As one of the most pivotal events in American and World history, there is no shortage of documentaries and films based on World War II. In 2007, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick debuted The War on PBS, a six-part 15-hour epic that explained the War through the stories of the men who fought it and the people who waited for them to return home. From the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor to Japan’s 1945 surrender after two atomic bombs killed roughly 250,000 of Japan’s citizens, we are given personal perspectives on all aspects of the conflict. As stated at the beginning of each episode, World War II was far too epic a conflict to be well chronicled in a single accounting. In an effective move, the war is explored through the experiences of four American towns: Sacramento, California; Luverne, Minnesota; Waterbury, Connecticut; and Mobile, Alabama.
There are many moments that require Burns to break away from individual stories in favor of providing historical context. The newsreel footage used on these occasions is remarkable to watch. Several image sticks in my mind, days after seeing them: video footage of soldiers lying dead in the water on Pearl Harbor, men floating in the ocean, dead before they reached the beach, during the Normandy invasion. We see Japanese women on the island of Saipan jumping to their death rather than be taken prisoner by Americans. Brutal yes, but it all helps to show just how costly this war was.
Narrated by Keith David, he does a wonderful job of taking viewers through the stock footage and photographs. Speaking with solemn authority, he never tries to rise above the images on the screen. Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Eli Wallach, Josh Lucas, and Adam Arkin are a few of the well known names who lend their voices to read the words of reporters, and soldiers as they wrote them during the war.
Divided into seven episodes, The War begins with “A Necessary War,” which covers events between the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December, 1941, through December 1942. Industry boomed as the American military was quickly mobilized. Early events in the war, such as the Bataan Death March, the American victory at Midway, the bloody battle at Guadalcanal, the thousands of civilians imprisoned in Manila, Philippines, and the Internment of the Japanese Americans along the West Coast of the United States are detailed.
The second episode, “When Things Get Tough,” shifts the focus to look at the tremendous ground battles and bombing raids against German held positions. Having launched a major offensive on the outskirts of Nazi held territory in Northern Africa, American forces are badly beaten in the early days, but things would begin to change with the arrival of General George S. Patton and better prepared troops. Patton began to push the Germans back into Europe from Africa. The episode also looks at how American towns such as Mobile, Alabama created entire industries to support the war effort. Tens of thousands of jobs were created overnight, turning these formerly sleepy towns into bustling industrial centers.
In “A Deadly Calling,” the press becomes a big part of the war as reporters for Life and other magazines begin publishing photos of the carnage. Movie theaters began to show government-approved video clips of the Italian campaign. Americans became very aware of the brutality of the war, and the casualties that were occurring. The bloody and hard fought battles of Anzio and Cassino are discussed. Meanwhile, in the Pacific, the war effort against the Japanese Empire continues, with a key battle over the small island of Tarawa. In America, the story of Japanese interment and racial tension continues, even as every able-bodied individual is needed to contribute toward the war effort.
The fourth episode, “Pride of Our Nation” deals with D-Day and the Normandy invasion. The invasion is mapped out and detailed, as survivors share their experiences; recounting what happened when they finally reached beach and the expected push to Berlin began. The Americans had expected to move fairly quickly through France, but it would take a couple months before France was finally liberated from the German army. In the Pacific, the difficult battle of Saipan is covered. Also discussed is the willingness of both Japanese soldiers and civilians to give their lives for their country without reservation.
“FUBAR” (translation: “F’d up beyond all Recognition”) begins in mid-1944 with the Allies under the assumption that the war in Europe would be over by Christmas. That would turn out to be a dream, as Operation Market Garden, designed to win the war in weeks, would take months to complete. In Japan, the Battle of Pelieliu resulted in over 1,500 American deaths and proved to be tactically unnecessary. Thought to be the largest naval engagement in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf is fought.
The sixth episode, “The Ghost Front” finds us at the end of 1944, with fighting still raging in both Europe and Japan, despite some major victories by the Allies. In the Pacific, the bloody battles on Iwo Jima and Tinian, are discussed, as is the fact that Japanese soldiers would rather commit suicide or swim out to sea to avoid capture. In Europe, Hitler planned a bold counter-attack in the Ardennes Forest to slow, or prevent, the Allied advance. He intended to push westward, cut north, and drive the Allies out of Europe and into the sea. However, by now, the German military was spread too thin; low on men, materials and weaponry. The result, a bloody, battle fought in frigid temperatures, would come to be known as “The Battle of the Bulge.”
The final segment, “A World Without War,” looks at the heavy toll the war was having on everyone. U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who had seen America through its darkest days, would die suddenly on April 12, 1945. In Europe, Hitler committed suicide deep in his bunker, with quickly-advancing Soviet forces to the east and Western forces coming in from the west: Germany had no other option but to surrender. Roosevelt’s successor, Harry S. Truman, would make a decision that would forever change modern warfare and change the world’s power structure. The use of the two atomic bombs that brought about Japan’s surrender is discussed. As soldiers returned home, the jubilance was tempered by the knowledge that hundreds-of- thousands of Americans had lost their lives in the conflict.
Given the archival nature of much of the footage, this 1.78:1, 1080p transfer isn’t exactly gorgeous stuff. However, the newer interview, shot in the mid-2000’s look warm and pleasing. While skin tones appear a bit on the shiny side, it doesn’t distract from the presentation. Black levels are consistent, and we even get some fine detail despite the various source materials used for the documentary.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes do a workman-like job, but don’t expect to be blown away. While the track can be called enveloping, and presents dialogue and effects well, the home theater snob in me wishes Paramount had included a lossless option.
English SDH subtitles are included.
The following special features are available:
- Audio Commentaries: Ken Burns and Lynn Novick discuss Episode One, A Necessary War; and Episode Four, Pride of Our Nation.
- Making The War (480p, 36:24): Burns, Novick, and others give their thoughts on the conflict. They also discuss the reasons for making this documentary and the process of creating it, including choosing the four towns featured in the film, the benefits of the approach, interviewing veterans, interviewing the subjects, assembling and organizing archival footage, mixing the film’s sound effects, and crafting the score.
- Deleted Scenes (480p, 44:18): War Correspondents, Attacks on Aachen and Metz, Flies, Al McIntosh on Sacrifice, Sid Phillips Writes Home, Order 9066, Breaking Out of the Hedgerows, War Town, Wax Work, Jim Thomas Dies, Fussell Kills, The Old Country, Operation Cobra, Sam Hynes on Okinawa, Inouye’s Lucky Dollar, Returning Fathers, and Sascha Comes Home.
- Additional Interviews (480p, 55:26): Quentin Aanenson, Asako Tokuno, Barbara Covington, Joe Medicine Crow, Paul Fussell, Tom Galloway, John Gray, Sam Hynes, Daniel Inouye, Sascha Weinzheimer, Jim Sherman, Burnett Miller, Bill Lansford, and Katherine Phillips.