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review added: 9/12/03



Victory at Sea
50th Anniversary Collector's Edition - 1953 (2003) - NBC/History Channel (A&E)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

Victory at Sea: 50th Anniversary Collector's Edition Program Rating: A-

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C+/C/F

Specs and Features
Approx. 728 mins (26 episodes at 28 mins each), NR, full frame (1.33:1), B&W, thin Nexpak case packaging with slipcase, 4 single-sided, RSDL dual-layered discs (2 discs with 7 episodes each and 2 with 6 episodes each), video introductions for each episode with actor Peter Graves, animated program-themed menu screens with music, episode and scene access (5 chapters per episode - see episode listing below), languages: English (DD 2.0 stereo and mono), subtitles: none


Ask your father or grandfather if they recall watching Victory at Sea when it first appeared on NBC in 1952-53, and a fond look will likely appear in their eyes. This is THE original, landmark documentary series - the first ever made for television. NBC set out to document the entire second World War, focusing on the effects of naval warfare on the war's outcome. The network sent its researchers all over the globe, to obtain original battle and historical footage from every source possible, including sources in the U.S. Navy and both Japan and Germany. More than 13,000 hours of film was recovered (some 11,000 miles worth in all). From this, 26 half-hour episodes were crafted to depict the war's many turns and twists. Narrated by actor Leonard Graves, and featuring an orchestral score by Broadway composer Richard Rodgers (of Rodgers and Hammerstein fame), Victory at Sea is deserving of the many accolades with which it has been showered. History doesn't get more accessible than this.

One of the things that makes this documentary series so interesting, is that it features literally hours of combat footage that you've likely never seen before. There's some really amazing stuff here. Unfortunately, the only real strike against Victory at Sea is that it also employs Hollywood film footage and special effects footage, intermingled with real combat footage, to depict (or flesh out the depiction of) some events. Still, this one small issue aside, the footage is so effectively edited, the narration is so eloquently written and delivered, and the music is so perfectly suited to the imagery, that you are immediately drawn into the material. I was struck by the tension in the third episode - Sealing the Breach - as a lonely and vulnerable convoy of supply ships is steaming across the Atlantic, trudging along through thick night fog in the hope of evading U-boat attack. It's been years since I've seen this series, and it really is great viewing.

If history and the critics have been kind to Victory at Sea, however, time has not. The video and audio quality on these DVDs is serviceable, but a generally mixed bag. Some of this is to be expected, given the source material and the extreme conditions in which most of it was shot. The quality of the film footage varies almost from shot to shot. Sometimes contrast and clarity is excellent, and sometimes it isn't. In almost every bit of footage, there are print artifacts, including scratches, nicks, dust and dirt. You're also going to notice considerable edge enhancement and MPEG-2 compression artifacting. Just look at the surface waves in almost any shot of the ocean - it's like watching video you recorded on your TiVo at less than the highest quality.

The quality also varies from episode to episode, which leads you to wonder about how the masters of the various episodes of this series were stored over the years. Episodes 1 and 3 for example, look fine, while episode 2 (The Pacific Boils Over) is a soft and muddy mess, very much lacking in contrast and detail. The audio is also a mixed bag, presented here in its original mono (albeit in Dolby Digital 2.0 mono for this DVD). It too varies from episode to episode - sometimes it's clean and clear, sometimes it's a little too hot. The episode audio also differs from the new shot-on-video introductions (featuring actor Peter Graves on the deck of the aircraft carrier Intrepid - no relation to the original narrator), so be ready to ride your remote a little.

Still, all of this is forgivable. If they don't look their best, these episodes still are quite watchable, and you'll quickly forget about the presentation quality issues. What's harder to forgive is the complete lack of any kind of extras. Despite the "collector's edition" moniker on the packaging, there's nothing particularly collectible about this edition. Why not have audio commentaries with WWII historians or veterans? Why not have filmmakers talk about the production style and how the footage was assembled? Why not have a documentary on the making of the films, or some context on how the events in each of the episodes fits in with the war as a whole? How about a look at the composition of the musical score, for which the series is famous? What about an analysis of the quality issues? Where are the historical timelines, production notes, an accompanying booklet... anything? Hell, Disney's Pearl Harbor DVD has more background material on World War II than this does. For a documentary series of this importance to arrive on DVD with nothing at all in the way of supplements is disheartening.

In any case, Victory at Sea is one of those titles that people have been clambering to have on DVD for years. And now it's here. It might not be the best presentation this series could receive on disc, and I sincerely hope someone gives this a major restoration in the near future. But it's here at last and the quality of the series manages to overcome the presentation shortcomings. This is absolutely recommended viewing for anyone interested in history and documentary filmmaking.

Episode Listing

Disc One

Design for War, The Pacific Boils Over, Sealing the Breach, Midway is East, Mediterranean Mosaic, Guadalcanal and Rings Around Rabaul

Disc Two

Mare Nostrum, Sea and Sand, Beneath the Southern Cross, Magnetic North, The Conquest of Micronesia and Melanesian Nightmare

Disc Three

Roman Renaissance, D-Day, Killers and the Killed, The Turkey Shoot, Two If by Sea, Battle for Leyte Gulf and Return of the Allies

Disc Four

Full Fathom Five, The Fate of Europe, Target Suribachi, The Road to Mandalay, Suicide for Glory and Design for Peace

Bill Hunt
billhunt@thedigitalbits.com




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