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World at War, The
DirectorProducer/Creator: Jeremy Isaacs
Release Date(s)1973 (November 16, 2010)
Studio(s)Thames Television (A&E/History Channel/New Video)
Produced by Britain’s Thames Television and originally aired on ITV in the U.K. in 1973 and 1974, The World at War was then – and still remains – the standard-setting documentary series on the Second World War.
Its 26 episodes – each 52 minutes in length and narrated by Sir Laurence Olivier – examine the conflict from start to finish in exhausting detail, combining scores of (at the time) newly-filmed interviews with first-hand participants along with vintage newsreel, propaganda and combat film footage, drawn from the archives of some 18 nations. Only NBC’s 1953 Victory at Sea and Ken Burns’ more recent The War even comes close to its breadth, scope and quality of content.
As you may already know, A&E released The World at War on DVD in the States in 2004, in a definitive 11-disc boxed set designed to commemorate the series’ 30th anniversary. It came complete with all 26 original episodes, along with several additional documentary episodes on the war, its various historical figures and the making of the series itself. Also included on the DVD were biographies, photo galleries and additional extras.
For this new Blu-ray release, all of the series’ episodes have been fully remastered from original film elements in 1080p, as have the additional documentaries. The good news is that the video image definitely benefits from the new transfers, with significant improvements in definition, detail and contrast compared to standard definition. In addition, print damage and other age-related artifacts have been fixed, removed or otherwise digitally hidden and erased. The overall image is much cleaner and more nuanced than ever before. But... the extensive restoration does occasionally reveal itself in visible compression and other digital artifacts. The image just looks occasionally too processed. It’s also very soft looking, so this is not a series you’re likely going to want to blow up and view on a very large projection screen. Part of the softness is simply a result of the widely varying condition of the source material, and the digital work done to try to grade it an ‘average’ level of quality in terms of grain, scratches and other issues. The other cause of this, I suspect, is at least a little bit due to the fact that the original 4x3 image – that was scanned and restored for this effort – has been digitally “zoomed in” to create a 16x9 image more common in high-definition presentations. I don’t know what resolution the original 4x3 film footage was scanned in, but when you zoom in on it to create 16x9 – rather than scanning natively in 16x9 from the start – you’re inevitably going to lose some of that resolution in the process. The zooming/cropping isn’t terribly destructive of the framing. Shot by shot, Fremantle Media (the production company that supervised the restoration for Blu-ray) went in and reframed the combat footage to preserve the intended subject within the 16x9 frame. And I know they put a lot of careful thought and effort into it. There’s also the consideration that combat film photography isn’t quite like cinematography for a dramatic film. Directors and DPs in traditional filmmaking carefully compose their images for the intended exhibition aspect ratio, whereas combat photographers generally point their cameras at the action and hope to capture it on film without getting killed. Still, I can understand why longtime fans of this series would dislike the re-framing. And I also can’t help feeling that the whole image might have looked just a little bit sharper and better – that the image resolution might have been slightly improved – had they decided to retain the original 4x3 presentation. Don’t get me wrong: The Blu-rays look good, and it’s clear that a LOT of hard work went into making them so. But they don’t look quite as good as you might have hoped, so you’d do well to keep your expectations in check.
The audio fares a bit better. All of the original mono soundtracks are included here in LPCM 2.0 stereo format, but new 5.1 DTS-HD MA lossless mixes have been created too. Obviously, the original tracks can only be improved upon so much, but the 5.1 mixes do sound terrific despite the program’s age. Rear channels are used for music and occasional battle sound effects – it’s not a gimmicky mix, but rather retains the spirit and tone of the original presentation. It just draws you in a little bit more now. And here’s a bit of very good news: the original 2004 DVD failed to include subtitles, but this new Blu-ray DOES have optional English (SDH) subs on all the episodes and the featurettes – a welcome addition.
Thankfully, all of the 2004 DVD extras have been collected and included. Newly added for Blu-ray is a 30-minute HD featurette on the remastering and restoration effort, along with additional episode summaries, historical maps, songs, quotes and other footage. All of this material is included on 9 BD discs. The Blu-ray menus are stylish and exceptionally easy to navigate, though I do wish the photos in the gallery offerings were given more screen space to allow you to really get a better look at them. Fans who own the original 2004 DVD will bemoan the Blu-ray packaging – the DVD set’s handsome slipcase has been replaced by a cheap cardboard box – both otherwise all of the DVD contents have carried over to Blu-ray and then some.
So if you love The World at War, and already own the 2004 DVD, is it worth upgrading to Blu-ray? Well... that really depends. Because of the issues listed above, the series just doesn’t benefit as much from the HD upgrade as other vintage film and TV material, though there is an improvement. Still, I suspect that at least some fans will be displeased that the original 4x3 aspect ratio wasn’t maintained – possibly disappointed enough to avoid this set altogether. The World at War benefits in many ways from this appearance on Blu-ray, but it’s probably going to be a tough sell for most consumers, especially with an SRP of $150. If you’re still interested, and you don’t object to the reframing to 16x9, I’d suggest that you look for a very handsome discount... and keep your expectations grounded. But diehard fans of the series will probably still wish to keep the 2004 DVD release to retain a copy of its original aspect ratio presentation. Ultimately, my preference would be that Fremantle Media and A&E/New Video would re-release this title on Blu-ray in a version that preserves the original 4x3 aspect ratio. Not only would this be truer to the original TV presentation fans remember, but I suspect it would also improve – at least in small measure – the image clarity and resolution as well. While they’re at it, maybe they could bring back that nice 2004 DVD slipcase too.
- Bill Hunt