follow-up to the BBC's own 26-part series on the First World War in 1964. That series had sparked a feud between the BBC and the Imperial War Museum over the use of historical recreation mixed with the Museum's own archival footage. Because of this, Isaacs was determined to use only archival material to bring the war to audiences at home, along with contemporary interviews from survivors of the conflict.
The sheer scale of the series is overwhelming, and not just because of its length. Each episode is a feast of archival material, covering every aspect of the war in vivid, startling, and at times disturbing detail. Considering the chaos of the conflict, you marvel that any of this footage could exist at all, especially the sea and aerial footage, and it's almost impossible to imagine the amount of work that must have gone into finding, editing and sculpting the footage for what amounts to nearly 23 hours of programming, especially in the pre-digital age. There's a tremendous sense of urgency to the series, a result of both the frantic nature of the footage and the propulsive editing that keeps the narrative moving and the energy high. There's barely a moment to breathe, but when the quieter moments do arrive, they often come as moments of reflection, sadness or devastation, especially when combined with the delicate and considered tones of narrator Sir Laurence Olivier. 'The World at War' isn't a sensationalist depiction of the Second World War. It takes the perspective that the war is one of the great tragedies of human history, and never strays from this. Mixing moments of heroism and barbarity lend the series a heavy, melancholy tone that feels utterly appropriate.
The consolidation of the archival material would be enough to secure the series an important place in television history, but what makes 'The World at War' even more powerful and important are the interviews spread throughout. In 1973, the war was not a distant memory but still very much a reality for millions of people. Because of this, 'The World at War' is able to offer us something that no contemporary series can: the chance to hear the voices of those who fought and survived, answering questions suited to the purposes of the series. The team behind 'The World at War' are also careful to make sure their subjects represent the full scope of the conflict, so as well as Allied survivors we also hear from German and Japanese survivors - in some cases, from high in the chain of command. The interviews are personal, direct, vivid and occasionally shocking, a key reminder that the figures in the black and white footage were living, breathing people.
I'd been keen to tackle 'The World at War' for years, even despite its length and age, but I was not at all prepared for how contemporary and powerful an experience it would be. Of course, there are gaps in the story that we've only been able to fill with time, but even after nearly fifty years, it's hard to imagine another documentary series doing a better job at capturing the full, furious scope of the Second World War. Its influence on documentary television is evident from the moment it begins, with its DNA evident even in the work of Ken Burns. 'The World at War' wholly deserves its reputation as a landmark series, and this preservation in the high definition format.
PICTURE & SOUND
In 2010, FremantleMedia undertook a gargantuan digital restoration of the series in HD, along with restoring the original mono tracks and remixing the series in 5.1. The initial release of their efforts cropped the image from 4:3 to 16:9 for widescreen televisions, but thankfully, this release of the series from Via Vision is based on the Network release from 2016, which restored the image to its original aspect ratio. Presented here in 1080i 1.33:1, the results of the restoration are incredible. There's only so much a digital restoration of this kind of material could achieve, short of locating the thousands of different archival sources, restoring from their original negatives and re-editing the entire series, but what has been achieved here exceeded even my highest expectations. There's a startling sharpness and stability to the image, and a level of consistency between the different sources and the contemporary interviews. Both the DTS MA 5.1 track and the restored LPCM 2.0 track are equally impressive, clear and powerful and crisp. They add to the overwhelming nature of the visuals to create an all-encompassing viewing experience. A tremendous amount of care and attention has clearly gone into this restoration, ensuring that the series will be preserved for future generations.
'The World at War' isn't a sensationalist depiction of the Second World War. It takes the perspective that the war is one of the great tragedies of human history, and never strays from this.
As well as the full 26-episode series, this Blu-ray release of 'The World at War' comes with an exhaustive collection of special features. In the years following the release of the series, a number of companion documentaries were released, expanding on certain aspects of the series and taking advantage of unused material and interviews. Included in this set are:
- Hitler's Germany: The People's Community 1933- 1939 (1:18:11)
- Hitler's Germany: Total War: 1939-1945 (1:19:38)
- The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler (49:02)
- The Final Solution: Part One (1:40:36)
- The Final Solution: Part Two (1:34:24)
- Warrior: Reflections of Men at War (52:52)
- From War to Peace (23:48)
Two additional features, created in 2001, make use of further material not used in the series these include:
- Secretary to Hitler (24:32)
- Experiences of War (1:01:19)
That means an additional over nine hours of documentary material on top of the nearly 23 hours of the series itself, all of it presented in high definition. There are also two extensive looks at the making of the program itself, with the 1989 feature 'The Making of the Series' (50:17) and the enormous 2003 film 'Making the Series' (2:08:26), featuring interviews with all the major players in the creation of the series. The set finishes off with a photo gallery from the Imperial War Museum, who collaborated with the filmmakers. This material fills three discs on their own, and makes an already invaluable set even more so. It's a pity though that the restoration featurette from the 2010 release isn't included there.
Via Vision should be applauded for making this series available in Australia on Blu-ray, even more so for packaging it in a beautiful hard box set similar to the design used for the 'Monty Python's Flying Circus: The Complete Series' set and a number of their Imprint titles. They've been responsible for some stellar releases this year, and I'm very keen to see what they have for us in the future.