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Review: "The World at War" goes Blu

The World At War Blu-Ray

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In 2004, A&E Home Video released "The World at War: The 30th Annivesary Edition", an 11-disc DVD box set which contained the entire 26-part documentary series about World War II. Six years later, A&E Home Video's History brand and Fremantle Media released "The World at War" on Blu-ray, a nine-disc set featuring the acclaimed series, restored and remastered for high-definition televisions. Considering that no new episodes were made after the various "World at War" special presentations shown on Britain's ITV network in the 1970s, is the Blu-ray set worth getting?

Isaacs is a renowned British television producer and was knighted after the success of "The World at War"
Photo by Charles Eshelman/Getty Images

On October 31, 1973, Britain's ITV television network aired "A New Germany," the first of 26 episodes of "The World at War." On May 8, 1974 - the 29th anniversary of Victory in Europe Day - ITV concluded the series' run with "Remember," the only episode written and produced by the series' executive producer, Jeremy Isaacs.

Since then, "The World at War" has aired on broadcast and cable networks in over 100 countries as a perennial classic of TV documentaries. It was introduced into the U.S. when many PBS stations aired it in the mid-1970s in its original version, and some commercial stations, such as New York's WOR, broadcast edited versions of "The World at War" as well. (WOR edited some of the more graphically violent bits out, mainly those of bloody corpses and other disturbing images.)

In more recent times, the Military Channel (now American Heroes Channel) began showing "The World at War" four years ago and has rebroadcast it regularly since then.

About the Series

Sir Jeremy Isaacs, then a young producer at Thames Television, was aware that World War II is too vast and complicated a topic. 26 hours of television air time (including commercial breaks) are not enough to cover every campaign, battle, or major politico-military figure. 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.

To put together what Variety called "a show of almost staggering ambition," Isaacs assembled a team of writers, producers, film researchers, interviewers, editors, and directors to make 25 episodes, reserving the 26th ("Remember") as his sole credited chapter.

For almost three years, the various technicians and artists (including narrator Sir Laurence Olivier and composer Carl Davis) labored on "The World at War."

The emphasis of the series is not so much the history of the war but rather its human story. This is partly because 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 also 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, are what make "The World at War" one of the best documentaries made for television.

The Blu-ray Set

In 2010, six years after A&E Home Video released an 11-disc 30th Anniversary DVD set, the company released a digitally-restored version of "The World at War" on Blu-ray for the U.S. home video market. Sold under A&E's History brand, the Blu-ray set contains two multiple-disc cases ensconced in an outer slipcover.

The first Blu-ray case contains five Blu-ray discs with 24 of the 26 regular episodes, from "A New Germany" to "The Bomb." It also includes the following special features:

  • "The Making of the Series"
  • Biographies
  • Gallery of photos from the Imperial War Museum Collection
  • Historical footage
  • Famous songs, speeches, quotes, and maps

The second jewel case contains four Blu-ray discs with the last two regular series episodes ("Reckoning: 1945...and After" and "Remember") and bonus documentaries edited from interviews and footage that were not used during the 1973-1974 broadcasts of "The World at War" on ITV. In addition, the Blu-ray set also includes "Restoring 'The World at War'," a new featurette on the series' restoration and adaptation for 16:9 aspect ratio widescreen TVs. (The original version was filmed using the analog TV 4:3 aspect ratio.)

Bonus documentaries:

  • "Hitler's Germany: 1932-1939"
  • "Hitler's Germany: 1939-1945"
  • "Secretary to Hitler"
  • "Warrior"
  • "From War to Peace"
  • "The Final Solution Part 1 and Part 2"
  • "Making the Series: a 30th Anniversary Retrospective"
  • "Experiences of War"
  • "Restoring 'The World at War' "

Again, the discs in this jewel case include all of the bonus features as the first except, of course, for the "Making of the Series" in Disc 1.

My Take:

For the high-definition Blu-ray release, Thames and Fremantle Media digitally restored the entire series to improve the now 40-year-old series' audio and video quality. As Ken Burns' Florentine Films has done with 1990's "The Civil War," the existing videotapes and original negatives underwent a complicated process in which a team of restorers removed visual flaws that marred the images on screen. Thus, this version of "The World at War" is free of such annoyances as scratches, surface dirt, and blemishes, and all the footage - both color and black & white - looks crisp and clean on high-def televisions.

In the restoration process, Fremantle Media and Thames deliberately decided to change the aspect ratio from its original 1.33:1 (or 4:3) full screen format to the now-standard 16:9 one used in widescreen TVs. In "Restoring 'The World at War," the restoration team leader says that everyone involved knew that doing this would change the image from its original version. This isn't easy to notice on the footage shot during World War II by newsreel and combat photographers, but it's hard to miss in the 1970s-era interviews. In many cases, the top part of a person's head is cropped out when the restorers "refocus" our attention to the new center of the altered image.

Purists who have seen the original version of "The World at War" on TV or in previous home video releases may find this aspect ratio change distracting, but once they get into the episodes they may adjust to the new 16:9 format.

The sound quality? It depends on which sound option viewers choose. Those who have a surround-sound 5.1 home theater system might like feeling immersed by the new sound mix's ability to use front and rear speakers to make it sound like airplanes are flying overhead and explosions boom on the left and right sides. However, the narration by Sir Laurence Olivier tends to have an echo effect in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mode.

Fans of the original series may prefer to set the audio in the lossless 2.0 LPCM 2.0 stereo mix. It may not be as home theater-like as the 5.1 mix, but it reduces the narration's echoing effect and sounds like the familiar version from the 1970s.

For collectors who already own the 2004 11-DVD set but are deaf or hard of hearing, the Blu-ray has added English subtitles for the hearing impaired. As in most cases involving subtitles, sometimes these condense some of the spoken words if the dialogue is a bit too long for a perfect one-to-one match. Interestingly, in some episodes which feature songs sung in German, the lyrics are subtitled in the original language without translation.

Is It Worth Getting?

The 2010 Blu-ray set of "The World at War" is expensive; the manufacturer's suggested retail price is $99.99. Fortunately, online stores such as Amazon offer the NTSC (U.S.-standard) 9-disc collection for $71.99. Amazon also offers a Blu-ray set priced at $50. This one is marketed as the 40th Anniversary Edition and comes in a sturdier slipcover than the History-labeled edition. However, that one is the PAL (European-standard) version, it won't play here in the U.S. unless one has a PAL TV set and multi-region Blu-ray player.

Nevertheless, "The World at War" is a true classic among World War II documentaries. The content is perhaps a bit dated; there are references to the still-ongoing Vietnam War in one episode ("1945...and After"). In addition the "Ultra secret" about how the Allies broke Axis codes was made public only after the series had aired on British TV. However, Isaacs' 26-part story of the Second World War is still a powerful remembrance of the six years that the entire world was at war.

Blu-ray Specifications:

Video

Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Resolution: 1080p
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Original aspect ratio: 1.37:1

Audio

English: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
English: LPCM 2.0

Subtitles

English SDH

Discs

50GB Blu-ray Disc
Nine-disc set (9 BDs)

Packaging

Slipcover in original pressing

Playback

Region A