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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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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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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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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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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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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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on 27 May 2002
If you have seen the BBC television series The World At War, then it is clear that this was the inspiration behind that maginficent tour de force.The Great War combines footage of that conflict with interviews from veterans and those who had to endure the hardships on the home front in 26 episodes (approx 40 mins each).Though this is essentially the story of Britain's war it takes pains to analyse the impact of war on Germany,France,Russia and the United States. It covers all angles and theatres of the war from its causes to its consequences.It looks at the great campaigns of the western and eastern fronts,the war at sea and in the middle east. It also examines the wars military,social,political and economic effects on the combatant nations.
Narrated by Sir Michael Redgrave with contributions by Sir Ralph Richardson as the voice of Field Marshal Haig and Emlyn Williams as Lloyd George, this series is poignant, stirring and fascinating.Though it was made in 1964, and this is the first time I have ever seen it,I do not believe it could be surpassed.
The DVD box set also comes with a bonus disc called Voices from the Western Front that features narratives from soldiers and airman who served there during 1914-1918.
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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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on 5 February 2003
Fantastically well written series [notably the episodes by John Terraine], that actually explains the course of the war without resorting to cliche. The interviews with survivors are excellent and the maps are clear. I think this series is superior to the world at war as it is far better at appreciating and linking the grand-strategic - strategic - operational and tactical elements of the war than the later series. Although from a British perspective this documentary series provides interesting insights into other fronts, especially the eastern front in 1915; the importance of which is often overlooked. I was worried that this series might be 'out of date' because of its age. This is not the case, and in fact probably benefits from the fact that it is more neutral than some of the later documentaries on WW1 which are often stamped with late-60s left-wing political ideology or the opposite revisionist view of WW1. This series is useful for anyone studying WW1 at any level be it GCSE, A level, undergraduate or even post-graduate level.
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VINE VOICEon 21 July 2006
I first saw this series during its initial transmission during 1964 which was to commemorate 50 years from the beginning of the Great War which began in 1914. It was reshown in 1974, then lost for many years in the dusty BBC archives. Now it can be seen in all its glory, although as so often said, there is nothing glorious about this war which was suppose to end all wars. The material is astonishing to see, all the great battles on land, Somme, Verdun, Passchandaele, Marne etc and on the sea, Jutland, Coronels, Falklands, Dogger Bank are well covered. Also the Middle East conflict between the Turks and the Arabs is well covered too. Enhanced by a superb narration by the late great Sir Michael Redgrave, and a wonderful music score by Wilfred Josephs, the opening score is haunting to say the least supplemented by the famous Photograph of the soldier in the trench surrounded by his dead comrades. (Actually that famous picture is three different pictures morphed together.) It compliments that other superb series World at War released by Thames Television a few years ago. Buy both if you can.
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