Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The World At War - Tough Old Gut. Episode 13

1973, 26 episodes, roughly 52 minutes each, Unrated - no language, endless black and white violence and dead bodies. Some artistic piles of bodies and crematorium ash in the later concentration camp footage.

IMDB says... A series of accurate documentaries about World War II.

The 73rd Virgin says... It's unlikely that my father had a movie near and dear to his heart, but he was fond of "The Story of G.I. Joe", in part because it focused on the Italian Campaign in which he served. And the real life Ernie Pyle was generally considered the bravest and most soldier-focused war time journalist. I had planned to review it for Memorial Day but Netflix doesn't have it, and Barnes & Noble wants $195.00 for the DVD, so that won't be happening.

Instead I'll look at one episode of the epic 26 episode BBC TV series "The World at War". I watched the bulk of this series on the local PBS channel in the 70s and my father watched most of it with me. He avoided the "Death Works Overtime" episode.

When produced in 1973 the series was the most expensive in BBC's history. Some additional history has been filled in during the intervening years, but to the fan of popular history, war, and the documentary style there is still no comparison, except, I suppose, Ken Burn's Civil War series.

This is not ancient authors and professors seeking to clarify history they never saw, but still-young veterans, generals, war criminals and journalists describing what they lived through. Although World War II in HD has better visuals, The World at War is epic, informative, tragic and rarely humorous. Laurence Olivier's narration is the perfect combination of clear, heartfelt, and doleful, and Carl Davis's music remains iconic. The sound effects pass unnoticed until you ponder that most of this film was silent and they had to dub in 26 hours of engine sounds, guns, marching, etc. Episode 13 entitled "Tough Old Gut" opens with long shots of the awful Italian mountains that the allies would have to fight through and around in the winters of 43 and 44.

The series in general has a slight western theater/British bias but that is a quibble unless you're Russian and impolite enough to point out that 4/5 of German soldiers killed died on the eastern front. Which brings us to why the Americans and allies decided to attack North Africa and Italy at all, that is, to take some of the pressure off the Russians who were in constant retreat and under siege for a couple years. They needed a second front soon.

I can't vouch for the accuracy of the battle clips obviously, but the hundreds of interviews crossed with archival footage keep the pace moving, and since each episode is less than an hour, you don't feel bogged down very often. Here we see early applications of DDT dust to stop a typhus epidemic plus more of the non-combat clips that all the other WWII series tend to lack.

Gen. Mark Clark seems a bit defensive throughout the show about his or his military's performance. Here we catch a glimpse of the diversity of his allied soldiers including a Sikh. My father noted that the Sikhs were the sharpest soldiers he had seen. They wouldn't wear helmets but would go into battle with their turbans perfectly in place; their beards and mustaches waxed and groomed, and their uniforms spotless. By all accounts they were crazy-brave. We are later surprised to learn that a tiny New Zealand lost 4,000 soldiers in their part of the assault on Monte Cassino. Finally, another admired celebrity, cartoonist Bill Mauldin appears in fab 70s hair describing burial squads. He was beloved for his "Willie and Joe" cartoons and remained active as a political cartoonist into the 80s.

And an English journalist describes Germany's Italian version of Tokyo Rose and the propaganda used on British soldiers, at least.

Typically, this is all blocked on YouTube. So promise me you won't let my egregious uploads prevent your purchasing a licensed copy or renting the same (or picking up at your public library) for the remaining 22 hours and 27 minutes of this remarkable series. You will come away amazed, sober, and tiresomely knowledgeable. Episode 26, "Remember" is about as moving as anything you'll ever watch.

“The dark night of fascism is forever descending upon the United States, yet somehow it always lands in Europe” - Jean Francois Revel

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