“There are many among us who in the past closed their eyes to the events of war, because they believed that what was taking place in Europe was none of our business. That we could maintain our physical safety by retiring within our continental boundaries. Obviously, a defense policy based on that is merely to invite future attacks. For those who would not admit the possibility of the approaching storm, the past weeks have meant a shattering of past illusions.”
No, that quote wasn’t George W. Bush. It was Franklin D. Roosevelt on May 26th, 1941. And yes, it was over 6 months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s unceremonious personal invitation to World War II.
Now I have an invitation for you. It isn’t anything as calamitous as an unprovoked attack, but it is just as important. I invite you to bear witness to one of the most important events in American history. World War II brought America out of the shadows of isolationism and onto the world stage as a leader and eventual superpower. Whether or not you agree with what the event made us or not, it would be utter folly to deny the transformation. See, for the first time, some incredible footage of the war in full color, and now in high definition. No matter your politics, age, or historical interest. This release belongs on every video shelf in America… and beyond.
They’ve been called The Greatest Generation, and who are we to argue the point? Sitting here writing reviews from my comfortable seat in a state-of-the art home theater, I’m in no position to lay claim to the title. They fought in the bloodiest conflict in modern human history. Over 20 million were killed. That’s a staggering number. If you’re like me, it’s not even real. I can honestly say that those facts have never really reached home as much as they did while watching this footage.
World War II has been a favorite topic for Hollywood films since before the war itself ended. There have been some truly remarkable efforts and some equally unremarkable disasters. Many of these films have been long forgotten. Heck, many of them deserve to be forgotten. But something that should never be forgotten is the stuff of this footage. To do so would be a sacrilege of the worst kind. But these war films, no matter how startling the scenes, no matter how real we might think they are, no matter how visceral the experience might appear, nothing can ever capture the reality like this footage has done.
“This program contains rare films of WWII originally shot in color, found during a two-year world-wide search. Much of it has never been seen on television before. These films are presented now in high definition. Some images are graphic in nature. Viewer descretion is advised.”
Take that warning to heart. As much as everyone should see this footage, some simply cannot. No actors. No special effects. No retakes. This is World War II like you’ve never seen it, unless, of course, you were there. Less than 10 % of those who were there are alive today.
Each episode utilizes the newfound footage in conjunction with the words of several people who were there. These words come from letters, memoirs, and war correspondent reports. Some of these people survived. Some did not. The few who are still with us provide insight in retrospect along with their words from the time. Gary Sinise narrates the entire series, bringing these stories together in a complete overview of the important events of the war.
The men and woman represented and the actors who voiced their words follow: Bert Stiles (Josh Lucas), Shelby Westbrook (LL Cool J), Jack Werner (Justin Barthau), Nolen Marbury (Steve Zahn), Jack Yusen (Jason Ritter), Rockie Blunt (Rob Corddy), Archie Sweeney (Mark Hefti), Richard Tregaskis (Tim DeKay), Charles Sheffel (Ron Livingston), Jimmie Kanaya (James Kyson Lee), June Wadrey (Amy Smart), and Robert Sherrod (Rob Lowe). Each episode includes a dedication to the fallen participants in that episode.
There are a few flaws in an otherwise excellent series. I found it distracting when the actor’s voice would overlap with the participant’s voice during segues to them in the present. There is also a bit of reused footage, which I find somewhat disappointing when you consider the great amount of footage discovered and not used. Finally, I was disoriented by the show’s style of telling us one story only to suddenly shift to another, coming back to the first one later. I guess I’m more linear in how I want to see this unfold. Most of these complaints really are minor and are owed, I believe, to an attempt to add drama to an event that did not require it.
The release contains 10 episodes on two Blu-ray discs.
The episodes are:
Darkness Falls: (49:51) You get a pre-war timeline. FDR speaks about the conflict in Europe. Training and deployment of the first American forces. Pearl Harbor, and America’s arrival into the war.
Hard Way Back: (47:13) Picks up with Guadalcanal, where one battle took 1200 Japanese lives and just 41 Marines. Project Torch involves action in North Africa to the mountains of Tunisia. The piece ends with the battles on the Alaskan Aleutian Islands.
Bloody Resolve: (44:17) Australian battles of Tarawa and New Britain are covered. The Invasion of Sicily and the march to Naples in Italy.
Battle Stations: 44:14) We’re to the spring of 1944 and the campaign on the Marshall Islands. An interlude offers a look at British society dealing with four years of bombing raids. An American bombing raid on Berlin is, unknown to the bomber crews, a bait to bring out the bulk of the German Luftwaffe.
Day Of Days: (44:24) The Mariana Islands and preparations for bombing raids on Japan begin this episode. Women and children civilians commit suicide rather than face capture by the Americans, who they’ve been told will rape and torture them. It’s D-Day, and after the Normandy invasion a big mistake causes a group of bombers to drop their payloads on American troops, killing 100 and wounding over 500 others.
Point Of No Return: (44:25) most of this episode involves the islands on and around the Philippines.
Striking Distance: (43:46) Here we meet the Tuskegee Airmen. Japanese internment camps and Japanese Americans fighting for the Allies. The sinking of the Samuel B Roberts.
Glory And Guts: (43:30) Iwo Jima, aerial warfare, the liberation of Paris.
Edge Of The Abyss: (43:19) FDR is sworn in for an unprecedented 4th term in office. Okinawa, Belgium, and the final push toward Germany. Ends with the death of FDR.
End Game: (43:44) Truman takes over as President. The discovery and liberation of the concentration camps. VE Day and the dropping of the world’s first atomic weapons on Japan. The war ends.
Each episode is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with a VC-1codec at an average 18 mbps. While this is indeed a high-definition presentation, you have to always keep in mind that this is 60+ year old combat footage, taken under the most harrowing of conditions and with limited equipment. The footage is often grainy and at times poorly focused. But even in the worst of the footage, the sharpness of the restoration comes through. I have honestly not seen this kind of vintage footage look this well preserved. Some of it is absolutely amazing in its clarity. Of course, some of it is very poor. All in all this stuff is an archivist’s dream come true.
The DTS-HD Master 5.1 audio brings action right into your living room. I’m convinced the audio was enhanced and maybe even included audio f/x. I don’t know for certain, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. It is all extremely clear. The narration and readings are crystal.
It’s all in HD.
Character Profiles: (14:56) A closer look at the surviving members of the piece. These six participants are profiled through their own words and some text information. I don’t really like that they are being called “characters” here. They are real people who lived through WWII. The six profiled are: Charles Scheffel, Rockie Blunt, Jimmie Kanaya, Shelby Westbrook, and Jack Yusen.
Finding The Footage: (2:28) This is really a very brief description of where the footage was discovered.
Preserving The Footage: (1:56) Another very brief piece, this time describing the 4k transfer process.
New to this set on two Blu-ray discs:
Battle For Iwo Jima: (57:31) From FDR’s unprecedented 4th inaugural address to the sands of Iwo Jima, this feature gives both a closer look at the battle for the island, and the context.
The Air War: (1:27:17) The 8th Air Force prepared the way for D-Day with its relentless engagement of the German Luftwaffe. Follow several survivors as they recount their experiences, including a young Stars And Stripes reporter on the scene … Andy Rooney. It’s a particularly timely feature to have.
If it offers nothing else, this set offers a comprehensive overview of the important events of the war. Unless you are somewhat of a WWII expert, there will be some things in here that you did not know. That was certainly true for my experience. With the age of the footage, you might be asking yourself why you shouldn’t just pick up the DVD release. It’s a good question. I’ve looked at that release as well. It’s actually pretty good for a standard-definition DVD. Still, what I found most important was the texture of the images. The stark reality comes through in this Blu-ray in a way that a DVD just can’t deliver. Obviously, if you do not yet own Blu-ray, you have no choice, and I still think you’ll be awed by the series. But there is no denying that Blu-ray takes you through a time portal and drops you off squarely in the 1940’s. “The only ones to see war like this were the ones who lived it. Until now.”