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"The World at War": Classic British WWII documentary dated, but still powerful

The World at War: 30th Anniversary Edition

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In the early 1970s, even as the war in Vietnam was raging in far-off Indochina and Britain was still coming to terms with her transition from globe-spanning Empire to her more modest post-war status with just a few overseas colonies and a small military force, Thames Television producer Jeremy Isaacs began working on an ambitious project: a 26-part documentary tentatively titled "The Second World War."

Jeremy Isaacs oversaw the award-winning documentary "The World at War"
Photo by Charles Eshelman/Getty Images

Isaacs was well aware that World War II, the largest and bloodiest clash in human history, 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 politico-military figure.

Thus, 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. And for almost three years, the various technicians and artists (including narrator Sir Laurence Olivier and composer Carl Davis) labored on the documentary series now titled "The World at War."

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. It was immensely popular 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.

2004's "The World at War: the 30th Anniversary Edition," co-produced by A&E Home Video, Thames Television and Fremantle Media, is an 11-disc box set that not only presents all 26 episodes (three or four per disc), digitally remastered with a Dolby Digital Stereo audio track, plus four discs of supplemental material, including 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 War" is 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.

There were 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. 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 another 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 Germans who survived the air raids.

"The World at War: 30th Anniversary Edition" is definitely worth every penny. The content is perhaps a bit dated; there are references to the still-ongoing Vietnam War in one episode ("1945...and After"), and the "Ultra secret" was made public only after the series had aired on British TV, but the series is still a very powerful remembrance of the six years that the entire world was at war.

DVD Features:

Available Audio Tracks: English (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo)

26 original episodes plus over 12 hours of bonus material (3 hours of new material)

The Making of The World at War

Bonus documentaries: "Secretary to Hitler," "The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler," "Warrior," "Hitler's Germany: 1932-1939," "Hitler's Germany: 1939-1945," "The Final Solution," "From War to Peace"

30th anniversary feature-length retrospective film

Biographies

Timeline of the series

Gallery of photos from the Imperial War Museum collection