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This long TV series, narrated by Robert Powell, whose tone expresses earnest and dispassionate interest, deals with World War II both in the East and West. I will now present you with a detailed history of the war in its entirety, along with an extensive psychoanalytic analysis of every person involved. Not just the principals but my Uncle Flory who was a corporal in the infantry, Hockey who was an aviation ordnanceman in the Navy, a German guy I met in a bar in Italy who had served in the Wehrmacht on the Russian front, and my father-in-law who was an air raid warden in Philadelphia. Not really.
Let's summarize it this way, just for the kids: Germany, Italy, and Japan start World War II around 1939. On the other side, the chief allies are Britain, Russia, and the USA. It was a terrible conflict. We won. I'll make just a few observations.
Some of the footage is familiar from black and white documentaries, but the colorization process has advanced since the earlier, crude attempts by Ted Turner and others. The viewer hardly notices the effects after a while.
It's interesting to compare the TV documentaries about the war from the perspective of their public appearance. In early series, like "Victory at Sea" (1952), only seven years after the end of the war, the enemy is still faceless and brutal. The insults may be subtle but palpable. Listen to the narrator's pronunciation of "the Japanese", with it's built-in sneer bespeaking disgust. Later, "The World At War" (1973) regards the war itself as appalling, an emotional experience as much as anything else. Olivier's narration is mournful. By the time of this documentary (2009), the war is treated as an awesome and terrible historic event, but one that can be looked at almost as moves in a geopolitical chess game. We still see corpses, the suffering of civilians, and we hear of the atrocities, but not nearly so often as earlier, and the narrator, Robert Powell, describes the goings on as if reading from a technical manual. The barely masked loathing of "Victory at Sea" is absent, and so are Olivier's tones of tired resignation.
The historical introduction to the beginning of the war in both theaters is nicely sketched in. And the description of events is sort of smoothed over and audience friendly. None of the battles is described in much detail. Controversy is avoided. Not much in the way of personalities either, except for a handful at the very top who are concisely introduced. If the Americans landed at Salerno and were saved from defeat only by naval gunfire -- well, "the Americans landed at Salerno." Did we bomb the fifth-century Benedictine monastery atop Monte Cassino, even though it was not occupied by German troops? Yes. "Out of desperation, the Allies bombed the monastery Monte Cassino" -- period. Did George Patton and Bernard Montgomery loathe each other? This space deliberately left blank.
The lacunae mask no essential points, but some of them are interesting or amusing in themselves. And, facing facts, some of the information left out is as important as what's left in. The "battle of Britain" is hardly mentioned. In Rommel's back-and-forth battles with the British across North Africa, not nearly enough emphasis is placed on logistics, which favored the Allied forces. They could be supplied through Egypt. Rommel, however, was dependent for the importing of essential supplies on one port, Tripoli. His fuel, food, water, replacements, and matériel passed through Tripoli. The supplies were shipped from Italy, a thousand miles across the Mediterranean Sea. Then, during Rommel's advances, they had to be schlepped across another thousand or more miles on a single desert road open to air attack. On top of that, the Brits had cracked the Italian naval code and knew when the transports would leave their ports in Italy. The transports were routinely sunk by Allied air and submarines, so virtually nothing was reaching Rommel. By the end, he was draining the fuel from some of his few remaining tanks in order to keep a handful of others operational.
The deciphering of Italy's naval code was kept so secret that in one instance an air attack was launched on a transport. The airplanes were already in sight of the target when it was discovered that the ship was carrying Allied POWs. The attack was never canceled. If it had been, it would have given away the game. I find details like these interesting. Maybe the producers did too but there simply wasn't room enough for them.
Some of the material not mentioned, like the American fighting spirit at Kasserine Pass, might just as well be forgotten. Overall, and considering the weight of the subject, it's quite well done.
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