Rewinding World War II


One of every four American homes is now said to house a video cassette recorder. Mine became one of them last winter. A VCR takes some getting used to. I still find myself watching a good program and muttering that somebody should invent a way to record such things, only to remember too late that all I have to do is push the right button; my jumble of homemade tapes—what the merchandisers hope I’ll call my video library—includes the last halves of a lot of shows. I have had better luck renting prerecorded tapes at my local store, though that has its hidden dangers too; revisiting favorite old movies can be disillusioning. Citizen Kane holds up, but have you seen La Dolce Vita lately? Or Abe Lincoln in Illinois? Or even She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, which I paid to see seven times on its first go-round in 1949?

Historical documentaries have largely been overlooked by the companies that package and sell cassettes, and rental stores rarely stock them, because the demand has been so small. The pickings are still slim for anyone seriously interested in history on film, but prospects have lately begun to brighten—provided you are willing to purchase rather than rent.

There are some 9,000 titles listed in the latest encyclopedic cassette catalog from Video Shack—not counting porno films, of the making of which there is evidently no end. Of that 9,000, just 222 are listed as “documentaries,” and a good many of those sound as if they’d been drawn from the table of contents of The National Enquirer : a full-color compilation of “the greatest car-racing accidents of all time”; Am I Normal? , a sex-education film meant to comfort pubescent boys; The Amazing World of Psychic Phenomena , including “actual footage of ghosts”; and Alien from Spaceship Earth , which “raises the question: Are we being invaded from outer space? And can we defend ourselves?”


Only seventy-odd of these documentaries can be said to have much to do with history. There are a few distinguished films here, including The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’s shrewd dissection of France during the Occupation, but they are buried among cassettes that spin paranoid theories about the murders of Lincoln and the Kennedys and an alarming profusion of ghoulish treatments of the Nazis—including one simply called War Atrocities, which more than makes good on its promise to offend “more sensitive viewers.”

But World War II is also the subject of three serious documentary series now available for home use. None of them is cheap—$19.95 to $29.95 per cassette. All three were originally made for broadcast television and are worth seeing. One is a masterpiece.

I was twelve years old when Victory at Sea was first shown on NBC in 1952. My parents had only recently bought our first TV set, so the series had a double fascination for me: it dramatized recent events in which I was already intensely interested, and it miraculously played them back for me in my own Chicago living room. As I settled back to watch the series again after thirty-three years, it all seemed wonderfully familiar at first: the moon’s shimmer on a black, tossing sea; the huge white V superimposed over it; the first swelling notes of Richard Rodgers’s celebrated score, played by the NBC Symphony Orchestra under Robert Russell Bennett. The black-and-white combat footage, mostly made by U.S. Navy cameramen, is still compelling and crisply edited, but the overall impact of the programs has lessened with time. The narration, intoned by Leonard Graves, which 1 remembered as especially stirring, now seems portentous and overwrought: AND-UH NOW… RINGS AROUND RABAUL!… OPPOSING WARSHIPS CLOSE IN A DARKLING SEA, SWEPT WITH CONFUSED ALARMS OF STRUGGLE AND FLIGHT, WHERE IGNORANT NAVIES CLASH BY NIGHT! Except for Graves’s perfervid voice and the sporadic muffled sound of gunfire, music is all you hear. Sometimes it works wonderfully well, as when a lone violin accompanies film of a wounded American being tenderly passed down a blasted jungle hillside in a tableau that might have been painted by Caravaggio. But all too often the score is intrusive and weirdly inappropriate: sticks of bombs tumble from the sky to cheerfully plucked strings; peppy marches play as Marines use flamethrowers to incinerate Japanese soldiers crouching in their caves. The problem is not insensitivity, I think, so much as timing. Victory at Sea was made just seven years after victory has been won. There was as yet no room for ambivalence about any aspect of that triumph. The series remains an interesting artifact, less history than a vivid exercise in after-the-fact cheerleading.