Despite all of the war documentaries to follow, including the very recent World War II in HD, Victory at Sea still holds its place as a unique, distinct, and well put together document of the war, specifically focused (of course) on the naval battles.
Comprised of footage from propaganda films, news reels, combat footage, and even a few miniature shots, Victory is 26 episodes of striking moving images, covering each theater and major battle of the war. Of interest are the variety of topics here, from the casual, almost playful times of peace between attacks on these massive ships to the grim realities of the end result, bodies strewn about the sea as they wash ashore.
Victory aired in 1952 on NBC, not long after the war had ended, keeping the heavily patriotic tone but still affording all of those who fought and died due respect regardless of which side they were on. One of the final episodes focuses on Okinawa, and the kamikaze pilots who were the last gasp for Japanese fighters. Footage of these pilots taking a final drink, waving to cheering onlookers as they leave the ground is eerie, almost like looking at a ghost.
The same goes for the Allied troops, the sheer number of bodies being shipped across the world, landing on beaches, and taking to the skies setting the scale in visuals that the simple word “world” cannot display. Footage is recycled throughout the series, an underwater torpedo launch one of the more flagrant culprits, but it doesn’t take away from those images of ships sinking, helpless survivors drifting away, or the mournful view of those aircraft slamming into the deck of a carrier after a missed landing. Age has little to do with this material’s impact.
While the visuals of Victory at Sea are part of the experience, Richard Rogers’ score is magnificent, sweeping and overloaded with variation. Each scene is given added life by the orchestration, the footage generally silent, this aside from the eloquent narration from Leonard Graves. Victory is at times somewhat sluggish, more so considering the dearth of WWII documentaries available today, yet it still remains unique and interesting, compiled during a time period where the war was still fresh on people’s minds. It’s a stand-out.
Victory at Sea poses a difficult scenario for Blu-ray. Much of this footage was captured in actual combat, whether that’s on 8mm, 16mm, or 35mm. That was then transferred to yet another film stock as it was edited, then shipped off to local affiliates to air. That leaves not only multi-generational film stocks to cause problems, but the negative for the show itself, and the inter-negative used to transfer this to Blu-ray. That’s all before anyone could have a chance to restore this digitally.
Needless to say, there are no blanket statements to make about this release, i.e., saying the black levels remain rich and deep would be incorrect. They bob and weave more than a professional fighter. Saying the damage is consistent would be wildly miscalculated, as every stock and every shot offers something else to worry about, or even amaze the viewer by how clean it is. The proper 4×3 frame suffers from every conceivable problem you can imagine at some point or another, some far rarer than others. A trailer exists on each disc comparing footage of a late episode between VHS, DVD, and Blu-ray. Actual detail gain is minimal from DVD to HD (VHS being a no contest, no shocker there), the real difference being the hefty contrast boost and some sharpness. In actual application throughout this series, the series can look better, making that a rather low-end comparison.
The first episode is the roughest, faded, flat, with a contrast that is so out of control in spots it can be hard to even make out what is being shown, while analog halos surrounds numerous objects. It’s not fair to judge the entire series in that regard though, and it’s strange to see how this series bookends, the final shots of parades celebrating the end of the war spectacular in their clarity. There are many frames peppered throughout the series falling into each extreme, and some that meander around somewhere in the middle. Typically, the images are devoid of flicker and the print remains stable, but again, this does change. One of the best of these 26 episodes (spread across three discs) is Magnetic North, containing what is arguably the best source material, the slightest damage, and even some high-fidelity detail. “D-Day” is a close runner-up.
In terms of the encode itself, the array of stocks tossed at it means the AVC codec has its work cut out, and in broad terms, it typically performs admirably. Grain is well resolved, the heaviest of stocks still well rendered and film-like. There are, yet again, variances, a shot in “Rings Around Rabaul” at 14:58 of a battleship appearing notably digital and swarming with artifacts. It’s a rarity.
One final note is the inclusion of the transparent Periscope Films logo in the bottom right corner, morphing into a web address a few times per episode to avoid burn-in. It’s a shame, although the reasoning behind the decision is sound (Victory at Sea has been public domain for decades; this is their way of claiming this master), it remains a constant bother. It’s a black mark on an otherwise acceptable level of restoration, certainly better than any expectation once past the initial episode hurdle.
The show’s original mono audio mix remains intact here, sadly compressed. The Dolby Digital mix thus remains sufficient, if not much else. There is nothing awfully wrong with the audio. In fact, it seems to have been in better shape than the video, or at least restored on a more consistent level. The Rogers’ score is typically clear, the problems only coming during peaks where it can be dominated by harshness, digital and analog considered. The score drops out, reintroduced with a pop, during “Full Fathom Five” at 15:56, one of the few moments where the audio loses everything. That popping comes and goes throughout the series, rarely more than once an episode, if that.
A mild hiss exists under everything, the opening to the final episode the only time it becomes a real bother. Less than a few minutes in, the problem has cleared itself up. Previous DVD editions suffered from a more problematic issue, that of an out-of-whack balance that drowned out the narration. That has been taken care of here, not a second of the dialogue washed out or eliminated by the score in any episode.
Extras include a fine audio-only interview with Dr. Peter Rollins on the final disc that runs for over just 35-minutes, and he then commentates over the “Guadalcanal” episode. Those with BD-ROM access can download the original publicity booklet off of the first disc in PDF form.
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