Wednesday, January 27, 2010


It was a different era, when the entire American media and political establishment recognized the fate of the world depended on an Allied victory. Thanks to advances in technology, WWII would also be the first war extensively documented on film. Even though color stock was available, most of the familiar video images of the war were recorded on cheaper black-and-white film, for newsreels and the like. However, a surprising amount of color stock was used by military cameramen, recording reels of archival footage that remained virtually unseen for decades. Scouring film vaults and military museums around the world, the History Channel tracked down a wealth of color film which they restored, preserved, and eventually assembled in a ten hour documentary special. Following its five night November premiere on the History Channel, WWII in HD (trailer here) is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.

WWII in HD is billed as an effort to make the war more immediate and accessible to contemporary audiences through high definition color images. However, it is driven by compelling narratives that track the course of twelve diverse Americans through the war. Some are relatively well known like war correspondent Richard Tregaskis, whose Guadalcanal Diary is still recognized a classic of war reportage. Others are less celebrated but lived no less interesting lives, like infantryman Roscoe “Rockie” Blunt, an aspiring jazz drum that fought in the Battle of the Bulge and helped liberate a German concentration camp.

Although there is a surfeit of video footage for today’s wars (nearly all of which being in color), it is doubtful the same abundance of primary sources—diaries, memoirs, and original letters—will be available to future archivists, post-e-mail. It is a shame, because despite often coming from mean circumstances, each of the twelve profiled individuals are quite eloquent describing their war experiences in letters home, likely conscious these could be their final recorded words.

While WWII in HD covers both theaters, it might somewhat favor the Pacific, where color film was in greater use among military cameramen. Considering how much more attention has generally been given to the European front, particularly the D-Day invasion in films like Saving Private Ryan and The Longest Day, WWII in HD offers some valuable perspective, pointing out American losses were greater at Okinawa than Normandy. This is a case where color probably better captures the inhuman conditions endured by the American forces, while facing an enemy whose strategy was to inflict as much pain as they possibly could.

Though many of the interview subjects eschew the term “Greatest Generation,” WWII in HD generally supports that honorific. Each of the focal characters was fully committed to victory, including the journalists. Clearly emotionally invested in the men he covered, Time-Life war correspondent Robert Sherrod, as voiced by actor Rob Lowe, asserts: “these guys feel like family to me after what we went through on Tarawa.”

WWII in HD is very well put together, featuring some remarkable visuals, but especially sensitive viewers should be warned some scenes are notably graphic, including footage of liberated concentration camps and the mass suicides of Japanese civilians at Okinawa. Throughout, clearly rendered maps and Gary Sinise’s authoritative but sensitive voice give it all cohesion (and the actor also brings a great deal of credibility with military audiences, having often toured USOs with his Captain Dan Band and serving as executive producer of Brothers at War, a sympathetic portrait of soldiers in Iraq and their families at home).

Respectful and informative, WWII in HD will definitely give viewers a visceral sense of WWII fighting conditions, particularly in the Pacific. Effectively marrying words and images, it is also a frequently moving tribute to the Americans who served in harm’s way. Happily, cable-free households can now catch up with it on DVD.