Since its premiere on Britain’s ITV network in October 1973, Thames Television’s “The World at War” has been one of the most widely-seen documentaries about World War II. After the 26-part series completed its original one-season run on British TV, it was exported to the U.S. and over 100 other countries. It has never been off the air over the past 40 years, and it’s been available on various home video formats since the advent of videocassettes in the early 1980s.
“The World at War” first went digital with the 2004 “The World at War – 30th Anniversary” box set, an 11-DVD box set released in the U.S. by Fremantle Media and A&E Home video. In this collection, the first seven discs (or “volumes”) contain the 26 episodes of the documentary series. The other four DVDs in the set present “World at War” specials which were made from footage and interviews which were not used in the regular 52-minute episodes of the series’ one-season run.
Although the 2004 set lacks either subtitles for deaf or hearing impaired viewers and omitted the famous Thames Television logo that introduces each of the 26 episodes, it preserves the series’ original 1.33:1 aspect ratio. This is the original full screen format in which “The World at War” was filmed and shot, and the Dolby 2.0 stereo sound mix compensates for the lack of subtitles on TVs with decent audio systems.
The Blu-ray Set
With the standardization of high definition television, many movies and TV series previously released in standard definition video formats have also been remastered and even restored for Blu-ray and other HD media. “The World at War” is no different; in 2010, Fremantle Media and Thames decided to give the series a digital makeover after its 35th anniversary.
The current U.S, edition of “The World at War” Blu-ray set was released in November of 2010 by A&E Home Video under its History brand. The original pressing slipcover holds two multiple-disc jewel boxes; one houses Discs 1-5, the other contains Discs 6-9. The artwork on the slipcover and the jewel boxes is a reuse of the 2004 DVD set. (The newer PAL version for European HDTVs/Blu-ray players issued for the series’ 40th Anniversary has a sturdier slipcover and different cover art.)
The five discs in the first jewel case contain the following:
- 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 Strikes: 1931-1942
- On Our Way: U.S.A. 1939-1942
- The Desert: North Africa 1941-1943
- 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
The first five Blu-rays’ batch of extras includes:
- “The Making of the Series”
- Gallery of photos from the Imperial War Museum Collection
- Historical footage
- Famous songs, speeches, quotes, and maps
The case with Discs 6-9 contains the last two episodes of the series (Episodes 25-26):
- Reckoning: 1945…and After
Starting on Disc 6 (which also has the two episodes listed above), the 2010 Blu-ray set presents the following bonus documentaries:
- “Hitler’s Germany: 1932-1939”
- “Hitler’s Germany: 1939-1945”
- “Secretary to Hitler”
- “From War to Peace”
- “The Final Solution Part 1 and Part 2”
- “Making the Series: a 30th Anniversary Retrospective”
- “Experiences of War”
- “Restoring ‘The World at War’ ”
The list order is derived from the packaging; the documentaries are presented in slightly different order. In addition, there are more biographies, galleries from the Imperial War Museum, historical footage, and bookmarks or links to famous songs, speeches, quotes, and maps in each episode.
The Restored and Remastered “The World at War”
When Fremantle Media and Thames Television began the process of updating the 1970’s TV series to HD, they made two important decisions which had a significant impact on the series’ new look.
First, they would hire a digital restoration team to clean up and improve the video content so it would look good on 1080p resolution Blu-ray playback devices. This restoration process involved removing visual flaws that marred the images on screen. Thus, this version of “The World at War” is free of scratches, surface dirt, and blemishes, and all the footage – both color and black & white – looks crisp and clean on high-def televisions.
Second, a decision was made to alter the original series 1.33:1 (sometimes referred to as 4:3 or full screen) aspect ratio used in the 1970’s to the current 1.78:1 (or 16:9) aspect ratio used in widescreen format.
In “Restoring ‘The World at War,’ ” the producer in charge of the remastering project admits that everyone involved knew that doing this would change the image from its original version. Though the restorers were careful when they reedited the series, the effect is noticeable, particularly during the interviews with civilian eyewitnesses and prominent (and not-so-prominent) veterans. Usually, the most obvious sign of the aspect ratio change is that a person’s head will be cropped slightly just above the forehead. In World War II-era footage the change is harder to notice unless a viewer has the DVD set and is familiar with how the newsreel clips look in 1.33:1.
Depending on which sound option viewers choose, the sound mixes in the Blu-ray edition of “The World at War” have their pros and cons. Viewers with a surround-sound 5.1 home theater system may enjoy feeling immersed by the new sound mix’s ability to use front and rear speakers to make it sound like airplanes are flying overhead and explosions booming on the left and right speakers. However, the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio mode has a downside: the narration by Sir Laurence Olivier tends to have an annoying, tinny-sounding echo effect.
Fans of the original series may prefer to set the audio in the lossless 2.0 LPCM 2.0 stereo mix. It may not be as home theater-like as the 5.1 mix, but it reduces the narration’s echoing effect and sounds like the familiar version from the 1970’s.
In contrast to the 2004 DVD set, the newer Blu-ray edition of “The World at War” has English subtitles for the hearing impaired. As in most cases involving subtitles, sometimes these condense some of the spoken words if the dialogue is a bit too long for a perfect one-to-one match. Interestingly, in some episodes which feature songs sung in German, the lyrics are subtitled in the original language without translation.
Although this Blu-ray set is significantly more expensive than the 2004 DVD set. “The World at War” is worth getting. Even though it is now 40 years old, the series is one of the best World War II documentaries made for television. Sure, some of its information is outdated and there are no references to Allied code breaking successes. (The Ultra Secret was only made public after the series original ITV run ended.)
However, it earnestly attempted to tell the story of World War II without bias or attempts to pass judgment. As producer Sir Jeremy Isaacs puts it, it’s not a complete history of the Second World War, but it is an effort to give television viewers some understanding about the six years in which the entire world was at war.