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The World At War - Volume 1

Pearson Television International/Warner Vision . R4 . COLOR . 413 mins . PG . PAL


Though almost everyone learnt broadly about the Second World War during history classes at school, the full story of the 20th century’s most horrific and devastating international conflict is of such immeasurable scope that it can probably never be told in its entirety. Back in the early ‘70s, though, producer Jeremy Isaacs and a team from London’s Thames Television attempted to paint, albeit with broad strokes, a more detailed picture of World War 2, using millions of feet of archival film shot at the time by war cameramen and soldiers as well as by civilians. The result was The World At War, a collection of 26 documentaries that made a huge impact on television audiences worldwide. Winning a special International Emmy Award and huge acclaim, the series has been aired on TV and cable worldwide for over a quarter of a century now, its impact as strong today as it was on its first airing.

This is a non-partisan account of the war, taking no sides as it unfolds its story - and that, really, is the only way it could be told fairly. Two things become apparent early in the series - that World War 2 was an utterly devastating series of conflicts that took the lives of a sickening amount of people (over 50 million, though the true figure will never be known), and that no “side” acted without some degree of arrogance and ego, their actions often coming at a huge cost. As someone born more than 20 years after the end of World War 2, to see all of this unfold on the screen is both shocking and enlightening. Regardless of how much you think you know about World War 2, this series will tell you stories you had never heard before. All of them are important, especially to a generation that has never lived through a major war and the very real threat of catastrophe.

Freshly remastered for DVD, The World At War is sold as five double-disc sets (and is also available at a slightly reduced price as a complete ten-disc set), the series on DVD also including a group of longer and more specific episodes made a couple of years after the main body of the series. This first set offers the following episodes, all narrated with Shakespearean drama by the great Sir Laurence Olivier:

0. The Making Of The World At War A bonus feature included only on the DVD edition of the series, this unassuming featurette (made in 1987) is essentially a long talk by producer Jeremy Isaacs, detailing the origins, intentions and creation of the series, illustrated with short excerpts from the series itself. It’s a fascinating and enlightening talk, though there are some “spoilers” here in the form of the excerpts, which are almost all from early in the series. It would probably make more sense to watch this after you’ve seen the entire series.

1. A New Germany Details the period from 1933 to 1939 in Germany that saw the rise to power of Adolf Hitler. This opening episode puts Hitler’s ascension to power in the context of the German people’s political and social struggles at the time of the depression, and illustrates in clear detail that, for a while at least, Hitler was welcomed by Germany - and was also on negotiating terms with the rest of the world, as major powers see trouble brewing but do nothing to stop it. By the time Hitler invaded Poland and set World War 2 in motion, it was too late to prevent what was to become a massive tragedy.

2. Distant War The English people took the declaration of war seriously for a time, but with no apparent direct threat to themselves, people go about their lives as usual, with only the minor inconveniences of wartime to remind them that danger waits. Meanwhile, the Nazis continue their reign of terror in Europe…

3. France Falls The mighty French army take on Hitler’s Germany in defence of their country, but with techniques that haven’t changed since the far more primitive First World War, the French fight a losing battle to keep Hitler out, and the humiliated Allied army escapes via the beaches of Dunkirk. Once France has fallen, Britain is a mere hop over the English Channel for the Nazis.

4. Alone In Britain Germany sets its sights on Britain, and while the Germans are convinced of their superiority in the air, the Royal Air Force wins the air war that would become known as the Battle of Britain. But the unrepentant Nazis then launch a bombing campaign lasting over two months that would destroy much of London and surrounding cities, with horrific civilian casualties.

5. Barbarossa Leaving England alone for the moment, Hitler turns his attention to a long-planned conquest - Russia. The Germans quickly make inroads into the huge country, but have not taken into account the brutality of the Russian winter…

6. Banzai - Japan Strikes At war with China since 1931 and now pushing further and further into the Pacific, the Japanese set their sites on Allied and US air bases which might pose an obstacle to them as they press forward. The British base at Singapore is targeted and Singapore falls… and then comes the attack on the US Navy’s base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii, and the conflict widens.

7. On Our Way - America Enters The War Initially determined to keep out of the escalating European conflict, the USA finds itself without a choice after the Pearl Harbour attack, and declares war on Japan, with Germany declaring war on the US soon after. Now the conflict is truly global, as the US - at the time not the giant military power it is today - joins the allied efforts.


Obviously the film material here is very, very old - as indeed is the production itself, shot and edited on film in 1973. Pearson Television (who appear to be the successors to Thames) have done a superb job restoring and transferring these episodes to DVD - in fact, you only have to look at the excerpts in the making-of documentary and compare them with the same footage in the actual episodes to see what kind of improvement has been made. There’s the occasional section that looks like it’s been rescued from a ‘70s-vintage videotape, but for the most part the interview footage here is clean and perfectly watchable, if a little faded from the inevitable ravages of time. The archival footage varies massively in quality (while much of it was shot in 35mm, there’s plenty of grainy 8mm and 16mm material here as well), but has been transferred well.

The entire series is presented as originally broadcast, full-frame at an aspect ratio of 1.33:1.

There are sections of footage that are marred slightly by what’s best described as a “dot of luminance” in the middle of the screen, but this is a minor quibble (it was probably introduced during the telecine process) and doesn’t distract overly from the program itself.

MPEG compression is handled extremely well throughout, with the exception of the making-of feature, which suffers from colour noise and other artefacts, some of which may well have been present on the original analogue videotape.


It may be mono - the series was made that way - but the sound here is crystal clear and almost totally free of unwanted noise, a sterling job from the remastering team. The sound quality across episodes does vary slightly, but when it’s good, it’s very good - at its best, the famous Mahler-like theme from the series exhibits both well-rounded bass and crisp top end, a good indication that some trouble’s been taken here to get the audio right.


Aside from the making-of feature, there’s not a huge amount of extra material here - though the fact that there’s any at all is impressive enough. Each episode comes with a handful of photographs from the Imperial War Museum, various entry points based on songs, speeches, maps or good old chapters (note that that there are many more chapters coded in each episode than are actually listed on the disc and available for menu access). There’s also a complete episode summary for the entire series, some brief biographies and a brief history of the war. Nothing to get excited about overall, it is, as I said, still better than nothing at all. It’s the series itself that’s the drawcard here.

The four-panel sliding main menu is very, very stylish, though navigating it is never less than confusing. Even worse, though, are the individual episodes’ entry screens, which are incredibly unintuitive - they seem to have been designed with DVD-ROM users in mind rather than the bulk of the audience.

Curiously, while the brief Thames trailer is encoded at the start of each episode, accessing the episode from the menus skips past it completely every time. You can see it, if you’re feeling nostalgic, by using the chapter-back button on your remote once the episode is playing.

It’s worth noting that the main menu’s horizontal-slide feature did not work with the Creative Dxr2 card and software, a menu navigation problem that’s cropped up a couple of times recently. I tested the discs on several stand-alone players (and extensively on a Sony 336) and found no problems, nor were there any problems navigating these menus with the PowerDVD software player. Without access to all of the menu screens, many episodes are not accessible at all - Dxr2 users can still view them, though, using the software’s direct title access (the four programs on each disc are titles 3 to 6).


An absolutely stunning series that has no equal, The World At War is a must-see for everyone who has even the mildest curiosity about the Second World War and its origins. Expertly written, sensitively and impartially handled and narrated with dramatic flair by Olivier, this set contains the opening hours of one of the most remarkable television projects ever conceived. This reviewer thought he knew all about how and why World War 2 started. After viewing this first pair of discs, this reviewer realised just how little he really knew. And while some may think it’s all just a revisiting of a distant past, a detailed knowledge of this war is something that everyone should strive for, if only to help make sure that such a cataclysm never happens again.

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      And I quote...
    "An absolutely stunning series that has no equal..."
    - Anthony Horan
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