The World at War

The World at War is a 26-hour British TV documentary from 1973 that many regard as television’s greatest and most comprehensive account of World War Two. Narrated by the great Laurence Olivier. Each episode focuses on a particular aspect of the War — some have a tight focus, like the episode about D-Day, while others have a wider focus, like the episodes that cover the Russian and British home fronts through the course of the war. The episodes are roughly chronological, with much overlap between some. Originally aired in 1974, thirty years after the end of WW2, this documentary had the unique advantage of being able to interview Allied and Axis leaders, civilians, officers, politicians and other participants of the era. So this documentary is valuable for its extensive first-person accounts from people who were involved in the war on both sides. There are extensive interviews with the non-military populace in the countries involved and ordinary soldiers as well as the key players, e.g. the Enola Gay pilot. In the 1970s the people interviewed for this film had thirty-year-old memories of the war, so through their eyes we see not only the war but what it is to carry memories of war. Many of the interviews are heartbreaking, but they give personal and internal insights on the war — something the more current documentaries are missing. The interviews are coupled with amazing historic documentary footage. Sure, it’s not in high definition and in 4:3 format, but you’ll forget all that after watching the first disc, anyway. This landmark BBC documentary stands apart for three clear reasons: 1) The fact that the interviews were all shot in the 70s rather than more recently. Because this was produced just 30 short years after WWII, you hear from the Axis and Allied commanders themselves. And the inclusion of the older German officers, even some of Hitler’s confidants, is remarkable. 2) This is not just the U.S. story of World War II. If you’ve ever been frustrated by a documentary that makes it appear as if the European theater didn’t start until 1944 or had only one front, this story has a much wider perspective. Some of the episodes about the Soviet battles against the Germans are some of the best of the series, especially Stalingrad. 3) The footage is incredible. It’s not the HD we’re used to at this point, but there was German, Soviet and Japanese footage that surprised me in here. I saw this documentary series when it first aired on American TV. It forever changed my attitude about war and its devastating effects. That was many years ago and I can still remember scenes from it and how it affected me. I learned how easily wars can begin and what they cost in human suffering. The episodes on the Holocaust were near unbearable to watch. As a woman in her 60s now, it forever changed my ideas on the insanity of war. I wish every school would make this required watching. It tells the story in actual video footage that no textbook could come close to. This won’t be for everybody, but I don’t think you’ll find better. It’s long, it’s told very meticulously, with long scenes without narration, and it’s extremely in depth. But the depth of the storytelling and the fact that most of the interviewees are probably dead at this point makes this a must watch for anyone interested in learning more about WW2. (If you’ve seen or any other more modern WW2 documentary or movie with interviews of vets, like Band of Brothers, almost all of these men were privates and young during the war.) Highly recommend. This is a well-researched, well-written, well-narrated, intelligent and moving documentary. Is this the best documentary ever made? Well, it has my vote. It is one of the best documentaries on WW2, and probably will be forever because these film makers had the chance to interview many of the leaders of that war who were still alive in the early 1970s. No other World War 2 documentaries come close to The World at War — it is truly in a class by itself. I’d rate this 10-out-of-5 stars if I could. After finally finishing all 11 volumes, I don’t ever expect to see better documentaries, on history or any other subject, for that matter. This is quite simply one of the greatest documentaries ever made for television, and in my opinion the best documentary series ever produced. It is unfortunate that the opening of the former Soviet Union did not happen in time for more cooperation from Russian witnesses. Also, other critical information now available about the war was not accessible at the time. Information was still classified about the MAGIC and ENIGMA codes and the men who eventually unraveled them, and as the Cold War was still in progress they had no access to the Soviet archives. But the view of World War 2 from the depths of the Cold War is fascinating. It is a very British-centric production. However, I defy anyone to name a better cinematic or TV exposition of the Second World War. If you want a different national perspective on the war you can try Ken Burns’ The War for the American side of the story, or for the French side see Apocalypse: World War II. They are both excellent, but neither is as good as The World at War. (Note on lack of subtitles: The wide varieties of accents and nationalities of the interviewees make some of their comments difficult to understand. Like many British series it could use the help of subtitles for Americans, especially due to the 1940s recording technology and the many different accents in the voices of the soldiers and survivors. But narrator Lawrence Olivier is easy to understand.) Documentary 1974 NR 11 discs. (Collector’s Edition 30th-anniversary also features eight hours of bonus documentaries.)


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