In their ongoing documentation of the history of the United States, Ken Burns and his team created The War, a seven-part, approximately 15-hour miniseries about World War II that aired on PBS in 2007. More than 16 million American men and women would serve in uniform during the war, each one with a story to tell, so the focus had to be narrowed. As stated in titles, “The Second World War was fought in thousands of places, too many for any one accounting. This is the story of four American towns and how their citizens experienced that war.” While others take part, it is people from Luverne, Minnesota; Mobile, Alabama; Sacramento, California; and Waterbury, Connecticut whose memories and reflections provide the documentary’s main narrative. It’s this approach that makes these well-known, oft-told events so engrossing and enlightening because the big stories we know are augmented by the smaller stories most of us don’t.
For example, the story of Glenn Downing Frazier from Mobile begins during the summer of 1941 when he was just 16. One night he tore up a bar because of a broken heart. Embarrassed by his actions, he signed up for the army, volunteering for the Philippines because he thought it would be safe since the Germans were fighting throughout Europe. He soon learned how wrong that decision was after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. The archival films and photography of the attack on Pearl Harbor still resonate with great power, and it is made personal by the eyewitness account of Senator Daniel Inouye, who was 17 at the time. Frazier would later suffer through the Bataan Death March and said if he had known what he was going to suffer through he would have chosen death. His description of what was endured is truly stunning as he recounts the depth of depravity encountered.
The documentary states that “by the end of 1942, after a year in the war, more than 35,000 American in uniform had died,” but they weren’t the only ones who the war exacted a serve toll. Those they left behind also paid a steep price. Olga Ciarlo reads a letter sent to her brother on his 21st birthday. Twenty-two days later, the family got telegram, stating that he likely died eight days before that momentous birthday. Olga is still pained by his loss over 60 years later.
While major victories are covered, such as the liberation of Paris, the Battle of Iwo Jima, the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the documentary thankfully doesn’t white wash history. Though dubbed “the greatest generation” by Tom Brokaw, some of those same people saw and did nothing about African Americans being unable to “eat at the counter in Woolworth,” as was the experience of John Gray, one of the first African Americans in the U.S. Marine Corps. They also allowed Japanese Americans to be rounded up into internment camps. Even more brutal and disillusioning to the American idea is how members of both minorities, those who risked their lives for the country and the world, still suffered racism when they returned home.
The War on Blu-ray has been given a 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encoded transfer displayed at an aspect ratio of 1.78:1. A documentary such as this has a wide variety of sources, from pristine modern-day interviews shot with HD cameras to archival material of film and photos in varying conditions. Some of the latter naturally shows a great deal of grain and degradation, but their historical significance trumps all in telling the story as authentically as possible.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 is more than adequate. The voices of interview subjects; narrator Keith David; and actors like Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Eli Wallach, who provided voices from the past; are quite clear, centered in the mix, and balanced with the music and effects. The sound design that brings the war to life augments the visuals well. Weapons and explosions fill the surrounds and receive very good support from the LFE.
The Blu-ray contains bonus material. Ken Burns and producer/co-director Lynn Novick recorded audio commentaries for Episode One, “A Necessary War;” and Episode Four, “Pride of Our Nation.” Burns, Novick, and others discuss “Making The War” (SD, 36 min) and how they wanted to tell the story from the bottom up. As previously alluded to, WWII is too vast for one project to cover everything. For those who want more, Burns includes material accumulated for the project that didn’t make the final cut in Deleted Scenes (SD, 44 min) and Additional Interviews (SD, 55 min).
The War is a valuable addition to history and Burns’ oeuvre, and the Blu-ray delivers a satisfying high-def presentation. Highly recommend for history buffs.