On November 16, 2010, A&E Home Entertainment released The World at War, a nine-disc box set which presented the internationally-renowned 26-part British television documentary about the Second World War. Restored and remastered by Fremantle (the British multinational TV production company that makes American Idol, America’s Got Talent, and Family Feud) for high definition rebroadcasts and home media, the 1973-74 series covers major events of the bloodiest and largest conflict in history through film clips (many of them in color), interviews with veterans and other eyewitnesses, and narration by Sir Laurence Olivier.
Originally produced by Britain’s Thames Television (which was absorbed into Fremantle in 2003) under the supervision of Jeremy Isaacs (now Sir Jeremy Isaacs), The World at War was a natural follow-on to the BBC’s 1964 series The Great War, which told the story of the First World War. However, Isaacs disagreed with the BBC’s approach, which consisted of a blend of actual period footage and dramatizations of historical events.
Instead, the producer of what was then the most expensive TV documentary (£900,000 in 1969, £15,195,863.82 in 2021 GBP) opted for a totally-authentic approach that called for the use of film footage from the archives of all the major warring powers, including Germany, Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union and interviews with some of the surviving political and military leaders (including the younger generals and officers at the staff and field level, since most of the senior leaders of WWII were by then dead or too old to be interviewed).
Isaacs knew that the war is too vast and complicated a topic; not even 26 hours of television airtime (including commercial breaks) is enough to cover every campaign, battle, or major personalities. After consulting with Noble Frankland, then the director of the Imperial War Museum, Isaacs decided to cover 15 decisive campaigns and battles, with the rest of the episodes devoted to such specific topics as the rise of Hitler in Germany, life in occupied Europe, day-to-day life inside the Third Reich, and the Holocaust.
The series consists of 26 main episodes:
- A New Germany (1933-1939)
- Distant War (September 1939-May 1940)
- France Falls (May-June 1940)
- Alone (May 1940-May 1941)
- Barbarossa (June-December 1941)
- “Banzai!”: Japan (1931-1942)
- On Our Way: USA (1939-1942)
- The Desert: North Africa (1940-1943)
- Stalingrad (June 1942-February 1943)
- Wolf Pack: U-Boats in the Atlantic (1939-1944_
- Red Star; The Soviet Union (1941-1943)
- Whirlwind: Bombing Germany (September 1939-April 1944)
- Tough Old Gut: Italy (November 1942-June 1944)
- It’s a Lovely Day Tomorrow: Burma (1942-1944)
- Home Fires: Britain (1940-1944)
- Inside the Reich: Germany (1940-1944)
- Morning (June-August 1944)
- Occupation: Holland (1940-1944)
- Pincers (August 1944-March 1945)
- Genocide (1941-1945)
- Nemesis: Germany (February-May 1945)
- Japan (1941-1945)
- Pacific (February 1942-July 1945)
- The Bomb (February-September 1945)
- Reckoning (April 1945…and After)
There were also several The World at War specials that aired after the series’ original broadcast run of October 31,1973-May 8, 1974 or were created for home media releases, including the VHS/laserdisc editions of the 1990s, the DVD release of 2001, and this 2010 Blu-ray release . They are:
- “The Making of the Series: The World at War”
- “Secretary to Hitler – Traudl Junge”
- “From War to Peace – Professor Stephen Ambrose”
- “Warrior – Reflections of Men at War”
- “Hitler’s Germany: The People’s Community (1933–1939)”
- “Hitler’s Germany: Total War (1939–1945)”
- “The Two Deaths of Adolf Hitler”
- “The Final Solution: Part One”
- “The Final Solution: Part Two”
- “Making of the Series – A 30th Anniversary Retrospective”
- “Experiences of War”
- “Restoring the World at War”
Although I own the 2004 A&E Home Entertainment DVD edition that presents a remastered (for standard definition TV, anyway) presentation that preserves The World at War’s original 1.33::1 aspect ratio and has all of the content listed above, I also have the Blu-ray set Fremantle and A&E Home Entertainment issued in 2010. I did so for two reasons. First, as good as the DVD looks on a modern high-definition TV (HDTV set), I love the sharper detail of the 2K images contained on a 1080p Blu-ray disc.
Second, the DVD does not have subtitles, nor does it have closed captions. I’m hard of hearing, so I always watch movies and TV shows that I own on DVD or Blu-ray with the subtitles on. I can watch the DVDs of The World at War, but I have to turn up the volume to a level that I can hear but will disturb the other people I share the house with.
For the most part. The 2010 Blu-ray set is a 95% successful upgrade from one visual format to another. However, because Fremantle remastered The World at War not only for the home media market but also for the rebroadcast rights around the world, the company decided to change the aspect ratio from 1.33:1 to 1.78:1, to better fit modern widescreen televisions.
If you are one of the people who are inconsolable about Fremantle’s decision to reframe this release in 16:9, you should probably stop reading now, as nothing I can say will change your mind about the worthiness of this release. As I mention in some detail above, I feel your pain, I really do. I have always argued for original aspect ratios on home video releases, especially when a lot of early days panning and scanning was so clumsily handled. But for those of you who are keeping an open mind, let’s move on.
The World at War is simply a marvel, a benchstone, of restoration, delivered via an AVC codec in 1080p and, yes. 1.78:1. Let’s get the framing issues out of the way first. Would it have been better to have had this series in 1.33:1? Probably. But business being what it is, and Fremantle’s need to recoup their very substantial restoration costs by relicensing this series for broadcast made the 16:9 decision inevitable. What is striking about this reframing is how carefully it was done, at least for the most part.
As the restoration featurette shows quite clearly, this was not an automated situation where the original 1.33:1 image was simply blown up to become 1.78:1. Actual people, not machines, supervised this process, often frame by frame, making sure the salient information was kept in the image. For about 95% of the time, this effort is largely commendable. Unfortunately, the contemporary interview segments do look rather silly, with up to one quarter of any given individual’s forehead and/or chin lopped off the image. In perhaps a less important issue, the opening Thames TV logo now cuts the top of the spire off of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But otherwise, the framing has been handled spectacularly smartly.
That having been said, this adjustment in aspect ratio was not popular among viewers, so Fremantle – at least in the British market – reissued The World at War on DVD and Blu-ray in its original 1.33:1 ratio in 2016. Unfortunately for the North American consumer, unless you have a multi-region Blu-ray player that can handle discs coded for the PAL European standard (the B discs), this 2010 set will have to suffice until that happy day when Fremantle releases the 4K UHD Blu-ray edition.
Still, The World at War is still a powerful – if a bit incomplete – account of World War II that was made at a time when historians looked at the period’s events with some objectivity and many of its participants and eyewitnesses were available for interviews.
Although the series was hampered by the limitations of the television medium and the fact that the breaking of the German Enigma code was not made public until after the series completed its original run on ITV in early 1974, The World at War is still one of the best history-themed series to date, partly because of its excellent production values, but mostly because Sir Jeremy Isaacs and his team attempted to be fair and balanced in their coverage of the war.
The World at War contains no dramatizations, no overt attempt to pass judgment, and no revisionism or attempt to present World War II through the extremes of nostalgia on one hand and the imposition of 1970s cynicism on the other.
Instead, the series strives to engage viewers and asks them to make their own minds based on what the series shows. In the case of the episode “Occupation,” the viewer is challenged to think about what he or she would have done during the Nazi occupation of a country such as Holland. In “Whirlwind,” the episode about the Allied bombing of Germany, not only are there interviews with the British and American bomber crews that dropped the bombs, but also with German survivors of the air raids.
If you can get past the altered aspect ratio issue and are interested in seeing this landmark TV documentary series, I eagerly recommend it.