|World War II in Color - The British Story|
|Written by Mel Odom|
|Monday, 08 May 2006|
“World War II In Color: The British Story” documents the Second World War in bright colors and vivid sound. Most viewers who do remember news footage of World War II from public school classes or snippets in other movies, recall those bits and pieces in black and white. In a way, showing the Second World War in black and white is fitting in the minds of a lot of people. After all, the issues the war was based on were black and white, good vs. evil. Of course, the student of political history will know that the answers for why the war came about only a generation after World War I are not that easy.
The DVD contains three television segments: “Darkest Hour,” “The Beginning of the End” and “Unknown Warriors.” All three pieces aired on British television; each segment has its own chapter headings. Rather than getting into the catalysts that began World War II, the DVD pushes into the human element of the war, relaying the viewpoints of several people who survived the war and others who died during different aspects of the conflict.
The narratives offered in the first two segments of the DVD are cobbled together from the journals and written words of people involved in the world-shaking conflict. John Thaw, who maintains a resonant tone that is pleasing and substantial, provides the narration in all three documentaries. However, the parts that draw the viewer in most closely during the horror of the destruction are the ones with voiceovers reading directly from letters, journals and diaries of the people who lived and died throughout the war. The voices for each of these pieces were deliberately chosen and ring true, as if the writers had stepped off the page to give the presentation.
The sights of the war are unbelievable. The death and destruction delivered during the attacks on Britain reach incredibly intimate levels when shown in color. The devastation and wreckage often shown in black and white films are more immediate in color. When the war is shown in black and white, it is somehow removed from the present world, as if those events happened so long ago they could never touch the viewer.
In addition to the visuals, the audio portions pumped through the surround sound system place the viewer at ground zero for many horrific events. In Chapter 1 of “Darkest Hour,” the sound immediately bursts from the main, center and rear speakers and subwoofer with the power of a large artillery gun. After a blistering attack, the crackle and snap of the flames roll through the main and center speaker(s), making the viewer feel as though he or she has a front row seat to all the carnage.
In Chapter 2, George VI and Queen Elizabeth take a tour through London’s streets. The audience’s reaction to the royal duo echoes through the main speakers while the voiceover of the journal entry rolls through the center speaker(s). The passage of the tires over the street rolls from the left main to the right main.
Chapter 4 shows the preparations made by the London populace, especially the building of bomb shelters, as protection from German air raids. The bird sounds in the background, played through the front speakers, come across as incongruous. Later, as children file into the air raid shelters during a practice drill, the music overlays the actions and underscores the innocent nature of the children against the harsh realities of the war. One of the starkest images in this section is of a little girl pulling on a gas mask that renders her inhuman in appearance. Adults were trained to combat lingering gas attack effects with water hoses, and the sluice of the spray under the voiceover on the center speaker(s) is subtle yet jarring.
During a radio speech broadcast in Chapter 5, a passing truck winds through the mains to the center speaker(s), then fades out through the mains again. Another striking sight is the setting sun over the Thames River, segueing into the pounding thunder of train tracks in the next section. The voices of soldiers roll in the mains as the excellent and moving narration continues through the center speaker(s).
When the ship moves out of the harbor with the soldiers aboard in Chapter 6, a narrator reads the letter written by a young soldier at the time. The soldier talks about the young man that stood in the ship’s bow and played “Auld Lang Syne” on his trumpet. The viewer hears the clear, heartbreaking notes of the trumpet piece through the mains as the narration unfolds.
Chapter 7 talks about the unsettling pro-German marches of Oswald Mosley’s Black Shirts of London. As the narrator speaks through the center speaker(s), the mains carry the sound of the band and the marching steps, making the viewer feel as though he or she is in the middle of the street.
The crackle of flames filling the bombed buildings in Chapter 8 issues through the main and rear speakers, pulling us in and making us feel as though we are at ground zero after the blitz. The roll of artillery touches the subwoofer, sounding distant but not far enough away.
The war escalates in the last half of the presentation. In Chapter 10, the viewer is treated the sounds of explosions that destroy a nearby ship, as well as continued explosions and hungry flames that devour the city. Chapter 12 heralds the evacuation of the children from London to the countryside. The sound of the youthful voices reading the letters written by those evacuated children is wrenching, accompanied by a musical score through the mains that resonates with the loss.
Chapters 14 through 16 show the air war being fought over Britain at the time. The speakers carry the droning rumble of the airplane engines through the main and rear speakers, while the center broadcasts the moving narration. Explosions, alarm klaxons and the crackling boom of anti-aircraft guns punctuate the sound of airplane engines. When the war at sea is featured in Chapter 16, the crash of waves breaking over the ship’s bows punches through the main and rear speakers, while the voiceover of the letter from a young sailor lost at sea is read.
Chapter 19 focuses on the rescue squads working within London after a devastating attack. Mobile diners roll out to the site. As the narrator keeps the account of the events moving, the voices of the rescue crews working the site issue from the mains as the surround sound puts the viewer again on the front line.
The war front in Algeria is covered in Chapter 20. The clank of the trucks and tanks rolling through the city streets comes from the mains as the narrator describes the events. More voices, all distinctive, read from letters and journals from the people that were there. Later glimpses of the war show the arrival of half-tracks plowing through the water after transport boats put them within striking distance of the beaches. Through all of these events, the drone of planes, the chatter of machine guns and anti-aircraft guns and artillery, the whipping snarl of flames, and the crashing thunder of the half-tracks and tanks continue unabated. One of the most memorable voiceover sequences is delivered by an Irish accent that stands out from the English voices doing most of the reading.
The second part of the presentation, “The End of the Beginning,” reveals more fronts of the Second World War, as well as events unfolding back in England. As in the last section, the startling imagery and surround sound delivery is highlighted by excellent narration and voiceovers reading from journals, diaries and letters.
Chapter 2 moves the recounting of the war effort along at a rapid pace, mixing the sounds of the war machinery as well as cheering from crowds and soldiers in those places. The heartbreaking sight of the ship City of Mandalay sinking after being attacked by a German U-boat stands out in this chapter. Film footage of the disaster was shot as the rescue ships sailed into position, only to arrive too late.
The shipboard battle sequences continue through this chapter, punctuated with the full-throated roar of anti-aircraft guns trying to repel a devastating German air assault. The detonations in the sea from near misses explode from the mains, made even more mind-numbing by the huge spumes of water that leap skyward.
In the third year of the war now, Britain finds herself running low of iron and steel to manufacture bombs and bullets. As a result, teams are sent throughout London to scour for metals that can be salvaged and used in weapons production. The narrator describes the efforts and the voiceovers describe the desperation and sense of loss through the center speaker, while cutting torches blaze and hiss through the mains. Decorative railings drop and clang against the streets below as the teams work nonstop.
Chapter 3 covers the training of British pilots in the United States, including Tulsa, Oklahoma. Several candid bits of film footage accompany the British pilots’ letters home, allowing a very human view of what the times were like then. Homage is paid to the Spitfires and their pilots during the battles in the Mediterranean. The sounds of the machines and weapons underscore the brave words of the pilots who fought those battles. Later on, the focus shifts to Eastern Europe and the efforts of the bomber squads that braved death on a daily basis. Amid the thunder and crash of the bombs dropping on Berlin, we hear more voiceovers of communications from pilots and crew who made it back safely, as well as from those who never returned, giving the viewer an idea of what the war was like in yet more arenas.
The battle in Algiers leads up to a strike into Italy. The clank of tank and half-track treads pounds into Italy as more letters and diary accounts are read in between poignant narration. Machine gun fire becomes a steady background noise.
Chapter 4 takes the viewer back to London. American pilots and machines arrive to help the beleaguered city battle the air attack. However, the mix between the two allies doesn’t go smoothly. The Americans came into London with more money and with “Hollywood good looks and mannerisms” and attracted more than a few British women. Still, the camaraderie that existed between the two groups of men is apparent in the film footage, and underscored by swing music of the time.
Chapter 5 moves the focus back to the battleships and aerial battles, mixing the dramatic film footage with emotional readings. Chapter 6 provides more of the same, as the war coverage shifts to Burma, with an underscore of bagpipes and drums.
The segment titled “Unknown Warriors” is remarkable. The first two installments cover the war in such detail and emotion that the viewer wonders what can be left for another production. In the third episode, earlier scenes are revisited while interviewing the authors of some of those letters and journals chronicling the dangerous bit of history unveiled in the first two programs.
One of the best parts of the presentation comes when the authors begin reading the original documents, then are supplanted by the readers the viewer is familiar with from the earlier shows. This continuity is very moving, showing how the lives of those survivors has changed. In the interviews, the viewer sees how those remarkable individuals fared and what became of them.
The special features included on the DVD offer even more footage that was not aired in the original airings. These sections don’t always have narration, but they are striking because the viewer who has already seen the three episodes has a good idea of what would be said, and what was going through the minds of the people involved. The sections that do have narration are interesting and informative, made even more so because the viewer has the opportunity to listen to the clipped, professional, non-emotional delivery of the media people responsible for those productions.
The “Letters and Diaries” section offers more insight into additional people. Again, one of the most striking bits about these pieces is the selection of genuine-sounding voice actors and actresses. The timeline is another generous section of the DVD, offering a lean overview of the war movement that is coupled with a more in-depth, humanistic approach. There are also several clips of original film highlighting news stories of the day, such as the various war declarations by the different countries. These sections also tie back into the original three programs. The British war posters are terrific as well, offering the art styles of the time, as well as the reserved British sense of humor.
“World War II In Color: The British Story” is an excellent package for the collector interested in the Second World War. Byte for byte, this is a veritable cornucopia of information, sights, and sounds offered for casual perusal. The DVD would be a great addition to teachers or writers who want to dive more deeply into the everyday life of the war. Anyone simply wanting to assuage curiosity about what the war really looked like in color would find this DVD a favorable rental. “Schindler’s List” was filmed in black and white because most people remember the war that way from all the stock news footage still offered today. But “World War II In Color: The British Story” may be one of the first DVD packages to change that perception.