Today marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day – that’s Victory in Europe day, when Germany officially surrendered at the end of World War II. British, Canadian, Australian, and American soldiers would continue fighting Japan until August, so this wasn’t the final end of the war, but for the nations of Europe, the USSR, and American armies fighting in the European theatre of war it was. History is one of my big passions, though it’s not something I talk about often here on the website. But today is a great opportunity to look at a couple of great documentaries about the war as we celebrate this poignant anniversary.
Cameras had been present in every conflict since the Crimean War in the 1850s, so photography was not really new by the time of World War II. The American Civil War is often cited as the conflict that invented the idea of a “war correspondent”, reporting the facts and taking pictures for newspapers back home. And during the First World War a generation earlier, video footage was routinely captured to be used in newsreels – and propaganda.
But the Second World War saw photographs and video captured on a much bigger scale – almost every army detachment would be assigned an official photographer, and many soldiers would take their own cameras from home with them when they went off to war. I have several family photographs in my collection from my grandfather and great-uncle, both of whom fought in the war and, by a very strange coincidence as they were assigned different roles in different units, both saw action during the Battle of Crete.
I’m going to look at two documentaries in this article, one British and one American. They both look at the same conflict from the same side, but with very different perspectives. The American documentary I’ve chosen in Ken Burns’ The War, which was released in 2007.
The War is, by the standards of other works looking at the conflict, narrower in scope. It has a focus on individuals from a select number of smaller towns across the United States, and while it does of course deal with the conflict’s major events, it often does so through that lens. It also begins not with the events of 1939, the widely-accepted beginning of the Second World War, but with the attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, which marked America’s entry into a war that had already been raging for more than two years.
The decision to begin the documentary in 1941, while at the same time providing only minimal background to the United States’ declaration of war, is a limiting factor because it means the whole story of the conflict isn’t told. However, The War doesn’t aim to be a comprehensive look at the entire conflict. As with Ken Burns’ other works, it is a uniquely American film looking at how the war affected the United States and how Americans participated in it. Whether you consider this limitation to be problematic or not may depend on where you come from – from my own point of view with my family history tied to the conflict, the Battle of Crete, which saw my grandfather captured and interred by German forces, had already occurred several months before The War begins its coverage. It is, in that sense, an incomplete picture.
Nevertheless, The War is an interesting and well-done television series, drawing on a vast amount of historical data and documents to tell the story of the later two-thirds of the conflict very well. It also covers the Pacific Theatre of the war in far more detail than many other works do, as Europe is often the focus of Second World War documentaries. Keith David, who’s a well-known voice actor and has appeared in many films and video games, even voicing the role of Admiral Anderson in the Mass Effect series, is The War’s narrator.
The second documentary I’ve chosen to highlight is The World at War, a British series made in 1973. Don’t be put off by when it was made, because this documentary is about as comprehensive as it’s possible to be.
There’s something of a “sweet spot” when it comes to studying certain past events. Too close to the event in question and people can be reluctant to talk openly and honestly about what happened, but wait too long and too many of the principal players have died or are not available to participate. The World at War lands right in the middle, and as such is able to interview many senior and prominent people who were involved in the decision-making process during World War II.
Such important figures as Anthony Eden, who had been the UK’s Foreign Secretary for almost all of the conflict, Karl Donitz and Albert Speer, who were senior German cabinet ministers under Hitler – Donitz would even be named Hitler’s successor and formed a short-lived government, Traudl Junge, who was Hitler’s secretary and on whose memoir the 2004 film Downfall was based, Lord Mountbatten, actor James Stewart, and many others were all interviewed for The World at War. Getting the perspectives of such important figures makes the series such incredibly riveting viewing. Hearing people like Speer in particular discuss what it was like working with Hitler is absolutely fascinating, and brings to life a period of history that we only really think of as being in black-and-white.
With 26 episodes and clocking in at a massive 22 hours, The World at War is a huge time commitment, but well worth it. No other documentary series has tried so hard to cover World War II in such comprehensive detail, looking at every aspect and every major front in the conflict – even the pre-war conflicts between Japan and China, and the rise of Hitler’s Germany from 1933-39, both of which can be overlooked by other studies of the conflict.
Award-winning actor Lawrence Olivier provides The World at War’s narration, and the series is definitely the better for his involvement. At the time it was made, The World at War was the most expensive documentary ever produced, and its use of archive footage from the time, as well as its extensive interviews with veterans and prominent wartime figures makes it incredible for anyone with an interest in the conflict.
So it was a bit of a different article this time, taking a break from the world of fantasy and sci fi to look at the real world for a short time.
The 8th of May 2020 marks the 75th anniversary of VE Day. The War may be found on DVD and Blu-Ray and is the copyright of PBS. The World at War is also available on DVD and Blu-Ray and is the copyright of Thames Television and ITV. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.