Produced with help from the U.S. military, the 26-part documentary series Victory at Sea tells the story of World War II from a maritime perspective. Wars, the program reports, are won and lost based on supplies; merchant ship routes ran everywhere during the ’40s, including near the North Pole, and the ceaseless attacks on them by U-boats and bombers comprise much of each episodes’ running time. When it aired in 1952 and ’53, the series prompted the purchase of many new television sets and granted commercial legitimacy to the new medium. This was the time of the Korean War, and no doubt, the government had a motive for helping in the production of this tale of American triumph. Victory at Sea not only sold new televisions, but a new conflict as well.
Free of talking head interviews or excessive historical detail, the episodes flow like free-form stock footage festivals, all black and white, mostly beautiful quality (especially as transferred to DVD). Leonard Graves’ narration is spare, pompous, and poetic, such that Victory at Sea has more in common with 1920s Soviet propaganda films, Disney’s Fantasia (1942), or the work of Leni Riefenstahl than it does later documentaries like World at War or more recent pieces on the History Channel.
It’s no help either that sometimes the footage doesn’t cohere, a blend of battle imagery from various locations and other scenes recreated for the documentary. It all starts to flow by in a dream like wave, seductive and lulling, but hardly riveting. Though it may touch a soft spot in the heart of its target generation, the unabashedly patriotic score by Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers & Hammerstein fame) now seems dated. Mixing grandiose strains of Germanic European classical with American marching band rags and general patriotic hoopla, it resembles a 1920s silent film score (the DVD sound is also badly mixed, so the score swells up and down in volume, as if the digital sound technician was himself on a boat at sea). Call it “Triumph of the Yankee Will.”
After the Germans defeat the British troops in Greece, Graves intones: “But for a time yet, the Germans will plot and push and plunder.” Back on the water, the men on the transports have nothing to do but “Relax, wait and anticipate the job ahead.” Each episode starts with the servicemen on the ships relaxing and waiting, and then the turning point battle comes. The ships must get through with valuable supplies, but the Axis planes and submarines prove fierce. Guns fire and fire and fire, men run and run and run, a plane dives. A bomb explodes. Grave describes the action like an announcer at a football game: “High level bombers! Low level bombers! Submarines! The entire holocaust of Nazi fury! The attack goes on, intense, unbroken. The convoy reels under the slugging. More death is on the way.”
It’s not all death and holocaust, though. The series allots time as well to footage of the men who had nothing to do during the War but stop over on islands in the Pacific, drinking beer and unloading supplies. The documentary even shows the occasional dead soldier, his lifeless body rolling in the surf. To its credit, the series includes attempts at racial equality, with African American servicemen visible throughout, without any special “separate but equal” section devoted to them.
While Victory at Sea tries in its way to avoid racism (the Japanese for example, are depicted as a decent people whose devotion to tradition led them astray), it is stridently nationalist. Victory at Sea‘s unflinching, unapologetic view of the devastating destruction of Japan and Germany near the War’s end raises some interesting questions. When Graves begins describing events like the fire bombing of Dresden, or 60% of Tokyo consumed by flames, his voice betrays a certain schadenfreude mixed with an expected Yankee compassion. It is as if the Axis onslaught of the first 20 episodes is finally getting returned in spades, or as Graves unironically puts it, the Americans are “throttling aggression at its source.”
Graves tone grows a shade more sympathetic for the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which concludes the War: “8:16 AM, August 6, 1945,” he says, ‘Hiroshima Japan: A city dies as an age is born. One bomb from one plane and life becomes death; one bomb from one plane, Hiroshima is wasteland; one bomb from one plane, 78,000 human beings perish; two bombs from two planes, and World War II is over.”
This deux ex machina of an ending is, however, oddly unsatisfying. The dire struggle of men and guns became obsolete, even as the War was nearly won in a more conventionally “fair and square” way. It appears here as if total victory could only come with the cost of taking the world’s atomic virginity. For the U.S., it was also a total loss of innocence, now awakened as the official victor in a bloody brawl for global dominion. It would prove a serious addiction.
The most fascinating aspect of Victory at Sea is its reflection of America’s changing self-perception over the course of the War. Imperialist dreams slowly blends with democratic ideals, resulting in a more mature, modern, and crafty America, the publicly pro-peace yet secretly war-happy nation it remains today. In Victory at Sea‘s endless parade of war machines and human faces, we’re granted a peek at an attitude that in 1952-’53 was still unafraid to wave its enemies’ bloodied head on a pole. In this valuable time capsule, we are granted a look at the States at its most self-congratulatory. To the victor goes not only the spoils of being the world’s police force, but also the right to paint a big V over history.