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365 of 369 people found the following review helpful
on 13 April 2005
First released in 1964 to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the outbreak of the Great War, this epic piece of television has now reached a vintage which might suggest it has outlasted its shelf-life and should be consigned to a peaceful archive. This is precisely what happened to it for a while, but in recent years the BBC has chosen to give the series a fresh airing ... and, in many respects, it appears fresher and more dynamic than it did in 1964.
In 1964 there were still plenty of people around who had vivid memories of the Great War. I used to watch my uncle Chay shaving - his back, shoulders and right arm were covered in hundreds of little black marks, tiny shrapnel fragments and debris left over from the Western Front. I remember numbers of men with artificial legs - remember a couple of my friends whose grandfather's spare legs would be ostentatiously parked behind the couch. I remember the 1914 brass Princess Mary Christmas boxes on display in scores of households, remember captured German pickelhaubs and belt buckles, or the gold watch my grandfather liberated from a Turkish officer in the Dardenelles.
In 1964, the First World War was still alive in Scotland ... and the hundreds of war memorials testified to that, listing the names of local men who'd died fighting not just in Scottish or British units, but who'd enlisted in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, or the USA, and had died fighting under their colours.
In 1964, I watched the series with my uncle Chay. In 1964, it was living history and I could follow it in the presence of a veteran. In 2005, I can still watch it and feel its sense of immediacy. This had nothing to do with nostalgia. In 1964, the BBC broadcast a living oral history of the War. Each episode features filmed interviews with survivors, with men and women who had experienced the War, had been eyewitness to history. Not the generals and statesmen, but ordinary people, the minutiae, the statistics of warfare, each giving a lucid account and electrifying description of their personal experiences. What was it like to be there at the first day of the Somme? What was it like to see a Zeppelin over your city?
The BBC history of the Great War took a dynamic approach to the subject. This was the first great technological war - aircraft, tanks, submarines, telephones, barbed wire, machine guns, magazine-fed bolt-action rifles, long range artillery, and, of course, the camera. And this was an age in which the military hadn't yet figured out what to do with the camera, hadn't figured out quite how to 'embed' journalists and camera crews, hadn't figured out how to control, censor, or manipulate. Both still and movie cameras were fairly primitive affairs, but they were mass produced, readily accessible, and had plenty of keen enthusiasts who could use them with effect.
The First World War became the first intensely photographed war (with apologies to Fenton in the Crimea and Brady in America, etc.), the more so because its front lines were relatively slow moving. What the BBC captured was a vast wealth of moving images and black and white stills. The most striking feature of the series is the quality of its editing - pasting together moving and still images, cutting to eye witness interviews, documentary history, linking the whole with the beautiful diction of Ralph Richardson and Michael Redgrave.
And, in 1964, televisions were still fairly primitive affairs - small screens, grainy images, often more purple than black and white. Today, the quality of the production comes across far better. The film seems crisp and lively, the sound quality (albeit dubbed) seems more honest and accurate. In 2005, this remains a vibrant, captivating series. In 1964 it was required viewing for millions of people - as I said, many families still had a living interest in the War. In 2005, it remains a milestone in television and the production of popular history.
True, the series does tend to give prominence to the Western Front - but global events are not ignored. The historians used - people like Corelli Barnett and John Tremaine - were young enough to grasp the potential of this new medium of television, to understand that history could be analysed and discussed on film and not just in academic texts. As a piece of history, as a delivery of evidence to forthcoming generations, "The Great War" was an epic production, groundbreaking television, and a testimony to the vision of the BBC.
It was a radical decision to produce the series. It took risks. It set the benchmark for excellence. And it's all the evidence I need to prove that an independent BBC is an essential element of a 21st century democracy. Sheer genius which is hardly yet showing its age, and a clear demonstration that superb historical analysis can be delivered without a celebrity historian hogging the lens! Five stars doesn't come close.
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33 of 33 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 22 March 2008
I am not sure, when I read other reviews, quite what some people expect. This is the history, in film, of a terrible event almost 100 years ago. Understandably the film quality is sometimes poor, monochrome and in parts a little tedious. The whole war was one of stalemate so no one should expect the global movement and recognisable events seen in WW2. From a different time and perspective, this long programme is very informative, gives a clear understanding of what led up to and influenced the whole sorry mess, is extremely well narrated and astonishingly moving. It shows what my Grandfather experienced whilst still a lad of 19 or so and whilst I find it hard to empathise with my Fathers experiences in WW2, I just cannot begin to comprehend how these young men coped.
My generation could see the consequences of this conflict in their relatives (or the lack of them!) but my teenaged children don't even know that such a war took place. This film will stand for generations to come as a living history of how stupid man can be and why we must continue to question the actions of Leaders if we value our hard won freedom. As I said about that other masterpiece, The World at War, modern history should be compulsory in all secondary schools and this should be a part of the syllabus.
If you can afford it, buy it, watch it over the long winter nights and see if you too are not overcome by anger at those in charge, amazement at the stupidity of many at home and emotion at the waste and loss of life. It will at least help you understand why the French Army had so many morale problems in 1939/40. Just do the numbers!
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144 of 146 people found the following review helpful
on 26 January 2004
It hasn't really dated. It's in black and white, because television was black and white in 1968, but it fits the era and the material; on the evidence presented here, the war did not lend itself to vivid colour. Sir Michael Redgrave's diction is classically-trained in a way that modern voiceover people are not (his pronounciation of 'Krupp' is impossible to forget), but again this fits the period. Although some episodes drag, the writing is punchy and gets to the point, whilst the interview subjects - mostly in their late sixties - get their point across too. The interviews are odd to watch, as the participants are slightly young than the WW2 veterans that appear in modern-day documentaries, albeit in stark monochrome.
When not interviewing WW1 veterans the series is almost entirely archive footage, with a few rostrumed photographs. The amount and depth of this footage is astonishing, especially as most subsequent documentaries on the war tend to overuse the same few pieces (a shot of a mine detonating on the eve of the Somme in particular). Inevitably, some of the footage was culled from pre-war training films or post-war reconstructions; it is illustration rather than documentary, just as Ralph Richardson 'acts' the part of Haig, there being no extant recordings of Haig's voice.
As mentioned elsewhere, writing duties were handled by a team headed by John Terraine, who died at the end of 2003. Terraine was famous at the time for bucking the prevailing post-WW1 viewpoint, that the Great War had been prolonged by stupid incompetents such as Field Marshal Haig; he instead argued that Haig was a victim of circumstance, and that he did well bearing the constraints under which he operated. Perhaps mindful that the BBC were a public service broadcaster, Terraine and the writers (including Correlli Barnett, who wrote the accompanying book) take a neutral stance on matters political, strategic and philosophical; the underlying tone is one of sorrow at the waste of war itself, rather than that of anger at any particular faction.
The series was recently broadcast by the BBC, although the scheduling was all over the place, and this DVD set is well worth having as an heirloom, perhaps sitting next to 'The World at War', LWT's similar, early-70s treatment of an even more apocalyptic conflict.
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77 of 78 people found the following review helpful
on 4 August 2002
One reason to watch this long documentary is to get inside this most horrific of wars. Much original footage is backed up by reminiscences of those who fought in the war itself. You will find out what actually happened. The other reason to watch this is the sheer quality of the documentary - which puts to shame most of today's documentaries. There is no "presenter" or personality to stand between you and what happened. No political or moral position is taken; the events speak for themselves. You will want to watch this again and again long after you will have forgotten most of the others.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 24 June 2008
Made in 1964 by the BBC, my first impressions were this is old and dated - how wrong could I be.

This is arguably the best documentary/series ever made on the Great War, and if a better or more informative in-depth series has been made covering this subject, then I have yet to see it.

Starting a few years before the war, it covers the political situation in Europe leading up to the start of hostilities in the episode one, before moving onto the overwhelming German onslaught in August 1914 showing much footage I have never seen before. Over the next 25 episodes it covers every single aspect of the war, from the front line in all the theatre of conflict to the home fronts in Russia, France, Germany, Britain and later America.

Much has been said already by previous reviewers, but the one great advantage of the series being over 40 years old is that the young men who fought in the war were still only just reaching retirement age, so the BBC had the chance to get the pick of the surviving veterans to tell their stories.

All this, combined with a great narration and the sheer wealth of archive footage shown, make this series stand head and shoulders above anything else ever made on the subject. Forget all the rest like the recent First World War in Colour, none of them come anywhere near the standard set by this series.

Simply Stunning - Buy it and enjoy
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147 of 152 people found the following review helpful
on 26 April 2002
I still remember watching this milestone documentary when it was was originally broadcast in 26 episodes by the BBC in the early 1960s and it is without doubt one of the finest documentaries ever produced on World War One. Every aspect of the war is painstakingly covered and the inspired narration of Sir Michael Redgrave is a revelation. The picture quality is variable but this is only to be expected from film footage of this age but it is the images that are so compelling. Quite simply, this documentary is a masterpiece!
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59 of 61 people found the following review helpful
on 30 October 2004
Although it already is some decades old, the completeness and thoroughness of the series has never been matched since its release. Although it shows its age and some of the contemporary ideas of the time, it still has a freshness and down-to-earth approach that is missing in basically all of its more recent rivals. Some of the editing and comments are quite dated, but with the correct bias and pre-knowledge, there are some truely remarkable images in the series which are shown in no other series I have ever watched. The strongpoint of this series is that it does not linger with the more obvious theatres and battles, but attempts (and succeeds) to cover the global aspects of the conflict. It is both a general and detailed overview of this awesome conflict and offers many remarkable and innovative (at the time) views on the this tragedy of the 20th century. A must for all (full- and part-time) amateur and professional historians.
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97 of 101 people found the following review helpful
on 30 July 2003
While today even the thought of conceiving a 26-part documentary series on any subject would be unimaginable, the superb cooperation of IWM, BBC and DD Video has given back to the world no less than a treasure trove.
Viewing this extensive survey of the development of the war they have come to call "Great", the serious student of war will never fail to be struck by the vividness, the alertness and the sheer impact, three qualities which - surprisingly enough - remain unblemished even after a 40-year time gap.
This gap must obviously have altered the approach towards the subject matter and changed the angles from which military history and polemology considered the subject then and do it now.
Needless to say, one pervasive benefit about the whole series is that "they were all still there", the eyewitnesses and the veterans speaking frankly and candidly on what they had lived through less than half a century earlier.
Along with extensive bits of footage that had long lain gathering dust in the IWM vaults, The Great War deserves every credit for the expert guidance of Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson.
In our opinion, this is what the viewer needs, not the cinema vérité technique of such series as The Trench, however honourably these might have been intended. Along with similar projects such as The Battles of The Somme and Ancre, this "time capsule" stands unchallenged as a landmark IWM production, and whets the appetite for "more of this to come".
With pictures speaking for themselves, in the domain of the documentary, The Great War makes essential viewing and can hardly be overrated as a treasure of top international value.
The lavish illustration of the guidebook, the bonus DVD Voices from the Western Front and the perfect production in a top quality box set are items which the buyer will obtain into the bargain: they complete a set and make it worth every penny or eurocent.
Along with such books as John Keegan's The Great War and with Brittain's, Manning's, Williamson's and Blunden's war diaries, the countless 'immortal' poems and eyewitness accounts, this project ranks as a top-notch, living and thought-provoking museum to be appealed to and gripped by time and again.
Sometimes there should be exceptions allowed to the limit of 5 stars: products like these set new standards, indeed.
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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 28 June 2009
I've just finished watching this series for the first time and the images and story are still flowing though my mind. The series is a mammoth package, comprising of 26 lengthy episodes. The whole collection is a gripping, well-crafted, informative, often poetic documentary that flows at a steady, unhurried pace with a somber tone.

I particularly enjoyed parts 1 and 2 which tell the story of how the war began and give background on the great empires of the day. I now have a good understanding of the events that led to the declarations of war and the roles of individual countries and the complex compacts and alliances. It's been a great history lesson for me; very entertaining and much more thorough and accurate than anything I could have learned from school on the subject.

I learnt a lot from this series. If you've ever asked yourself questions such as: "How did the war start?", "Which countries were on which side?", "How did it escalate into a global war?" or "What brought it to an end?", then I really recommend you watch this because it gives you the answers to all those questions and so much more.

The amount of archive footage, still photographs and early video is immense and little is repeatedly shown which is quite remarkable considering the whole collection is around 18 hours long. Sir Michael Redgrave's narration is easy on the ear, with a clear, well-spoken BBC register. I love his pronunciation of Austria (something I could never do with my Yorkshire accent).

The black and white footage is interspersed with maps showing the strategic and tactical battle maneuvers. (Yes, they are very old-school and sometimes require careful attention but extremely useful for illustrating for example why the Germans needed to go through Belgium to attack the French from the rear or why the Suez canal is geographically important.) I can't help smile a little when I see the maps which is probably needed as the whole story often gave me quite a lump in my throat.

My praises for the way in which the BBC addressed such a serious and tragic episode in history with the grace and respect that those involved, who sacrificed so much, surely deserve.

The most compelling piece of TV viewing I've seen. 5 stars isn't enough.
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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful
on 9 February 2014
Most of the reviews for this DVD reference the 1964 BBC TV series, which this clearly is not. Unfortunately I didn't read the other 1 star review prior to purchasing! Shame on Amazon for including reviews of a different product here.
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