Okay, so this is THE ultimate World War II documentary. Plain and simple. The World at War was produced in the early seventies by British television production company Thames Television (remember their awesome logo?) and features narration by Sir Laurence Olivier. It covers the entire second World War across 26 hour long episodes and it’s now available on Blu-ray for your viewing pleasure. So how does this 37 year old series hold up on high definition?
First, let me talk a little bit about the actual content of the series. The episodes are broken down in a loose chronological order, starting with “A New Germany (1933-1939)”. We get some history on the rebirth of Germany and how the Nazi party grew into a position of power, leading to the eventual outbreak of war. From there, the series of events is broken down in great detail, with episodes focusing on Japan, North Africa, Italy, and other landmarks throughout the war. The episodes themselves consist of a mix of stock footage, photo stills and talking head interviews. Generally, it’s full of great information presented in a fairly engaging fashion. While it does feel a bit didactic at times, it still manages to maintain a sense of story that succeeds in capturing the atmosphere at the time of the war. Sir Laurence Olivier handles the narration perfectly, providing a dictatorial yet accessible accompaniment to the images. It goes without saying that the 36 hours in this series require at least a minimal interest in the war for any viewer to experience any sort of enjoyment or enlightenment.
Okay, so let’s talk about the technical aspect of this Blu-ray release. First off, I do think it looks pretty great, considering its age and the varied selection of stock footage presented throughout the series. The entire show was shot on film (obviously) and mixes colour and black and white footage, resulting in a bit of a hodgepodge of film stocks, some having aged better than others. Every now and again a pretty banged up shot will appear on screen, full of dirt and scratches, but these are few and far between. Generally everything looks appropriately aged but still great. The interview footage shot specifically for this series also holds up quite well, although the limitations of the original film stock does show through a little in comparison to what some might be used to nowadays. Personally, I found the look of the film to be faithful to what I imagine the filmmakers had in mind at the time. The set includes a number of special features including documentaries on the making of the series (one of which is a feature length retrospective), and a short that details the restoration process behind this high definition release. There are also additional bonus episodes — for a lack of a better term — that look at various aspects of the war. These include ‘Secretary to Hitler’, ‘The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler’, ‘Warrior’, ‘Hitler’s Germany: The People’s Community 1933-1939′, ‘Hitler’s Germany: Total War 1939-1945′, ‘The Final Solution: Parts 1 and 2′, and ‘From War to Peace’.
NOW, on to the one major sticking point. Many have pointed out the fact that this newly restored version of The World at War is presented in a 16:9 aspect ratio to fit your HD television screen. The problem here is the series was originally shot for a traditional 4:3 aspect ratio. While some might be relieved that the picture will fill up their screen without the need to stretch or zoom (“I paid for my screen and I want to make use of every inch of it!”), others might find the extreme cropping of the image slightly claustrophobic at times. In general I found the stock footage held up fine to the aspect ratio change but some of the talking head interviews definitely suffered. There are many occasions where the image struggles to capture the on-screen text — someone’s name, generally placed near the bottom of the screen — without cutting off the top of the interviewee’s head in the process. Some of them are so tight that the top of the framing actually ends just above the eyebrows of the interview subject and, eventually, you’ll notice a very slow frame re-adjustment after the text disappears. It’s not really a deal-breaker but it’s certainly something that will stick in the craw of purists looking for the originally intended presentation. It’s my understanding that this was a compromise met while negotiating the costs of restoring the series. If a broadcaster is going to put money into such a project, they want to make sure it will take full advantage of their HD signal. I just wish there was an option to view it in it’s original 4:3 form. Otherwise, The World at War is a great Blu-ray release and a must-have for anyone interested in the second world war. — Jay C.