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A&E Home Video presents
Victory at Sea (1952-1953)

"Allied hands are at the Axis' throat. The pincers close; the sands run out...."
- Narrator Leonard Graves

Review By: Mark Zimmer  
Published: November 09, 2003

Stars: Leonard Graves
Other Stars: Peter Graves
Director: M. Clay Adams

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (battle violence, dead bodies)
Run Time: 11h:54m:02s
Release Date: September 30, 2003
UPC: 733961709674
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- AB-D+ D

DVD Review

The number of documentary films that can rightfully be called "beloved" can be counted on one hand. But this lengthy television series about the naval warfare of World War II certainly fits into that category. Perhaps it was because it was so soon after the achievements of WWII; perhaps it was the uniqueness of seeing such material on television; perhaps it was the stirring score by Broadway composer Richard Rodgers, or a combination of all of these. But Victory at Sea remains a landmark in television and documentary history.

This four-disc set contains the complete series of 26 half-hour episodes, each of which centers on a particular battle or thematic element in the conflict. For the most part it is composed entirely of (silent) documentary footage, although there are some bits, such as aboard a sinking U-boat or closeups of pilots in flight, that are clearly reenactments. However, enough footage (including captured German and Japanese film) appears to be genuine that these reenactments are a minor consideration. Narrator Leonard Graves often has an overly-pompous text, and there are long stretches where he remains silent and it's unclear exactly what the viewer is seeing.

Disc One centers on the early war, including the Battle of the Atlantic, the attack on Pearl Harbor (which features some devastating footage more impressive than any modern CGI-fest could ever be), and the travails of fighting the Japanese in the South Pacific, such as at Midway, Guadalcanal and in the Solomon Islands. The second disc takes us into 1942 and 1943, with a look at the fighting in the Mediterranean, especially at Malta. The assault against Germany includes cutting the supply lines to Rommels' Afrika Korps as well as the epic pursuit of the pocket battleship Graf Spee. The global aspect of the war is underlined by a linking of the activity in the South Atlantic to the fight in North Africa. Meanwhile, at the North Pole the fighting continues on the Murmansk run, and in the Battle of the Aleutians the Japanese are prevented from getting a stepping stone to invade the United States.

The end of Disc Two centers on New Guinea and the Marianas, while Disc Three concludes the German action with the invasion of Sicily and mounting the D-Day invasion of Normandy. The penultimate European chapter concerns fighting the U-boats, before switching to the lengthy discussion of retaking the Philippines and island-hopping. Of particular note is the excellent episode on the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval engagement in history. Making copious use of strategic maps, it makes the plans of attack and counterattack quite clear and easy to follow. Disc Four opens with a look at the American submarine fleet in the Pacific; although the German policy of unrestricted sub warfare gets a lot of play, it's seldom mentioned that American subs were up to the same tactics against the Japanese.

The conclusion of the war in Europe is examined through a look at the Russian naval engagements at Sebastopol and Operation Anvil, the invasion of Southern France, which marked the last sea invasion of Europe. A chapter on Iwo Jima is mercilessly padded with shots of sailors goofing around and stormy weather, while a filler episode disregards the naval aspect to look at the Japanese conquest of Southeast Asia and the efforts to keep China alive. Kamikazes get their own episode, and the finale covers the surrender in both Europe and the Pacific, and hopes for peace in years to come.

Richard Rodgers' score is justly celebrated, especially for its memorable main theme (which sold a ton of records back in the day). Rodgers also provided a surprising amount of background score here, although it's not always terribly appropriate, with Rommel's surrender set to what almost sound like show tunes. During the North Africa sequences with their martial music and Arab-tinged themes, one gets a sense of what Rodgers' abortive score for Lawrence of Arabia might have sounded like. The music for the Battle of the Aleutians contains some haunting tremeloes that give this segment a downright chilling feel.

The program remains surprisingly modern, despite the often overwrought narration. This is brought about primarily through the use of hyperkinetic editing of the footage that would make this program right at home in the video and film of recent years. Each episode stands alone, but they generally fit together well to provide a vast tapestry of the activities during the war. For anyone with an interest in military history, this show is a "must-have."

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

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

Image Transfer Review: The original full-frame picture generally looks pretty good, considering the circumstances under which most of the footage was shot. A few segments captured from Germany are in a 1.66:1 ratio. The source film varies from poor to excellent. Minor dot crawl is sometimes visible, as is occasional aliasing. The source prints feature speckling and scratches among other damage that is probably unavoidable; the Russian footage in particular looks terrible. On the whole, however, the picture is satisfactory when taking its age and circumstances of shooting into account. Interestingly, the lens flares that many viewers complained of in the video of Saving Private Ryan are presented here in their original glory, showing that Spielberg was indeed recreating this effect faithfully in his battlefield epic. There's naturally a great deal of water onscreen, which is difficult to compress well, but it all comes off very well indeed here.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The sound is a 2.0 stereo track that decodes music into a surround system in ProLogic, but with very little directionality. It feels rather like a slightly bloated mono track, which is what I suspect it really is. The programs on the first disc and some on the fourth are presented at very low volume, while the Peter Graves intros and noisy History Channel promos are not, so keep the remote handy. The other discs don't suffer from this odd problem, however. The music is rather thin, and the audio throughout is hissy and noisy. It's mediocre at best. Although there is no live sound, explosion sound effects are dubbed in and there's decent bass there though obviously nothing like a modern explosive soundtrack.

Audio Transfer Grade: D+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 130 cues and remote access
Packaging: Thinpak
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Introductions by Peter Graves
Extras Review: The sole extras are the introductions for each episode done by Peter Graves (no relation to Leonard) for the airing of these shows on the History Channel. Generally they aren't terribly informative, but on a few occasions they provide important background information that modern viewers probably will not know, but that 1952 viewers surely would have remembered. Chaptering is thorough, with 130 stops over the four discs. As usual, A&E irritatingly provides no "Play All" option.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

The classic documentary series gets a very good presentation from A&E, though there are some audio anomalies that seem rather peculiar.


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