Tuesday, September 17, 2013

The World at War : The Ultimate Restored 9 Disc Blu-ray Collector's Edition (2012)

The World at War : The Ultimate Restored 9 Disc Blu-ray Collector's EditionAssuming that a filmmaker can't go on indefinately, let's say making a history of World War II in hundred or more hours of videotape, Jeremy Isaacs has done a masterful job of capturing the essense of World War II, including its causes and the Cold War that evolved out of its conclusion.

Please note, "The World At War" was produced between 1971 and 1974, which means the interviews with veterans and other war survivors were filmed close to thirty years after the conclusion of World War II.

I watched much of this series when it was first telecasted in the 1970s, and continued to view reruns of programs over the last 25+ years. I had thought that I had seen every episode two or three times, but after finishing the complete DVD collection, I'm pretty sure I completely missed some programs and saw only bits-and-pieces of others.

What a tremendous production. Beautiful reproduced on DVD, with excellent color and superb graphics (maps).

I especially appreciated the opening special, "The Making of..." with producer Jeremy Isaacs, as well as Isaacs' brief introductions to each of the 26 programs. I only wish he had prepared similar introductions to the supplementary material on Discs 4 and 5, but you can't have everything.

"The World At War" is hundred times better than the typical fare found on A&E, The History Channel, and even PBS. That's not to say that quality productions are not being made today, but Jeremy Isaacs' production is just plain better than most things regularly scheduled documentaries on cable and broadcast television.

Special mention must be made of the music by Carl Davis and the writers, who are too numerous to mention. Everyone familiar with this series knows the contribution of Sir Laurence Olivier, definitely the finest documentary narration I've ever heard.

As an American, I particularly appreciate the British perspective, which offers a different view of the breath, scope and horror of the war. The series really puts the current War on Terrorism in perspective.

The supplementary material begins with an extended interview/commentary by Traudl Junge who served as Hitler's secretary. She's a fascinating person, speaking calmly and thoughtfully about her former employer, especially the events leading up to his suicide.

There is an equally interesting interview with historian Stephen Ambrose, filmed in the early 1970s. While looking 25+ years younger, Ambrose sounds almost the same as he does today during his numerous C-Span and PBS appearances.

The most fascinating of the eight hours of supplementary material are the programs dealing with the Death of Adolf Hitler and the extended two part examination of the Final Solution.

Thank you, Amazon, for making this wonderful documentary so accessible.

For those of you contemplating this major expediture, you won't regret purchasing this landmark visual/aural history of World War II.

And remember, this DVD collection will be available for your children and grandchildren.

When investing in any DVD, especially a boxed set, you might ponder the question, "How often will I watch this?" Let me say that your purchase of The World at War will offer you endless viewing opportunities! Besides the 26 original episodes, all of the extra features that were produced afterwards are included in the set. There is so much information generated in over 30 hours of material that you will discover something new with each repeated viewing. Each episode will hold your attention from first to last, and they are efficiently indexed so you can easily review a map or replay a speech. Along side the emotional impact of the pictorial images, you have Carl Davis' moving score, a judicious use of period music, personal accounts from all the major powers, and Sir Laurance's strong narration, making this the most comprehensive documentary on the subject. Now if we can only have World War I, narrated by Robert Ryan, available, we would have the documentary bookends to the two most devastating wars in the 20th century.

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I very much regret A&E Home Video chose to do an extremely amateurish job of producing The World at War (30th Anniversary Edition). Laurence Olivier's fine narration is barely audible during the initial ten or twelve seconds of many episodes, a situation which could and should have been corrected by A&E Home Video; and at the end of every episode the viewer of this product is instantaneously clobbered with a way-too-loud blast of recently-included advertising, something A&E Home Video could and should have moderated.

This brilliant television series deserved better. Thankfully, excellence of material far outweighs those errors A&E Home Video committed in producing the boxed set; but they are none the less aggravations which distract the viewer and hence detract from this release's expected quality.

My rating of three stars is the best compromise I could think of, between the one-star rating A&E Home Video deserves and the five-star rating I'd give the television series itself. One wonders, doesn't one, why no quality control was implemented prior to release of this product?

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For History buffs and those who have a keen, deeply felt interest in World War II beyond just the military events, the World at War, produced by Thames Television (1981) and released earlier on VHS by Thorn/EMI, is a 26 episode documentary set apart from all other documentaries about WWII. No other, with the exception of Walter Cronkite's CBS series, comes close to an unbiased, analytical perspective of a War that cost perhaps 50 million lives and took an emotional and philosophical toll we are still trying to comprehend today.

Narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier and covering all aspects of the war, this definitive series is used by many colleges and universities as a source for History and Documentary Film courses. There is an incredible depth of archive footage used; skilfully woven with interviews of major figures in the War from Britain, US, Canada, Europe and Japan. Many major eye-witness leaders and ordinary people who were still alive in 1981 contributed sometimes surprising, sometimes incredible, and sometimes haunting interviews. Yet, for all its skilful editing and historical sophistication, it is clearly presented and emotionally compelling. In my opinion, it is, along with Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation", the best ever produced British documentary.

What makes this a stellar and overpowering account of the War is Olivier's narration. Never blustery, patriotic, or theatrical, Sir Laurence delivers pointed, thoughtful analysis with his incredible command of English and oration. Music for the series was composed by Carl Davis and even the opening credits set an unforgettable tone in a haunting image of a child in a photograph, dissolving in flames. This series is for those trying to make sense of a 6 year period when the world went mad. Five Stars PLUS.

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I won't say much about the documentary itself because others have been covering that ground for years. Suffice it to say it's the definitive documentary on WWII and always will be because part of what makes it great are the interviews of people who were involved in the events at the time, most of whom have passed away now.

I'm going to focus my comments on the Blu-ray release for those who have the DVD release and are wondering if it's worth purchasing again on Blu-ray. I've had it on DVD for a while. When I made the move to Blu-ray part of me liked the idea of having my favorite documentary on Blu-ray, but I had to wonder how much value there would be in a Blu-ray version of bunch of WWII-era footage that was mostly black and white.

Thanks to the efforts of the folks at FremantleMedia, apparently quite a bit. Because the original The World at War was produced on tape for TV instead of on film there really wouldn't have been any value in simply transferring the original to Blu-ray. Old films transfer well to Blu-ray because film offers a lot of detail, but anything where the original source is tape produced for TV lacks the needed resolution to produce a quality Blu-ray.

So they did the only thing that made sense and basically recreated the series from scratch, starting with the original film and restoring that instead of working with the original series, and the results are by and large very successful.

Here's what you'll notice if you compare the two:

The first thing you'll notice is that everything has been reframed to get a 16:9 image instead of the original 4:3. The purist in me doesn't like that as it means some portion of the image is always cut off. Fortunately determining what would be lost was made by people instead of by some automated process so in most cases what you lose is sky, ground, or water that really doesn't add much. Sometimes you'll wish you could see the original scene in its entirety, but mostly you won't miss much.

On the flip side, once you're used to widescreen material, old 4:3 stuff tends to be less satisfying and this way what you *do* see is larger. In the end I think it was the right choice.

The old footage, while nowhere near high-def, is much improved. Dirt and scratches have been removed, brightness and contrast have been improved, and flicker is virtually nonexistent. (Flicker is what you see in a lot of old films when the brightness seems to be changing constantly.) Camera shake has even been virtually eliminated. This is state of the art work, and the results are very impressive.

The Making of The World at War featurette and a few others look pretty bad to me, which I assume is because they were videotaped originally, so there is no higher definition original source to use.

Audio is much clearer and brighter. Not overly bright, but the DVD audio has always sounded somewhat dull and muffled.

There is a stereo audio track and a new 5.1 track. I've listened to both, and while I can hear a difference I haven't found the surround track to offer that much value. In fact, it's a little weird to hear planes and other sounds coming from behind me while Olivier is narrating, as I think they lower the sound effects in the front channels when he's talking. Let's face it, nothing in the surrounds is original material, so if you don't hear it you aren't really missing anything. This is a documentary, not an action movie.

The menus are much nicer.

Some Blu-rays restart from where you left off if you stop them and some don't. This one does, which is nice.

So basically what you get here is a much improved viewing experience, not from the usual Blu-ray advantages of high definition and lossless audio, but from the restoration work done on the material. I'm glad I got it.

Packaging: Comes in two cases, with five disks in the first and four in the second. Combined they take up about 60% less shelf space than the DVD version. The box they come in isn't a slipcase. Both sides have a flap, which is odd, but not a big deal.

Hope that helps.

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