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DVD Review: The World at War

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One of my pet peeves about television shows released on DVD is when the producers provide little, if any, bonus material. There's a lot to be said for being able to watch the third season of Happy Days whenever you want, I guess. But why pay for the whole season on video, when you aren't getting anything more than you'd see for free on television?

A lack of bonus material certainly isn't a problem for A&E's massive, 11-disc World at War boxed set. The 26-episode series takes up most of seven DVDs – leaving room for a whopping twelve hours of additional material, expanding on the landmark documentary programme and examining its impact.

The Second World War has been a television staple since the medium's early days, but The World at War, produced for Britain's Thames Television in 1973, set a standard which has never been met before or since. Narrated by Laurence Olivier, The World at War makes use of hours upon hours of archive footage – much of it in color – from all the major participants in that bloody war. The Nazis were masters of visual propaganda who filmed whatever they could, and some of the most fascinating and haunting scenes in The World at War came straight from Joseph Goebbels's dream factory.

The war had ended less than thirty years before The World at War was originally broadcast (to put that in perspective, 32 years have passed since the Americans left Vietnam), so the programme also featured hours of interviews with major players in the conflict, and ordinary citizens caught up in the maelstrom. It's striking, though not surprising, to see so many of the German participants insist they thought Hitler and the Nazis were mad all along – though a few remain unrepentant admirers.

The World at War mainly focuses on the European theater, but episode 22 deals with how the Japanese lived through the war. Hitler and the Nazis get most of the attention, and that's probably why it's so interesting to see footage from Japanese propaganda films, including a re-creation of the Pearl Harbor attack with Godzilla-quality special effects. It's even more startling to see Japanese schoolchildren, living under a cultish military dictatorship, being trained for battle when they were barely out of diapers.

Even though the series ran over 22.5 hours in length, the producers were still left with hours of material that didn't make it into the finished product. Several supplementary episodes were produced for the DVD compilation, and while the great Olivier was no longer available to narrate, the material appears worthy of the World at War name. In particular, the two-part documentary Hitler's Germany, showing how ordinary Germans (Nazi and anti-Nazi) lived from 1933 to 1945, is a compelling look at one of the most completely totalitarian societies in history.

As a Canadian, I think my country – which punched well above its weight during World War II – isn't given the attention it deserves in The World at War. (That's the story of our lives, isn't it?) But this important, compelling series provides little else to complain about.

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