You could say I’m a bit of a worrier. And you could say I’ve been a bit of a worrier since I was a child. And you would be right. It’s something I do. I’m good at it.
I have gotten much better at not allowing my worrying to keep me from sleeping. (Most of the time.) When I was a kid, though, I could get to worrying about something and that could making falling asleep difficult. I mostly worried about going back to school after summer vacation, winter or spring break, long weekends. I don’t remember why I would be worried, I just was.
Those occasions of sleeping difficulties would mainly happen on Sunday nights. And if I was feeling as though sleep wouldn’t come, I dreaded a certain sound. And that sound was the closing music of the landmark British World War II television documentary series The World At War (1973-1974).
It was sometime in the mid-1970s that The World At War begin airing on American television and my mother would watch it each Sunday night. It would come on at 11:00 and end at midnight. If I was still awake as the show ended, it would be a difficult night. And I won’t even mention how troubling it would get if I heard the closing theme of The Honeymooners, the show that would follow.
All that is in the past.
Today, I own the DVD set. It contains the entire 26 episodes of the series and a boatload of extras. There are 11 discs in all.
The World At War wasn’t the first TV documentary of the war. There were others before it. On American television, there was NBC’s Victory At Sea (1952-1953). That series also had 26 episodes, however these were half hour shows. And Victory was made closer to the actual events and that may be why it feels much more rah-rah than The World At War.
Victory has no interviews. It consists of archival footage and narration, and a very heroic, flag-waving musical score by Richard Rodgers. The music gets tiring and the series has the feel of pro-America propaganda. It also seems to glamorize war. Not overly so, but the rah-rah quality, the hooray for the Allies (which, yes, hooray for the Allies) attitude makes the series feel like a naval recruitment pitch. No wonder the US Navy was so willing to give full cooperation.
The World At War, other the other hand, is careful to make war look like what it is – ugly. War is horrifying. It’s destruction and devastation. It’s insane. War is hell (you can quote me on that). And The World At War makes that abundantly clear as it chronicles the power-hungry fascist dictators wreaking havoc in Europe, Northern Africa, China, and the Pacific.
The musical score for The World At War was composed by Carl Davis. It’s brilliant. It gives the series the proper seriousness that subject requires, while not glamorizing war in any way.
Also, brilliant is the narration provided by acting legend Sir Laurence Olivier. His narration sets the tone for the series in the cold open of episode one – A New Germany:
“Down this road, on a summer day in 1944, the soldiers came. Nobody lives here now. They stayed only a few hours. When they had gone, the community, which have lived for a thousand years, was dead.”
That’s heavy. Olivier strikes the perfect note of solemnity. This series is not going to be rah-rah.
Like Victory At Sea, there is lots of archival footage. But, unlike Victory, the World At War has lots of interviews of the people involved. From citizens to journalists to soldiers, sailors, and airmen to generals, admirals, and world leaders. From both sides of the war.
The input of people who were there may be 30 years after the fact (and memory isn’t video tape), but it is tremendously powerful. Quite often we are shown archival footage of the younger versions of those being interviewed. We get to hear from military leaders to get their insights on the decision making and strategies. And there is only one historian, Stephen Ambrose, who is interviewed late in the series.
The most intriguing contributors, for me, are the Germans. We hear from ordinary citizens about how Germany was caught up in a kind of hysteria as Hitler provided victory after victory early in the war. And then how terrifying it was to live under that regime. The series interviews the highest ranking Nazi who was still alive and had served his time in prison: Albert Speer. They even interviewed Hitler’s secretary Traudl Junge, who worked for the Nazi dictator in those last days in the bunker and took down his final statement. Fascinating!
If you haven’t watched this series, seek it out. Some of the episodes are on YouTube. You’ll find the first one here.
Nowadays, when I watch the series, I usually watch it at about the same time of night my mother used to watch it. And, ironically, I’m so familiar with the series I tend to doze off until the closing theme plays. Then I wake up and go to bed.
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Warehouse Find is the official blog of NostalgiaZone.com, where you can find books, games, toys, cards, and a huge selection of Golden, Silver, Bronze, and Modern Age comic books. Jim also has a podcast called Dimland Radio. He’d love it if you checked it out. It’s available on iTunes.