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Butchered, but don't let that put you off
on 25 October 2010
There are really two main considerations you need to balance over whether the new restored version of The World at War is worth purchasing on Blu-ray - on the one hand is the question of it being pan-and-scanned to fill 16:9 televisions, on the other is the fact that it is one of the most important and brilliantly-made documentary series you'll ever see.
On the question of the reformatting of the original 4:3 picture to widescreen, well the justifications made by the DVD distributor are spurious. If people really want to see the image fit the screen, let them do what they already do themselves and stretch it to fit. It's a horrible distortion of the image, but apparently a lot of people can't even notice the problem and don't particularly care. For those who do care, the cropping the top and bottom of the image by the DVD producers is nothing less than vandalism. Admittedly, before watching the new widescreen presentation, assured that it was carefully handled, I was prepared to make an exception to the Original Aspect Ratio only rule. After all, this is a series that consisting largely of talking heads and documentary footage that was hardly cinematographically composed. Well, I was wrong - the cropping is obvious and blatant, cutting the tops off buildings and heads. Framing isn't carefully done and it can't be. When there are captions on the screen (the original shaky captions, which suggests moreover that it's the original video masters that have been restored rather than the series being remastered from the original source materials), the image tilts down to the lower part of the screen, causing severe cropping at the top. The attempts to re-frame are obvious and obtrusive, the movement noticeable even as it tries to take in the credits at the end of an episode.
On the other hand, does any of this really take away from the quality of the series? The image has certainly been butchered, but that shouldn't prevent anyone from watching one of the most important documentary series ever made. Spread across 26 episodes, on 9 Blu-ray discs, The World at War is an extensive, comprehensive and accessible look at one of the most defining events in the history of the modern world, one that captures the scale of the whole undertaking, looking at the underlying causes, the social and political context, and also the almost inconceivable cost of the war in monetary as well as in human terms. But it also reminds us that there was much more to WWII than the Holocaust and the war in Western Europe, and that the impact was far-reaching, and still has an impact on many aspects of the world we live in today - for better and for worse.
There are certainly gaps and questionable editorial decisions that place curious emphasis on some aspects and cause omission and imbalance in others, but this is a war that can be viewed in many different ways, and it will no doubt be constantly re-evaluated with the passing of time. What makes The World at War so important however are the first-hand eye-witness accounts of many of the key figures still alive around the time the series was made in the early seventies, testimonies not only from important political players, but also from ordinary people from all parts of the world who had to endure something that we can now scarcely imagine. As the years go by, that testimony is invaluable, as is this documentary into the defining years of the 20th century, which should be compulsory viewing for everyone, politicians and world leaders included.
The restored series looks exceptionally good on Blu-ray, at least as well as the quality as the original source materials allow. Those materials however have not been re-sourced - a meticulous reconstruction of such a huge series would obviously be impractical and costly - but the original series masters have clearly been extensively cleaned-up and they look quite good. It's pleasing also to see that the whole series has been given optional English HOH subtitles. The original materials perhaps don't quite have the full High-Definition resolution to merit a Blu-ray release, and consequently I doubt that there's a significant difference in quality between this and the standard DVD edition. It is worth having however for the extra materials and features that are included on the set.
One of those extra features covers the restoration and a great deal of care and attention has gone into making the series look as good as it possibly can, but there is no justification for the cropping of the image. While that decision is regrettable however, it doesn't unduly ruin the series or its purpose. If you're concerned about the messing around with the aspect ratio and the pointless surround remix, go back and look for the original DVD release, but whatever you do, you should own this series.