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Rewinding World War II

May 2024
6min read

One of every four American homes is now said to house a video cassette recorder. Mine became one of them last winter. A VCR takes some getting used to. I still find myself watching a good program and muttering that somebody should invent a way to record such things, only to remember too late that all I have to do is push the right button; my jumble of homemade tapes—what the merchandisers hope I’ll call my video library—includes the last halves of a lot of shows. I have had better luck renting prerecorded tapes at my local store, though that has its hidden dangers too; revisiting favorite old movies can be disillusioning. Citizen Kane holds up, but have you seen La Dolce Vita lately? Or Abe Lincoln in Illinois? Or even She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I paid to see seven times on its first go-round in 1949?

Historical documentaries have largely been overlooked by the companies that package and sell cassettes, and rental stores rarely stock them, because the demand has been so small. The pickings are still slim for anyone seriously interested in history on film, but prospects have lately begun to brighten—provided you are willing to purchase rather than rent.

There are some 9,000 titles listed in the latest encyclopedic cassette catalog from Video Shack—not counting porno films, of the making of which there is evidently no end. Of that 9,000, just 222 are listed as “documentaries,” and a good many of those sound as if they’d been drawn from the table of contents of The National Enquirer : a full-color compilation of “the greatest car-racing accidents of all time”; Am I Normal? , a sex-education film meant to comfort pubescent boys; The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena , including “actual footage of ghosts”; and Alien from Spaceship Earth , which “raises the question: Are we being invaded from outer space? And can we defend ourselves?”


Only seventy-odd of these documentaries can be said to have much to do with history. There are a few distinguished films here, including The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’s shrewd dissection of France during the Occupation, but they are buried among cassettes that spin paranoid theories about the murders of Lincoln and the Kennedys and an alarming profusion of ghoulish treatments of the Nazis—including one simply called War Atrocities, which more than makes good on its promise to offend “more sensitive viewers.”

But World War II is also the subject of three serious documentary series now available for home use. None of them is cheap—$19.95 to $29.95 per cassette. All three were originally made for broadcast television and are worth seeing. One is a masterpiece.

I was twelve years old when Victory at Sea was first shown on NBC in 1952. My parents had only recently bought our first TV set, so the series had a double fascination for me: it dramatized recent events in which I was already intensely interested, and it miraculously played them back for me in my own Chicago living room. As I settled back to watch the series again after thirty-three years, it all seemed wonderfully familiar at first: the moon’s shimmer on a black, tossing sea; the huge white V superimposed over it; the first swelling notes of Richard Rodgers’s celebrated score, played by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Robert Russell Bennett. The black-and-white combat footage, mostly made by U.S. Navy cameramen, is still compelling and crisply edited, but the overall impact of the programs has lessened with time. The narration, intoned by Leonard Graves, which 1 remembered as especially stirring, now seems portentous and overwrought: AND-UH NOW… RINGS AROUND RABAUL!… OPPOSING WARSHIPS CLOSE IN A DARKLING SEA, SWEPT WITH CONFUSED ALARMS OF STRUGGLE AND FLIGHT, WHERE IGNORANT NAVIES CLASH BY NIGHT! Except for Graves’s perfervid voice and the sporadic muffled sound of gunfire, music is all you hear. Sometimes it works wonderfully well, as when a lone violin accompanies film of a wounded American being tenderly passed down a blasted jungle hillside in a tableau that might have been painted by Caravaggio. But all too often the score is intrusive and weirdly inappropriate: sticks of bombs tumble from the sky to cheerfully plucked strings; peppy marches play as Marines use flamethrowers to incinerate Japanese soldiers crouching in their caves. The problem is not insensitivity, I think, so much as timing. Victory at Sea was made just seven years after victory has been won. There was as yet no room for ambivalence about any aspect of that triumph. The series remains an interesting artifact, less history than a vivid exercise in after-the-fact cheerleading.

World War Two with Walter Cronkite will also be familiar to television viewers of a certain age, though not under that name. It has been woven together out of programs from the admirable black-and-white The 20th Century series, first shown on CBS in the sixties. Walter Cronkite was the narrator then, and he has come out of his qualified retirement to act as host for the new version. His younger voice is clipped and vigorous; his current one, froggy and becalmed. Still, it’s good to see and hear him again. As always, he lends a reassuring allAmerican dignity to everything he describes; it is hard to worry too much about the menace of fascist Italy, for example, when Cronkite consistently calls its leader the “Doochy.” The episodes themselves are clear and straightforward, enough removed from the events they recount to reveal horror as well as heroism, leisurely enough to allow time for the human-scale details that are the only way most of us can begin to grasp what it was like to live through the fighting. In the segment called “Battleground Italy,” for example, the account of the muddled Allied decision to bomb Monte Cassino is brisk and unblinking; the cartoonist Bill Mauldin recalls the special enthusiasm with which GIs plied their mine detectors at Anzio, seeking to unearth barrels of Chianti; and a nurse remembers how she routinely told the most seriously wounded boys that she was their mother because that was who they desperately wanted her to be.

The World at War , a monumental British effort by Thames Television, was shown here in syndication a decade ago. It is one of the most ambitious television projects ever undertaken—twentysix hour-long programs meant to tell the whole complex story of the greatest war in history, East and West, Allied and Axis, military and political. The programs are remarkably successful and along the way manage to cover whole theaters of war with which most Americans are not familiar: Burma; occupied Europe; the Russian front (to which three full and harrowing hours are devoted). Battlefield film and newsreels from almost everywhere are used, but we are never allowed to lose sight of the fact that for all the drama and heroism displayed, World War II was a slaughter that left fifty-five million dead.

The elegiac tone is set even before the opening title of the first episode appears, as the camera slowly moves around and through the jagged, empty ruins of a little French village, the entire populace of which was murdered by the Germans on a single sunny afternoon in 1944, and it is quickly echoed by the titles themselves, which appear over a series of portraits of anonymous civilians, each face, in turn, bursting into flame to reveal the next.

Historical documentaries have been slighted by the companies that produce video cassettes, but prospects have begun to brighten.

The narration is unfailingly literate and understated, and it is spoken by Laurence Olivier. Famous actors often make disastrous narrators; frightened, perhaps, that they will not be fully appreciated by their public because they are not to be seen as well as heard, they overdo it, displaying their delivery at the expense of the script. Olivier knew better, understood that calling attention to himself would only detract from the huge, appalling story he had been asked to tell. He allowed himself just one actor’s indulgence in the whole series: in the seventh episode, “America Enters the War,” he clearly relishes reciting a bit of Yank doggerel that begins “We’re the battling bastards of Bataan” in his patented American accent, very heavy on the Rs. Otherwise his tone is measured, low-key, a little weary; the actions of the German leaders are described in the flat, frankly baffled tone a scientist might use to speak of the scurrying of some newly discovered insect species; the Nazis, it seems to say, were tireless, resilient, surprisingly strong, but busy on errands—the destruction of European Jewry, say, or the invasion of Russia—for which there are as yet no human explanations.

It is the war’s survivors, however—scores of them on every side and of every opinion—who are most eloquent. We see and hear from admirals and generals and statesmen, of course, and much of what they say is more revealing than they know: Lord Chandos, unable to conceal his distaste for the Cockney children sent to shelter with him during the blitz because they relieved themselves on his carpets; Karl Doenitz, deaf and old, bellowing the history of his submarines as if we were lined up before him on deck; Albert Speer expressing his languid regret at the beastly manners of the Nazis he had so enthusiastically served. But it is the less exalted men and women who remain most vividly in my mind: survivors of Auschwitz and the SS men who tormented them; Britons who endured the blitz and German veterans of the Allied bombing of Dresden; Kamikaze pilots and the Navy gunners who tried to shoot them down; Russian citizens of Stalingrad and the invaders who could not conquer them. There is no trendy revisionism here: the series leaves no doubt who had finally to win if civilization itself was to endure. But enough time had passed for its makers to recognize that the innocent suffered on both sides, and to face head-on the toughest issues raised by the war and its disillusioned aftermath, from the bomb to the betrayal of Eastern Europe’s hope for postwar independence.

Should anyone be interested in compiling a genuine video library of historical documentaries, The World at War seems to me to be the place to start. 1 came away from watching all its twentysix crowded hours feeling just as anyone does who has finished a fine book. I had been moved and informed, and I wished there were more.

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