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DVD Review: World War I in Color

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World War I, overly optimistically called "the war to end all wars," not only did not succeed in ending all wars, it marked the beginnings of new kinds of warfare, new kinds of tactics, new kinds of weapons, new means of destruction. World War I in Color is an historical documentary that combines vintage footage, expert commentary, and eyewitness testimony from combat veterans to paint a vivid picture of the horror and impact of that great conflict. It is now available in a three-disc DVD box set narrated by Kenneth Branagh from the British documentary team of Philip Nugus and Jonathan Martin.

The set includes six episodes of approximately an hour's length each on two discs and a third disc that contains bonus material including a long segment on "Tactics and Strategy," a short behind-the-scenes feature on the making of the series, biographical sketches of the major figures of the period, a general time line of events, and general facts. There is also a viewer's guide with historical background in a nine-page brochure. After a general introduction, the episodes focus on particular elements of the war: trench warfare in the second episode, the air war in the third, the naval battles in the fourth, then the Eastern front and finally the push towards victory and its consequences in November of 1918.

While this topical organization allows the viewer to focus attention on major themes it also does lead to some repetition, since the different elements are not always mutually exclusive. The air force's role in scouting for submarines, for example, is treated in both the third and fourth episode. So too is the air force role in scouting for the infantry holed up in trenches. Still, the overall value of the intensive presentation of each element makes up for some of the repetition. It is illuminating to see the development of something like an air force made up of rickety fighter planes barely able to get off the ground with any kind of a load to early sea planes and heavy bombers over the course of the war.

Concentrating on a specific facet of the war, such as the struggle at sea, at length in a single episode gives the viewer an excellent insight into the relation of that part to the whole. They can go into detail about things like development of air craft carriers, the effects of German u-boat attacks on merchant vessels in defiance of international law and the importance of strategic mishaps like Churchill's plan to open a new front in Turkey.

Of course, the main distinction between this documentary on the war and those that preceded it is the color. Under the guidance of expert historians, the promotional material tells us, the archival footage has been colorized to give a more realistic picture of what the situation was really like. Indeed, episodes begin by making the point visually over and over again. In general the color seems washed out, especially in comparison to the film of today's talking heads. There is, however, something off-putting about seeing this early footage in color. The quality of the film is, as is typical of the period, usually poor, and while we are more or less used to it in black and white, in color it more often than not comes across as artificial rather than realistic. I'm not sure but that it would have been a better idea to leave the original footage as it was.

Indeed, there is much in that footage that is worth seeing: Queen Victoria's funeral procession, Archduke Ferdinand's motorcade on the day of his assassination, the Red Baron preparing for flight, the young Winston Churchill, General Pershing arriving with the American troops, to say nothing of the soldiers in the trenches charging over the top and the ships sunk by German u-boats. Much of the material is devoted to the ordinary fighting man on both sides and the vicissitudes of life at the front: infantry mired in mud and infested with vermin, pilots setting out on missions knowing full well that most of them would not be coming back, prisoners marching, endlessly marching. Unfortunately, a lot of the shots are shown over and over again, so that after awhile they lose some of their impact. This is especially true if you watch all the episodes in a short time span.

Voiceover readings from contemporary letters, diaries, and memoirs as well as comments by veterans of the conflict still alive reflect on the overwhelming misery of the war with an intimacy that speaks volumes. When after all these years one centenarian questions how any God can allow the kind of devastation created by such a conflagration, the viewer has to ask that question as well. When another asks himself if it was all worthwhile, all the dreams lost, all the life sacrificed, the viewer has to ask as well. After all, the war to end all wars did not do the job. Young men and women are still dying, and as long as they are, it is essential to ask if it is all worthwhile.

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