History has to start someplace. No, not the actual events. Those exist within a temporal plain that, like a falling tree in an empty forest, needs a witness to verify their actuality and occurrence. But once said correspondent starts recording the truth, collaborating with others on the details and -perhaps more importantly – the impact, the record is created and the precedence set. Then, the supposedly established stories are embraced and the transcript adopted and eventually modified, giving us something closely akin to history. It is often well-meaning, misguided, and incomplete, a first run-through instead of a final draft, but it forms the basis for our core conversations, of how things were and what we should learn from them.
The World at War (new to the Blu-ray format from History Channel HD) is such a cultural keystone, a landmark television documentary series which did what few long form films had done before: put the entirety of the Second World War into complete (as possible) perspective. Not merely satisfied to concentrate on one particular aspect of the clash, it wanted to be as comprehensive as possible. Begun in 1969 and more than four years in the making, it was one of the first oral accounts of the century defining conflict, an attempt to explain the Allies, and Axis, and the various side stories that helped to shape the subtexts in between.
The 26 hour long episodes that make up the original project (plus the addition of eight more installments conceived and created for home video release) center on 15 major campaigns that, according to Noble Frankland of the Imperial War Museum, were the most crucial turning points in the entire six year struggle. Producer Jeremy Isaacs then filled out the rest of the running time with considered scholarship, interviews with obvious and elusive figures, and perhaps most importantly, the revelation of information unknown even some twenty five years after the last shots were fired.
Rightfully, the first five shows illustrate how a corrupt if compelling leader and his fascist familiars rearranged European politics in the early ’30s. From the rise of the Reich in Germany to the response from surrounding countries, it’s material crucial to the Great War mythos – the promises of prosperity, in frightening allegiances, the rampant disregard for neighboring sovereignty. By the time we get to episode six – “Banzai!: Japan (1931 – 1942)”, America’s involvement is all but certain.
From there, we experience the desert battles of North Africa, the walk pack attacks in the Atlantic, the first alliances and eventual betrayal of the Soviet Union, and the jungle wars of India and Burma. In between, pieces of the puzzle are filled in, including the all important responses from the courageous and the cowardly, the strokes of strategic genius and the tactical blunders, and of course, the shocking genocide that would make up the WWII’s most enduring horror – the Final Solution.
The World at War doesn’t pull any punches. It doesn’t shy away from the truth – unless, of course, the truth could not be 100percent established at the time. One has to remember that, even with all the VHS and DVD revisions, this is still a production founded in the facts from forty years ago. We have learned a lot about WWII in the proceeding four decades, thanks in no small part to the cable content rotation of channels like Discovery and History. Yet for all the updates and reframes, The World at War is surprisingly sound. It doesn’t drift into outright speculation and, when it can, it lets the actual figures involved do all the talking. This is especially important during the deconstruction of the Nazi regime. As a symbolic evil so powerful it remains a determined part of the culture – pop or otherwise – we get actual participants in this particular political Hell – and what they have to say is terrifying in its menacing matter-of-factness.
Yet The World at War is not all slices of the sensationalized and shocking. Through excellent archival footage – some unseen prior to its original airing – the series showcases the real cost to life and lifestyle. Looking at bombed out buildings and the people fighting to reconstruct their existences within them is troubling enough. Hearing someone rationalize such destruction is another nightmare all together. Better than most discussions of the subject, The World at War brings the global impact of such incidents into sharper focus, finding a way to make the relatively safe situation in America (where no direct strikes were felt) seem as tenuous as the daily blitzes plaguing London. We get the well meaning and the minutia, but we also see the much bigger picture, the desire of one country and its collusive companions to try and dominate an entire planet. The prospect is just as potent as the eventual pushback.
From the perspective of “the winning team”, The World at War is also a halting, head scratching experience. Certain decisions haunt the entire conflict, while chance encounters and last minute heroics seem stunningly implausible. As with the best of such accounts, we get firsthand knowledge of the hubris of Hitler, the wisdom of Winston Churchill, and the paternal facade of FDR. We also see the sketches of that most meaningful of warfare realities – how men become monsters (and in this case, inexcusable mass murderers). It’s the sheer scope of what The World at War attempts to undertake, from the negligible detail to the monumental undertaking of something like D-Day that make it so important. Unlike other discussions or documentaries on the subject, this series wants to set the record. Others can straighten it out later.
Indeed, that is what has been happening ever since. The World at War is now a relic-like roadmap, the path from which dozens of differing approaches and agendas about WWII travel and backtrack. It’s no longer authoritative as much as being the necessary jumping off point for a more meaningful discussion. As history has found an outlet for expanded coverage and conversation, the 26 hour plus running time seems scarily superficial. And yet, when cleared of all the competition, when taken as the actual cornerstone for a far more complete view of the entire event, The World at War is wonderful. It’s like having a seasoned veteran sitting in your living room, regaling you with stories both exciting and sickening. Time may have altered some of the angles (and more than a few of the facts), but the truth is still there, waiting to be revealed. The way in which it masters the medium make this act of discovery all the more eventful.