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A&E Home Video presents
The Century of Warfare (1993)

"The twentieth century has been the most violent in the history of our kind."
- Robert Powell (Narrator)

Review By: Jesse Shanks   
Published: August 19, 2003

Stars: Robert Powell
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (war violence, scenes of violent death)
Run Time: 22h:30m:00s
Release Date: June 24, 2003
UPC: 733961708400
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B B+A-B C-

DVD Review

The Century of Warfare takes on a massive topic in an attempt to capture the progress of the psychology and technology of war over the course of Twentieth Century. It does a fine job of the latter, but a less than satisfactory job of the former. The idealogy of the film is so bland as to make some of the most horrific events of the century into mere blips on the horizon. The series also has to walk a fine line between glorifying war and illustrating its depravity. It must denounce the universal aspects of human conflict while still promoting the human achievements within it. Not an easy trick by any means, and certainly the bland politics of the series helps to accomplish the task of creating "entertainment" out of a century of brutal death and destruction.

It does, however, represent what watching the History Channel is all about with copious newsreel footage, stirring background music, and those subtle audio additions to the film such as explosions, horse hooves and tank tracks to move the action along. Watching The Century of Warfare can be an almost Zen-like experience, if it didn't snap you out of a state of reverie with some horrific scenes of violent death and destruction.

The set begins with an introductory episode called The Violent Century that provides an overview of the brutal nature of the Twentieth Century, featuring the fact that it saw more war and war-related deaths than at anytime in history. With the beginning of World War I—the War to End All Wars—this first episode focuses on the modernization of warfare that took place before and during that conflict. Following only twenty years later was the more brutal and ruthless conflict of the Second World War, which took the violence to an unprecedented scale and included a new kind of war victim with the murder of Jews in Germany. Soon smaller wars become prevalent as regional conflicts ignited for various territorial and ideological reasons. The style of the series is demonstrated: there are no ponderous "talking head" academics or professional interviewees, but rather Robert Powell's reading of the narration and archival films of all types.

Powell is a very good actor who has appeared in such disparate roles as Dr. Henry Fynn in Shaka Zulu, Group Captain Walker in the musical Tommy, Victor Frankenstein is the 1984 mini-series version of the Mary Shelley novel, and Jesus Christ in Franco Zefferelli's opulent Jesus of Nazareth mini-series. Here in The Century of Warfare, his readings of the script are nearly perfect with the right level of English schoolmasterish tone with touches of dramatics to add varietyto the narrative. Some of the writing is quite complex in exploring the tangled political webs of the century, and Powell deserves a lot of credit for the listenability of this lengthy track.

The World Goes to War is part two of the series and features much political intrigue as nations maneuver to avoid and provoke war prior to World War I. That conflict is illustrated with Episode 3, Blood and Mud, which provides rare footage and fascinating photos that demonstrates the brutal nature of The Great War's trench battles. More politics in the fourth episode, War of the Eagles, which explores the three mighty empires that came to battle on the Eastern Front, and then details the Russian revolutions that toppled the Czar and ended Russian participation in the war.

The technology of war take front stage in the next two episodes, with naval power covered in Battle Fleets and U-Boats and burgeoning air power in Aces High. Back to politics after the United States enters the conflict and helps to end it. The Allied powers impose harsh conditions on the losing Germans, and this leads directly to the years after the war in which totalitarianism rises and we see Enter the Dictators.

The War Clouds Gather is the first episode of Disc Three, offering a very good explanation of the causes of the Second World War as it carefully tracks the events that led up to the conflict. The next episode, Blitzkrieg, looks at the new method of modern warfare pioneered by the Germans as they were able to secretly rebuild both their military and military doctrine in the decade after Hitler's assumption of power. The fall of France and the resulting stand against aggression by the United Kingdom is portrayed in Britain Stands Alone. The fourth episode on Disc Three, Sand and Sea War, tells the tale of desert warfare in the Sahara with Monty, The Desert Fox, and El Alamein, as well as American troops getting their first action in the war.

World War II continues on Disc Four with Operation Barbarossa and the German invasion of Russia with 3 million men and 3,300 tanks as Hitler Turns East. The flip side is covered in the second episode as German defeats result in retreat and The Long Road Back. D-Day dominates the third program on the disc with Normandy to the Rhine, which sees the United States mounts the successful invasion of the continent. As the war winds down, The End in Europe looks at the aftermath of the war and the political maneuvering among the big three allies.

Disc Five turns to the Far East and examines Japanese tactics in Oriental Blitzkrieg. Following the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, the American pursue an island-hopping campaign in the Pacific that is described in Jungle and Ocean. More sea action is covered in The War at Sea, providing an overview of naval engagements, major Pacific battles and amphibious landings. Air War looks at the advances in weapons that lead to massive bombing raids, dogfights and carrier-based fighters battles in the skies over the Pacific.

Politics are the main component of Disc Six as the superpowers begin the Cold War in Iron Curtain, which describes the uneasy peace following the war. Oriental Communism studies the advance of the socialist doctrine in the vacuum created in Asian by the crumbling withdrawal of the former Colonial powers. Civil Wars, proxy conflicts, and terrorism dominate Wars in Peace as the world continues to struggle with the aftermath of World War II and the demands of emergent nations.

Disc Seven focuses first on the Vietnam war in Vietnam as the American take over from the French in Indochina and fight a long battle against a difficult foe. Many harsh lessons force a rethinking of policies and foreshadow difficulties to be encountered toward the end of the century. The second episode on the disc details the Middle East wars involving Israel and its Arab neighbors in War in the Middle East. The final episode on the disc, Gulf War and the Future promotes the American victory in the Gulf War and looks toward the next century.

The final two discs are by far the weakest of the set and this is to be expected as that recent history is still being written and rewritten. Many revelations that have emerged following the fall of the Soviet Union and also information obtained from Vietnam have changed perceptions of many of the conflicts since World War II. The Korean War gets somewhat short shrift, especially considering its importance in both tactical and strategic doctrines in the shadow of nuclear war. The story of the Gulf War seems to have been written straight from U.S. Government sources and is a very superficial tale of the conflict. Many other details have emerged from behind the control of the coverage of that war that are ignored here.

Ultimately, we are left with an abbreviated, World Book serving of history as opposed to an Encyclopedia Britannica in this set. Certainly, this is a fine introduction to a vast subject and does a sturdy job of describing and explicating on a certain level. But, some matters are oversimplified and ultimately the result is less than satisfactory. However, anyone who views parts of this documentary and then goes on to read more about the Holocaust, the politics of nuclear war and the misuses of power in the pursuit of political domination will count as a victory for the producers.

Disc 1
The Violent Century
The World Goes to War
Blood and Mud
War of the Eagles

Disc 2
Battle Fleets and U-Boats
Aces High
War to End All War?
Enter the Dictators

Disc 3
The War Clouds Gather
Britain Stands Alone
Sand Sea War

Disc 4
Hitler Turns East
The Long Road Back
Normandy to the Rhine
The End in Europe

Disc 5
Oriental Blitzkrieg
Jungle and Ocean
The War at Sea
Air War

Disc 6
Iron Curtain
Oriental Communism
Wars in Peace

Disc 7
War in the Middle East
Gulf War and the Future

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Century of Warfare represents hundreds of hours of old newsreel footage; the earlier inclusions in black and white, the later reels in colorAs one would expect, this collection of vintage film varies greatly throughout the program. However, an excellent job has been done in presenting this disintegrating material; the entire show is eminently watchable.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0no

Audio Transfer Review: Audio quality on The Century of Warfare is certainly acceptable. There are three components—Robert Powell's narration, music and sound effects—that underscore the action in the newsreel footage. All are blended nicely in the stereo soundtrack and there is a decent depth to the audio that avoids typical TV dullness.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 208 cues and remote access
Packaging: Box Set
7 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: With a seven-disc set, it doesn't seem all that important to get a bunch of extras. With a history set it would seem viable to include maps and/or biographical information about personnel. However, with the wealth of content here it is hard to complain.

Extras Grade: C-


Final Comments

Everything you wanted to know about warfare in the last century and more is here in one set. As history, The Century of Warfare is more broad than it is deep, but manages to overcome some of the limitations of its medium and the natural inclination to justify violence, and provides some intriguing views of the brutal nature of humanity.


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