Rewinding World War II
October/november 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 6
World War Two with Walter Cronkite will also be familiar to television viewers of a certain age, though not under that name. It has been woven together out of programs from the admirable black-and-white The 20th Century series, first shown on CBS in the sixties. Walter Cronkite was the narrator then, and he has come out of his qualified retirement to act as host for the new version. His younger voice is clipped and vigorous; his current one, froggy and becalmed. Still, it’s good to see and hear him again. As always, he lends a reassuring allAmerican dignity to everything he describes; it is hard to worry too much about the menace of fascist Italy, for example, when Cronkite consistently calls its leader the “Doochy.” The episodes themselves are clear and straightforward, enough removed from the events they recount to reveal horror as well as heroism, leisurely enough to allow time for the human-scale details that are the only way most of us can begin to grasp what it was like to live through the fighting. In the segment called “Battleground Italy,” for example, the account of the muddled Allied decision to bomb Monte Cassino is brisk and unblinking; the cartoonist Bill Mauldin recalls the special enthusiasm with which GIs plied their mine detectors at Anzio, seeking to unearth barrels of Chianti; and a nurse remembers how she routinely told the most seriously wounded boys that she was their mother because that was who they desperately wanted her to be.
The World at War , a monumental British effort by Thames Television, was shown here in syndication a decade ago. It is one of the most ambitious television projects ever undertaken—twentysix hour-long programs meant to tell the whole complex story of the greatest war in history, East and West, Allied and Axis, military and political. The programs are remarkably successful and along the way manage to cover whole theaters of war with which most Americans are not familiar: Burma; occupied Europe; the Russian front (to which three full and harrowing hours are devoted). Battlefield film and newsreels from almost everywhere are used, but we are never allowed to lose sight of the fact that for all the drama and heroism displayed, World War II was a slaughter that left fifty-five million dead.
The elegiac tone is set even before the opening title of the first episode appears, as the camera slowly moves around and through the jagged, empty ruins of a little French village, the entire populace of which was murdered by the Germans on a single sunny afternoon in 1944, and it is quickly echoed by the titles themselves, which appear over a series of portraits of anonymous civilians, each face, in turn, bursting into flame to reveal the next.
Historical documentaries have been slighted by the companies that produce video cassettes, but prospects have begun to brighten.
The narration is unfailingly literate and understated, and it is spoken by Laurence Olivier. Famous actors often make disastrous narrators; frightened, perhaps, that they will not be fully appreciated by their public because they are not to be seen as well as heard, they overdo it, displaying their delivery at the expense of the script. Olivier knew better, understood that calling attention to himself would only detract from the huge, appalling story he had been asked to tell. He allowed himself just one actor’s indulgence in the whole series: in the seventh episode, “America Enters the War,” he clearly relishes reciting a bit of Yank doggerel that begins “We’re the battling bastards of Bataan” in his patented American accent, very heavy on the Rs. Otherwise his tone is measured, low-key, a little weary; the actions of the German leaders are described in the flat, frankly baffled tone a scientist might use to speak of the scurrying of some newly discovered insect species; the Nazis, it seems to say, were tireless, resilient, surprisingly strong, but busy on errands—the destruction of European Jewry, say, or the invasion of Russia—for which there are as yet no human explanations.
It is the war’s survivors, however—scores of them on every side and of every opinion—who are most eloquent. We see and hear from admirals and generals and statesmen, of course, and much of what they say is more revealing than they know: Lord Chandos, unable to conceal his distaste for the Cockney children sent to shelter with him during the blitz because they relieved themselves on his carpets; Karl Doenitz, deaf and old, bellowing the history of his submarines as if we were lined up before him on deck; Albert Speer expressing his languid regret at the beastly manners of the Nazis he had so enthusiastically served. But it is the less exalted men and women who remain most vividly in my mind: survivors of Auschwitz and the SS men who tormented them; Britons who endured the blitz and German veterans of the Allied bombing of Dresden; Kamikaze pilots and the Navy gunners who tried to shoot them down; Russian citizens of Stalingrad and the invaders who could not conquer them. There is no trendy revisionism here: the series leaves no doubt who had finally to win if civilization itself was to endure. But enough time had passed for its makers to recognize that the innocent suffered on both sides, and to face head-on the toughest issues raised by the war and its disillusioned aftermath, from the bomb to the betrayal of Eastern Europe’s hope for postwar independence.