Monday, February 1, 2010

Review: "WWII in HD"

The following is a review of the documentary series “WWII in HD”, produced by Lou Reda Productions for History, and issued in DVD and Blu-ray by A&E Home Entertainment. Come back Thursday for a chance to win the DVD set.

Most of us old movie fans have been introduced to the World War II era through classic film, and because of our familiarity with this tumultuous period as depicted through a rather glossy Hollywood sieve, we might think we know all there is to know. This series is as dramatic and nail biting, as emotional and as frank as any first-hand story about World War II your father or grandfather could never bring himself to tell you. It is most definitely not “only a movie” as the cliché goes.

Much about this series is remarkable, but two of the most glaring differences between “WWII in HD” and any other single film or documentary series you may have watched about World War II is that is it entirely in color, and most of the footage has never been seen publicly. For this reason, it is seems new, and almost unreal and yet at the same time with the odd familiarity of watching a home movie. The “HD” factor, or high definition resolution, make the film quality crisp and vivid and gives one the impression of seeing a whole new world, the past not as handed down to us like a souvenir, but as re-lived and brought to life in a new and quite personal manner. We are not being told what happened so much as we are invited to experience it vicariously.

The documentary unfolds through the experiences of 12 different American service personnel. They are from different parts of the country and different walks of life. One is a recent immigrant, an Austrian Jew who escapes the growing Nazi terror in Europe just before the war begins and joins the United States Army. One is an African-American pilot who flies missions over Europe. One is a Japanese-American from Oregon whose family is placed in an interment camp while he is away at the fighting in a unit of men made up of all Japanese-Americans, one of the most decorated in the war. One is a war correspondent in the Pacific. One is an Army nurse. They are quite young.

Their experiences through journal and letter entries are voiced by professional actors, but a few of them we get to meet when they are interviewed in person as elderly individuals, still astonished after the many decades over what they had seen and experienced first-hand.

Their separate stories are held together by narrator Gary Sinise, and the overall effect is of hopping all over the globe to drop in on them wherever they are at this minute, to see what is happening next. The film clips are stunning. Some have the feel of amateur home movies. It is a fascinating delight to see clips of busy Los Angles streets or New York, or Paris before the war. We see the streets of Washington, D.C., and witness the funeral procession of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, again, in color. The camera pans across the crowds, people of all ages and races, watching silently, nervously, the cortege passes them.

We see rubble-strewn streets of bombarded villages in Europe. There is a heartbreaking shot of a little boy on Okinawa, uncontrollably shaking with all he has experienced, attempting to be comforted by a horrified Marine with a pat and a sip of water from a canteen, after the boy and a number of other civilians are fired upon by the Marines accidentally, when they are assumed to be attacking Japanese.

There are facts and statistics recounted, and computer maps to guide us, but mostly, this is a very personal trip we’re taking, and it will not leave you unmoved.

We celebrate with the nurse on V-E Day when she gets furlough in Paris, and we gravely consider the GI who helps the pitiful survivors of the Buchenwald concentration camp. We hear him tell himself at war’s end, “I have to put the horrors of the past behind me.”

He did, in order to move on with his life, but we don’t. We look at this era through the safety of decades between that time and ours, but this documentary peels a little of that safety away, and that is a good thing. It is certainly a new approach.

The DVD set is comprised of three disks, a total of 10 episodes. There are bonus features including interviews with the few elderly surviving participants, and two brief “making of” segments that describe how the footage was gathered, and how it was preserved.

The series is a fine achievement, and is a valuable resource for students, and film buffs, to appreciate this period of history through a wholly new experience. My one complaint would be that some of the clips are edited through that rapid-fire, attention deficit technique that is unfortunately typical nowadays of feature films and television camera work. I prefer slow segues and longer frames, but probably a lot of the footage was filmed like that to begin with, much of it with hand-held cameras on the fly.

On Thursday’s post, we’ll start a contest to win a DVD three-disk set of “WWII in HD”, with the winner being announced next Monday.

Or, if you’d like to buy a copy, here’s where you can order the DVD set.

Here’s where you can order the Blu-ray edition.

For more information on “WWII in HD” have a look at this website.

Note: A&E Home Entertainment has provided me with a review copy of the DVD set, and one to give away.

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