Unlike The Korean War, there is almost no chance of WWII becoming a “forgotten war”. In addition to the legion of histories, books, films—fictional and otherwise—monuments, exhibits, museums, and oral histories, more archives always make their way to the top of the heap for us to consume. And as new technology offers us the chance to revisit history, viewed through different lenses, sometimes it can cast a new light on the past. And sometimes, it simply upgrades the past for a chance to show how much historians are willing to coexist alongside technology.
And so it would seem is the case for the History Channel’s massive collection of WWII footage and stories, simply titled WWII in HD. After all, does grainy, black and white archival footage from the past really need to be crassly reinvigorated in stunning HD picture? Are we so jaded with technology’s offerings that a standard definition television can no longer accurately represent the struggles of wartime? How much is there to gain from another investigative look into the past through a Hi-Definition viewfinder?
Apparently, a lot, as WWII in HD is a stunning 11+ hour look at one of the greatest conflicts to ever play out across an international stage. There are two identifying factors to the DVD set that create a compelling and riveting portrait of the global conflict: first, is, of course, the footage of the war, and second, is the narrative weave of 12 individual recollections of the war from 12 distinct angles, situated craftily within the context the looming, larger scope.
To begin, the footage that comprises the majority of WWII in HD is, quite simply, stunning. For an undertaking of this magnitude, the search and recovery of footage from WWII—a worldwide search that unearthed the very first color footage of the war—is treated with the care and dignity that The Greatest Generation deserves. To utilize numerous, elongated adjectives to describe scenes from the war is to decrease the value of the images; to make menial their existence that is so richly preserved. Scenes pop with electric vibrancy, soldier’s facial expressions are intensely captured, explosions and the hail of bullets are made real, deadly, destructive.
The fear is palpable from moment to moment, even when those moments are devoid of action; a parade of Nazi supporters in 1939 Germany is fraught with excitement onscreen, juxtaposed with the terrible realizations from viewers’ minds. And where there are battles, the casualties are explicit, painful, and devastatingly human and inhuman. History has never been this real or this riveting; this dually satisfying and terrifying.
Had this collection of archival footage been the only fruits borne of the labors of the historians, filmmakers, editors, and restoration teams, it would have been sufficient to establish WWII in HD as a noteworthy addendum the the historical cannon. But hours of restored, unearthed footage do not a documentary make. Rather, humanity is where the crux lies. It’s at the heart of films that tackle the broad subject of war (e.g., Full Metal Jacket, Saving Private Ryan) and it cannot be separated from the overarching tale of struggle.
The POV is strictly the American experience, here. Twelve individuals with various roles in and outside of the war, have their stories woven into the epic quilt of the documentary. Actors narrate individual tales (Jason Ritter, Rob Lowe, Amy Smart, among others) with Gary Sinise (who apparently is only able to narrate historical documentaries after Forrest Gump) providing the documentary’s parent narration. Those who made it through the war are seen on camera, their faces worn down from memory and hardship. Their expansive stories provide depth and a narrowed focus; where there was only a global conflict, now there are the sharp recollections of nurses, immigrants, reporters, airmen, and medics, cast against the larger stage.
As we are invested in them, we see the essence of humanity: lives are lost, tears are shed, the very question of good and evil is laid bare. Was it all worth the lives lost? Have we learned nothing from our past? Are we always doomed to live out the trajectory of war in different ways? War is hell, not just for soldiers but also for the web of people whose lives are affected in untold ways. To witness History through this lens is to be astounded and woe to anyone who’s life is not altered significantly after such a viewing.
There is, however, a stumbling point to WWII in HD—more of a minor setback that can easily be avoided. The additional features that are not the bulk of the documentary, WWII in HD: The Air War and WWII in HD: From Space, feel like tacked on post-scripts—the Space vignette, especially. Interesting, but unnecessary.
The other special features on collecting and restoring the footage are worthwhile for true History fans, but for all—and I mean all—WWII in HD is an achievement of the highest order. It’s greatest achievement being that it makes other films of the same subject matter and exposition appear as simple forces against the gravity of this documentary. WWII in HD is required viewing for its high-minded ideals and its near-flawless execution.