The World at War (1973)
The seventies were a Golden Age for cerebral documentaries with such outstanding examples as The Ascent of Man, Cosmos and Life on Earth. Such shows were content driven, relying heavily upon the quality of the script along with the charisma and gravitas of the presenter. Jacob Bronowski, Carl Sagan and David Attenborough were exemplars of this. Jeremy Isaac’s The World at War is another archetype of quality documentary film making from this decade.
The World at War was first broadcast in the UK on Wednesday 26th October in 1973 on the ITV network. This was the year of the oil crisis, one of many miners' strike and Ted Heath's three-day week. World War II still loomed large in the nation’s collection psyche and influenced global politics. Forty Two years on, The World at War it is still being watched all over the world via DVDs, VoD and TV repeats. It can be cogently argued that the documentary still remains an powerful account of World War II. There are some areas that possibly may revision due to the emergence of de-classified information but as a whole this is still an in-depth, scholarly and accessible historical analysis.
Isaacs always was motivated by wanting to tell the story of World War II from a truly global perspective. At the time UK film makers and scholars still tended to follow a very UK-centric narrative adhering to Churchill’s "finest hour" mindset. Noble Frankland the director of the Imperial War Museum and the series historical adviser encouraged Isaacs to not only adopt this approach but emphasise the role of the Red Army and explore to a greater degree the significance of the war against Japan.
One of the most powerful features of the series was the use of in-depth conversations with ordinary people, often those who were directly involved in the event being explored. The first hand experiences of the average soldier at Anzio or the perspective of the civilians that endured the Blitz remains compelling viewing. The World at War also contains an unprecedented wealth of interviews with the politicians and military leaders of the time. Admiral Dönitz, Anthony Eden, Mark Clark and "Bomber" Harris are among those who shared their often contradictory views on the way key event unfolded. Perhaps the most significant contributor was Hitler's secretary Traudl Junge who paints a very human picture of the Führer's final days.
Two elements worthy of note are the series score by composer Carl Davis and narration by Laurence Olivier. Both underpin the archive newsreel footage and add gravitas to the overall narrative. The script although focusing upon the global scope of World War II, maintains a very human perspective with passages from letters, journals and popular songs from the time. Olivier’s understated delivery often affords the viewer opportunity to contemplate the magnitude of events. Davis’ score adds focus to each episode and never strays into melodrama.
Although the factual rigour of The World at War remains robust there are areas where the narrative requires updating and theatres of war that need a broader exploration. Since the shows original broadcast the facts regarding the breaking of the enigma code at Bletchley Park have come to light. As a result the episode "Wolfpack" about the battle of the Atlantic is now somewhat passé. Both China and India’s experiences during the war are conspicuous by their absence; likewise Yugoslavia’s war time ordeal is only alluded to.
The World at War was a significant undertaking for a major television network at the time and keenly reflected the production and audience standards of the decade. It is highly unlikely that a documentary series of this calibre could be produced today. Not only are there no longer any surviving interviewees with first-hand experience of the events in question, there may no longer be an appetite from the general public for such an in-depth analysis of a period of history we are becoming increasingly removed from.