The World at War – Blu-ray Review

Before Ken Burns or the History Channel, there was The World at War. The 26 part documentary series changed the rules for non-fiction programming on television. This was not a slapped together quickie hour long special. Thames produced an expensive and extensive review of World War II that took nearly three years before airing on ITV in 1974. They didn’t create an all-star tribute to the global conflict with all the leading military icons giving their oral memoirs while historians top each other with their exclusive research. Instead the producers interviewed all types of people that were caught in the struggles and battles. Civilians that discovered their front yards were battle zones had their say as much as architects of combat plans. The World at War reminded us of the human toll of this bloody time.

For many students, the events of World War II weren’t taught in history class because the instructors never made it past the Great Depression in textbooks before the start of summer vacation. There are people who think John Belushi is factually correct during his rousing speech in Animal House when he says the Germans bombed Pearl Harbor. The World at War quickly became the great supplement to an educational system’s shortcomings. It’s better than what the average high school teacher could provide in a trailer classroom. Sir Lawrence Olivier’s narration is authoritative and informative. It demands you pay attention to how things got to that point. His tone carry such weight that there’s no need for dozens of historians to repeat the obvious like they do on the History Channel. The copious amounts of archival footage and action motion maps makes it easy for a viewer to understand the events. This is extremely educational without the fear of a pop quiz.

Even after nearly 40 years, The World at War remains a landmark of TV documentaries. The presentation of the events are clean and seamless. Each episode focuses on a theater of war. It explains the battles from all sides and not merely the winner’s narrative. There aren’t too many of the major names interviewed because even by 1970, a majority of the icons had died. Hitler’s secretary gives her observations from inside Germany’s core. A Japanese spy relates how he used a fishing rod to calculate the depths of Pearl Harbor. The series itself doesn’t end with V-J Day. It reflects on the aftermath when Europe was sliced in half with the Soviet Union claiming countries for communism. This is not a feel good propaganda piece.

What makes the Blu-ray edition of The World at War special is the hi-def transfer that has been cropped for widescreen TVs. There are plenty of people upset that the full frame images have been snipped. This is often an issue when it comes to a movie that’s been framed for an aspect ratio. The archival footage collected here wasn’t shot with amazing angles. Military and newsreel cameramen just wanted to capture the action. The interviews are the only time the adjusting is noticeable. These were mostly shot on 16mm with the names of speakers burned into the film. Often they’ll cut the top of their heads to an extreme to fit in the titles. Once the titles fade, they’ll tweak the frame up. Unless you’re fanatical about aspect ratios, you’ll be dazzled by the restoration work to notice such things.

The series has been a staple on the Military History Channel. It’s such a pain to watch on cable because if you don’t catch it at the right time, you’ll be missing out on major battles. This is a series that requires start to finish viewing. Make sure you have a couple hours at a clip to watch since it’s engrossing to make you want to watch a few episodes in one sitting. Unlike any lecture in school, you won’t be checking the clock to see when things end.

The video is 1.78:1 anamorphic. The restored transfer looks much better than the original run of the series. The clarity of the image depends on the source of the archival footage. Things taken from 35mm film brings out so much in the details. Most of the interviews were done in 16mm film so there’s a softness to the speakers. The image average about the mid-30s Mbps depending on the source. The audio provides three mixes of the soundtrack in Mono Dolby Digital, LPCS 2.0 stereo mix and sumptuous DTS HD Master 5.1 surround track. Go for the DTS HD Master mix to truly feel the impact of Olivier’s narration. Subtitles are in English.

Episode Extras contains biographies of the major players, photographs from the Imperial War Museum and links to speeches and songs.

Secretary to Hitler (24:32) is a longer interview with Traudl Junge. She was there until his suicide in the bunker.

From War to Peace (23:48) lets the late World War II historian Stephen Ambrose discuss more.

Hitler’s Germany (78:11) and (79:38) is a two part movie about life in German before and during the war for the ordinary folks of German.

The Two Deaths of Adolph Hitler (49:02) ponders if he shot himself or took poison.

Warrior (52:52) consists of archival footage of and interviews with men who did the fighting during World War II.

Experiences of War (61:19) are more recollections.

The Final Solution (100:36) and (94:24) focuses on the Holocaust.

Making the Series (128:26) gets really into what it took to put this together.

Restoring the World At War (31:04) shows how much they cared about making this series just right for high definition TV.

The World at War remains legendary in its presentation of the battle that wrapped around the globe. This is the standard to which all other battle documentaries are compared. It captures the huge accomplishments, but is cautious to remind us of the price paid. This is about the people. The bonus documentaries give an even greater focus on those whose lives were completely altered by the historic events. Once you make your way through these Blu-ray discs, you’ll be educated to what happened in the early 1940s.


A&E Home Video, History Channel & New Video present The World at War. Created by: Jeremy Isaacs. Starring: Laurence Olivier. Boxset Contents: 26 Episodes on 9 Blu-ray discs. Released on Blu-ray: November 16, 2010.

Tags: ,