Adolf Hitler. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Benito Mussolini. Winston Churchill. Charles de Gaulle. George Patton. Before they were the giants of WWII, they were infantrymen and privates in WWI, the "war to end all wars." The World Wars from HISTORY and H2 brings you the story of the devastating three decades of 20th-century world war through the eyes of the men whose characters were forged in the trenches before they commanded a world on the brink of disaster. See how, from Ypres and the Somme to the Battle of the Bulge and the invasion of Normandy, the iconic figures of WWII became synonymous with either battlefield glory or murderous fascism. Narrated by two-time Oscar nominee Jeremy Renner (The Avengers, The Hurt Locker).
First airing this past Memorial Day on The History Channel, 'The World Wars' covers the two most important confrontations of the 20th Century, and how both the players and the politics of the first war (known then as just 'The Great War') very much determined and shaped the Second World War that followed. Using a combination of dramatic reenactments, commentaries from notable historians and world leaders (Colin Powell, John McCain, Dick Cheney, and former British Prime Minister John Major all contribute, to name just a few), and archival footage, the series (which is narrated throughout by Jeremy Renner) is basically a 'Cliffs Notes' version of the conflicts, but that doesn't mean it's not highly engaging and entertaining in the process of re-examining history.
The series begins with one heck of a great twist to get the viewers involved. We're in the trenches of German soldiers during World War I when the troops are hit with a gas attack by the Allies. A young German solider with a particularly large moustache struggles to get his gas mask on, but has difficulties as the mask won't seal around his face given his extended facial hair. The young man survives the attack, but immediately decides to take care of his moustache, trimming the sides off so they won't cause him any problems in the future. It's at this point that the viewer realizes that they have been watching the actions of a young Adolf Hitler. While this dramatic scene is most likely apocryphal (Hitler was forced to shave his moustache while serving in the war, but it was likely done as the result of orders rather than an incident in battle), it proves to be a very engaging way of grabbing one's attention and interest. I was immediately hooked after this opening.
'The World Wars' is divided into three parts, with Part One focusing on World War I; Part Two starting with the Great Depression of 1929 and ending with America's entry into World War II in December of 1941; and finally the remainder of World War II in Part Three. What makes this series different from other documentaries is that it presents the beginning of World War I through the end of World War II as one continual conflict, with the 'peacetime' in between just a chance for the countries and their political leaders to realign and re-arm before engaging once again. It also takes the major figures of World War II – Hitler, Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt, Joseph Stalin, etc. – and introduces them in the World War I material, showing viewers where they were, what they were doing, and how the events earlier in their lives would mold the men they would become later, be it hero or madman.
Although the series obviously (coming from The History Channel) has a strong American point of view to the events, the two most interesting and compelling figures here are Hitler and Churchill. Both men went through defeat and humiliation in their early years, and both would go on to become leaders of their respective nations. Of course, while Hitler made it back up through the ranks via fear and elimination of his enemies, Churchill did so through his natural leadership and statesmanship qualities. Someone could make a really good film by focusing on just these two men, and we get a taste of that here, insomuch as when the documentary goes off to focus on FDR, Stalin, or the like, you're waiting for them to get back to either Churchill or Hitler.
'The World Wars' hasn't been without its share of controversy, however, since it originally aired. Many historians felt that it was a simplification and 'dumbing down' of events to appease to both the running time and the knowledge of viewers, much in the same way the recent incarnation of Cosmos has been criticized for its oversimplification of science. I won't make a laundry list of the flubs/historical problems here (they're easy enough to find via a Google search), but most of them actually have to do with inaccurate uniforms/military equipment shown in the dramatic scenes, although there are a few errors when it comes to historical fact as well. None of these are, at least in this reviewer's opinion, worth dismissing the bulk of this documentary over, which does a pretty good job of covering what it needs to cover in the amount of time it has to cover it.
The best thing I can say about 'The World Wars' is that it manages to humanize the historical figures involved. Yes, even Hitler to some degree, although any humanity in his soul is clearly gone by the time World War I comes to a close. By putting the focus on the people involved just as much as the events that happen, 'The World Wars' is one of the few documentaries I've watched that is as entertaining from a dramatic standpoint as it is from an educational one. Although it will certainly never be labelled as the 'definitive' series covering the two World Wars, it is a great starting point for those, both young and old, who would like to discover more about those years in history.
The Blu-Ray: Vital Disc Stats
'The World Wars' battles its way onto Blu-ray in an eco-friendly Elite keepcase that houses the two 50GB Blu-rays, along with an insert containing a code for an UltraViolet digital copy. A slightly embossed slipcover matching the artwork of the keepcase slick slides overtop. Disc One of this set is front-loaded with trailers for Houdini, The Men Who Built America, Big History, Season One of 'The Wahlburgers' (which is only available on DVD), Season Five of Duck Dynasty, and Cesar Chavez. There are no front-loaded trailers on Disc Two. The main menu consists of a video montage of all the primary historical figures who appear in this series, with motion images of the actors who portray them.
This Blu-ray release is region free.
'The World Wars' is a combination of reenactment, 'talking heads' commentary, and archival film and images. As a result, the video quality varies slightly from scene to scene, although overall it's fairly good. The sharpest and most detailed images are actually the commentary ones, as the dramatic reenactments have a slightly washed-out/drained of color appearance to them. This is, no doubt, so those scenes have a more 'historical feel' to them, but detail sometimes suffers ever so slightly as well. Archival footage isn't show in the 4:3 format, which means those images have been stretched to fill the 1.78:1 aspect ratio, making them look in even poorer shape than they already are.
While overall this series provides a pleasant image, I did notice a few moments of banding and aliasing – although not frequently enough or consistently enough to detract from my enjoyment of the video quality (keep in mind this thing is 4 ½ hours long). The series was shot digitally (although I was unable to find out using what equipment…although most likely Alexa) and some backgrounds of footage have some revealing pixilation and digital noise if one looks closely. However, this will probably only be distracting to those with particularly large TVs or projectors. Black levels are pretty soft throughout, and while details don't suffer much, there's not the 'pop' here in image that you'll find with a really good Blu-ray transfer. Skin tones, however, are quite natural and consistent throughout the series.
An English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is the only option here, and it's a solid – if unspectacular – listen. Keep in mind that even with the dramatic reenactments by the actors, this is primarily still very much a 'talking' presentation, as even a huge chunk of the dramatic footage contains voice over narration by Jeremy Renner rather than the actors themselves speaking (although there's some of that throughout as well). Therefore, a big chunk of the noticeable audio comes from the front of one's setup, although some nice ambient noises can be heard frequently from the rears as well.
The audio never really does provide any powerful moments though, even when some significant military action is happening on screen. There's some use of directionality throughout (usually when planes are involved), but it's never quite powerful or noticeable enough to provide one with that immersive feel you can get with a really well-produced track. There's occasional low-end use, but I found it lacked the 'oomph' that most like to hear from LFE. For what's essentially a documentary, though, I have few genuine complaints about the audio, which is decent enough for a series like this.
In addition to the lossless 5.1 DTS-HD MA track, subtitles are available in English SDH and Spanish.
It has been said that history is about people, and 'The World Wars' does a really good job of making the major players of World War II come to life, including their connections back to the first World War. While some have criticized a number of inaccuracies (mostly related to uniforms and weaponry, but a few historical mistakes as well) this series stumbles over, there's no doubt that this is a very entertaining piece of work that proves to be a great introduction to the time period for students and laypersons alike. Recommended.