Blu-ray Edition

Review by Mark Wiechman

Stars:  Robe Lowe, Justin Bartha, Josh Lucas, Gary Sinise, Rob Corddy
Directors:  Frederic Lumiere, Matthew Ginsburg
Audio:  DTS 5.1 and 2.0
Video:  Color Widescreen
Studio:  A&E Home Video
Features:  See Review
Length:  Four Discs, 605 minutes
Release Date:  November 15, 2011

“I speak to you for the first time as Prime Minister in a solemn hour for the life of our country, of our empire, of our allies, and above all, of the cause of freedom…We shall never surrender…But if we fail…all that we have known and cared for will sink into the abyss…” 

Winston Churchill, 1940

Film ****

Readers of this web site know that I have reviewed many releases about the American Civil War and the world wars, so you might guess that I did not expect this set to be so incredibly moving.  Almost all prior documentaries were strictly black and white, and frankly this helped feed the illusion that war is something from another time and even another planet.  But it is very hard to watch full color footage of schoolchildren in Austria and Germany raise their arm in the Nazi salute while children in Great Britain run for their lives and cower in bomb shelters.  The excellent fast-paced editing throws all of these images at the viewer with modern brisk editing and an orchestral swell full of foreboding.    

And even besides the emotional entertainment value, you will probably learn more about the war in the first twenty minutes that you learned in your whole school career, which is partly why these documentaries are so valuable.  Most of us need more than dry history texts to make us understand history.

This set is an expanded version of the prior 2010 0 two-disc release and comes with two more discs of features and a sturdy and handsome Army-green box.   One of the best benefits of digital technology in general and DVD/Blu-Ray discs in particular is that so many old reels of footage can be cleaned up and restored, many of which have not been seen in a generation and some not seen by any audience at all.  This production boasts that it is the culmination of a two year worldwide search for footage from the Second World War and implies that the viewer will not know what hits them.  The producers weren’t kidding.

I have enjoyed the many Ken Burns specials about various historical topics because he makes you feel like you were there, and humanizes the events with interviews and readings from ordinary people of the time.  This new release attempts to merge that approach with startling full color footage to make it all seem so much more recent and real.  Three thousand hours of footage was reviewed to make this special release.  While it has plenty of unavoidable artifacts from the age of the fragile film stock, and is not really HD at all, the color transfer to HD is tremendous even before we meet the selected real life players on the world’s stage.  This is the first time I have seen an event from the Third Reich in color, with seas of red flags everywhere, and it is very upsetting.  Much like Blu-Ray releases of movies from the golden age, you feel like you are there. 

The audio is also stunning, with the sounds of real bullets hitting boats at D-Day, aircraft smashing into air craft carriers and lighting them ablaze, real sirens, real children left to fend for themselves in war-torn Asia, and while real zeppelins vanished with the First World War, this Blu-Ray opens like a Led Zeppelin concert.  No narration for the first few minutes, and it isn’t needed anyway.  This was a real war, and so many of these images were not shown to the public at the time.  Some of it is so real in full color that it calls to mind Robert E. Lee’s immortal saying that it is good that war is so terrible, lest we grow too fond of it.

We meet Hitler in color, the most efficient machine of destruction at his feet. We meet him up close and personal, the blue uniforms of the German troops and swastikas hung like Christmas ornaments.  But then we are quickly brought to America, meeting a young Jack Werner on his way to Hollywood and we see NYC and other parts of America, so innocently unaware of the images we just saw.  Through his eyes and the eyes of others who were there, we feel as though we are going to war with them.

While wars of some kind have been raging all across the globe throughout history, I think I am on solid ground when I say that this war might have been the closest we have come in the last several centuries to the end of the world as we know it and a return to totalitarian empires covering both Europe and Asia.  While terrorists of the 21st century have killed countless innocents, they are little more than thugs who thrive on chaos.  The Nazis sang songs about killing the Jews and then rolled into Poland unopposed as the world stood by and did nothing, and if America had not been attacked at Pearl Harbor, the Axis powers might have succeeded.  Had America seen this footage of Europe as its fall seemed imminent, I wonder if they would have recoiled from war even more or if they might have intervened sooner.

Audio ****

The mix of modern narration, interviews with veterans, and a stunning orchestral score is excellent.  We even hear a football game broadcast that was interrupted to announce the Pearl Harbor attack.  Interestingly the sound is DTS 5.1 and DTS stereo as well.  Both mixes are excellent and punchy, and bravo for having DTS in a documentary. 

Video ****

This is hard to judge because some of the footage is in very poor condition, but the colors come through so vividly on Blu-Ray despite none of it being shot in HD except the modern interviews.  The contrast between the two is not jarring as one might suppose. 

We see Paris and many other locations in America and Europe in full color just before the war, looking so innocent and peaceful.  Much of the footage from the time is more vivid than you would expect.  And the footage of executions in Yugoslavia, for example, is terrifyingly real even with much of the color washed out.  The thick gray smoke from ships in Pearl Harbor contrasting with the blue ocean, combined with footage of the sunken vessels that has never been seen by the public before, makes the viewer want to leap into the water and search for survivors. 

Features ****

As if hours of footage were not enough, we get two feature length WWII in HD specials: The Battle for Iwo Jima and WWII in HD:  The Air War.  I am not sure why these are separate from the rest, unless it was so that they could be shown on television separately.  There are also character profiles and two Behind the Scenes featurettes about locating footage and preserving it. 


If you ever need more evidence that a country must be strong and ready to fight at any time if it wants to avoid war, here are more than ten hours of both peace and war that will stir any viewer and educate young viewers in particular about the greatness of America as she came of age as a superpower and the protector of freedom in the 20th century.

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