The History Channel’s WWII in HD is an epic ten-part documentary that comprehensively details America’s participation in the Second World War. It originally aired from November 15 to November 19, 2009 before being released on Blu-ray and DVD. It features ten hours’ worth of rare and never-before-seen color footage shot across the globe throughout WWII, all of which has been converted for presentation in glorious HD. And you NEED to watch it on Blu-ray. Hit the jump for more.
I’ve seen a few documentaries on WWII; they were black-and-white with some grainy color footage occasionally mixed in. I’ve also seen several modern WWII films such as Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. However, nothing I’ve seen has so fully brought this massive, triumphant, and harrowing event to life like the HD footage on display in this documentary series. Cut together from over 3000 hours of film, WWII in HD details all 3-plus years of American involvement in the conflict, picking up just prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and continuing all the way through to V-J Day in 1945. Along the way, we go everywhere from the jungles of Pacific islands to the deserts of Africa to the ruined cities of Europe…we even make a brief stop at the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. And you’ll probably be surprised at just how much of an impact the addition of color and the enhanced quality of high definition has on your perception of the immense war that was waged across these various locales.
From planes soaring through majestic blue skies to naval boats cutting through the Pacific Ocean against an exquisite orange-yellow horizon to tanks rolling through lush green jungles, everything is imbued with an often beautiful and always captivating vitality. Moreover, the well-documented battles are as impressive as you’ve ever seen them, especially the naval conflicts, with their exquisite, vibrant mix of the blue waters, grey boats, and orange fireballs; the nighttime incursions are really something too, characterized by pitch-black screens lit only periodically by brilliant flashes of artillery fire. It’s worth watching for these alone.
Equally impressive, however, is the portrayal of the people at the heart of the conflict. Seeing soldiers in full color, fighting, celebrating, mourning, fearing, and even just lounging really allows the viewer to connect with the men and their struggle in a way that I, for one, never have before. The color and definition brings their faces, as well as those of the enemy soldiers and persecuted civilians, to such vivid life, helping to bridge the gap in time that typical black-and-white footage tends to reinforce.
On the one hand, this brings us closer to their moments of triumph, like the one that occurs after the victory at Guadalcanal in the Pacific, in which we see an American flag, practically pulsating red, white, and blue, being raised up toward an exquisite blue sky by a group of celebrating soldiers. But perhaps more importantly, it allows us to vividly experience the immense horror and misery that they endured. In the sequence that precedes the flag-raising, for instance, we see the beaches of Guadalcanal littered with the mutilated and charred corpses of both American and Japanese soldiers; and throughout we see wounded men lying in ramshackle battlefield hospitals, their flesh, fatigues, and bandages caked with dirt and blood, all on display in the most gruesome crystal clarity.
And as you might imagine, that’s not the worst of it; the enhancements are put to even more disturbing use toward the end of the series as the Allies storm Germany and liberate the Nazi death camps. Decaying bodies of Jewish prisoners left to rot in train cars by their captors, then piled on the ground ten feet high as American soldiers load them into wagons for burial; deathly pallid survivors looking like little more than walking skeletons. Suffice it to say that, in its detail, this portrait of the holocaust is as horrific and heart-breaking as any that’s appeared on film and it should be seen by everyone.
From the beauty of the landscapes to the horror of the human suffering, WWII in HD is a breath-taking and poignant feast for the eyes. And I should mention that a big part of what makes the series so consistently engaging throughout is the varying levels of film quality on display. Some footage is very dim, almost black-and-white; some is full and vibrant but marred by black lines and specks; and then some is so crystal clear that it practically jumps off the screen at you. Many of the most fantastic pieces of film are actually the ones that contain vividly colorful elements set in an otherwise drab composition. One clip from Algeria sees two explosion fires raging in an open field; both fires are bright orange, but the field itself is quite dim, making the image pop with an almost-surreal beauty. In all, it really makes for quite an exquisite pastiche.
While working through this pastiche, we’re guided by the voice of narrator Gary Sinise (CSI: NY, Forrest Gump) and follow the perspectives of twelve Americans who served in the war effort in one capacity or another; more precisely, we hear excerpts from their books or journals as read by actors Rob Lowe, LL Cool J, Steve Zahn, Ron Livingston, Justin Bartha, Amy Smart, Josh Lucas, Rob Corddry, Jason Ritter, Mark Hefti, Tim Dekay, and James Kyson Lee. Also mixed in are modern-day interviews with surviving members of the twelve as well as audio clips from famous speeches given by the likes of FDR and General Douglas MacArthur.
The voice-over storylines, in particular, work well to frame the visuals. The twelve people that we follow represent a broad range of experiences, bringing to light some typically maligned perspectives. There are soldiers, sailors, commissioned reporters, and even a military nurse, and within that we hear the voices of an African American, a Japanese American, a Jewish Austrian American immigrant, and a woman. Hearing their thoughts leading up to, during, and after the battles adds a personal, intimate quality to this vast portrait and really enhances the emotional impact of the footage.
The end result is an illuminating and absorbing account of a pivotal time in American history. There’s probably not a whole lot in terms of actual facts that you couldn’t get from another documentary or history book. However, the exquisite visuals complimented by the intimate journal-entry storytelling render WWII with a clarity that has never been seen on film up to this point. Obviously, this is a must-have for history buffs, but I’d advise everyone to at least rent it; this is a brilliantly realized documentary that will afford you a new appreciation for a well-worn subject.
-“Finding the Footage” featurette
-“Preserving the Footage” featurette