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In going through my decaying collection of videotapes, looking to dispose of as many space-hogging VHS tapes as I can, I came across the VHS tapes I made of The Great War, when the PBS National feed broadcast it on Saturdays in July 2000. Technically great, this four part documentary series looks at World War One through the writings of eyewitnesses and the use of rarely seen film footage (probably from the Imperial War Museum's film archives). In the prologue to the closing episode, War Without End, the narrator reads excerpts from journalist's Stephen Graham's report after touring the battlefields of Europe in 1920. He described the goals of the soldiers from the different warring nations, one goal he said was "a victory for humanity," all ended by what happened at Versailles. Then, Graham wrote that it was "night again in human history, deep night" with a "succession of phantoms stalking" Europe. Recent events, including the bombings in London, show that Graham's stalking phantoms are still with us.
This series makes harsh judgments of many of the protagonists in the war and it does not gloss over the horrors of the war. Footage of a line of soldiers on crutches or using canes, all missing legs, is not the sort of unsettling stuff you usually see in a documentary. The effort that went into this production has had no effect on PBS, which has not rebroadcast the series since 2000 and has let the series VHS 4 tape set(list priced at a high $100.00) go out of print. The website for this series seems to be active, so maybe PBS will license out The Great War for a DVD release. With some effort and using plenty of my time, I transferred my VHS tapes of the series to DVDR. The political climate at PBS now militates against that group of bureaucrats re-releasing an anti-war documentary, even one as well done as 1996's The Great War. If PBS ever shows this documentary series again, it is recommended viewing, though is can be depressing at times describing the horrors of World War One and the incompetence of the government and military leaders then.
--- 28November2008: A British bittorrent index site, UKNova, has for few days more the UK version of this series, 1914-18, in XviD file format. As a member, I downloaded the files. BBC4 showed this series as part of its programming for Ninety Years of Remembrance 1914-1918. Someone transcoded six of the seven parts of this series from these broadcasts, and uploaded them to UKNova. The final episode, Legacy, came from a previous broadcast on UKTV history channel. The Legacy episode upload of the BBC4 version got lost in cyberspace. Having gone through some of the broadcasts, my opinion is that Salome Jens did a much better job as narrator than Judi Dench. Jens' commentary did not attract attention to itself, it sounded like an observer, not a teacher. In addition, the KCET version ended better with two episodes, Hatred and Hunger (E07) and War Without End (E08), not one episode as the BBC did, with Legacy (E07). If Walt Disney can finally release Dr. Syn on DVD, then maybe KCET can pony up the money from contributors to get The Great War on DVD. A grim documentary series on dark events in the world, something we are all too familiar with.
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