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Image Entertainment presents
The First World War: The Complete Series (2004)

"There's hardly any bread. The swines will leave us to die of hunger. Too bad—after all, we are French and if we have to die, we shall die. But France will be victorious."
- Yves Congar, a French boy writing in his journal about Germany's occupation

Review By: Nate Meyers  
Published: February 02, 2006

Stars: Jonathan Lewis
Other Stars: Archduke Franz Ferdinand, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Emperor Franz Josef, Hermann Göring, Kaiser Wilhelm II, King Ferdinand of Bulgaria, Vladimir Lenin, Jonathan Lewis, David Lloyd George, Erich Ludendorff, Philippe Pétain, Queen Marie of Rumania, Jan Smuts, Paul von Hindenburg, Manfred von Richthofen, Woodrow Wilson
Director: Various

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (images of warfare)
Run Time: 08h:23m:18s
Release Date: August 30, 2005
UPC: 014381055122
Genre: television

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B+ AB-B+ D

DVD Review

World War I is one of the most important events in history. Even the most relaxed history student can see how the events of Europe between 1914 and 1918 fed into the rise of the Nazis and the Soviet Union. What is more difficult to understand is the specific nature in which The Great War changed the whole landscape of civilization—not just in the US and Europe, but Africa and Asia as well. It marks the introduction of a fully mechanized war, the death of Napoleonic military strategy, the fall of empires, the rise of nation states, and, as Ernest Hemingway aptly put it, it created a Lost Generation.

The First World War: The Complete Series is a massive undertaking by series producer and narrator Jonathan Lewis, basing the ten-part documentary on Hew Strachan's book of the same name. I've spent years studying WWI and to all who have an interest in the subject, this documentary is a godsend. Granted, John Keegan's single-volume The First World War is a superior analysis of the conflict and reading that book will give one a greater understanding of the war, but even Keegan's masterful account cannot equal the visceral impact of this series. At nearly eight-and-a-half hours, The First World War is one of the best historical documentaries ever made, ranking alongside Ken Burns' The Civil War and Baseball, as well as The World at War.

Featuring an astonishing amount of film footage and still photographs from the war (some are newly released from former Soviet republics), the documentary employs voiceover readings of diaries and other documents to great use. Some of the images here are familiar, especially in the first episode. To Arms chronicles the summer of 1914, with terrorism in the Balkans causing strain on the fragile Bismarck Alliance System. The images of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand fatefully riding into Serbia on June 28, 1914 still exhibit power. If the Archduke's driver had not taken that wrong turn, leading the royal to Serbian assassin Gavrilo Princip's pistol, who knows how things would be today. Each of the ten episodes displays impeccable insight on this point, showing how a simple action in "the war to end all wars" caused all sorts of ramifications still felt to this day. Unrest in the Middle East, the rise of Japan as a power in the Pacific, and political revolutions in Russia, among other places. I wish more time was spent on the 19th-entury wars and regimes that led to the state of Europe in the 1910s, but perhaps this is asking for too much.

While Lewis' documentary may not spend enough time establishing the context of Europe at large in 1914, it delves into intoxicating detail about the chain of events that led to an entire world at war. The film takes its time, pacing itself carefully but never belatedly. Each of the 50-minute episodes sets its sight on a specific aspect of the war. The widely held belief that the war consisted entirely of trench warfare is shred to pieces, with rare footage of battles on the Western and Eastern fronts showing infantry and cavalry striking swiftly and fluidly. Hundred of thousands of men died before the first trench was dug, and even trench warfare had many dynamics to it. Recreating the day-to-day life of the soldiers on both sides, the collection of documentations takes the silent films and gives them new life by adding striking sound effects. The inclusion of original color photographs from the period is another amazing element of the archival materials, showing the inept minds behind the war that decided to clothe their men in vibrant colors as opposed to camouflage.

The material covered is so vast that it would overwhelm the mind if not for the documentary carefully focusing each of its episodes on a specific battle or movement. Jihad opened my eyes to the full extent of the Ottoman Empire's devastating role in the war, with Turks and Arabs taking casualties every bit as damaging as the French, British, and Germans. On the Western front, the numbers keep growing with battles like Verdun and the Somme claiming the lives of over a half million men each, yet the war roars on with no end in sight. Even though very few of the images shown on screen are graphic, the dread of war is captured strikingly. Great changes unfold with Eastern Europe being set free from Imperial rule, the communists overthrowing Nicholas II's oligarchy, and the US rises as a superpower. Yet, watching this documentary I just simply felt disheartened at the lives it took to bring about these changes—changes that, good or bad, cost many more lives in various ways.

The only real flaw in The First World War is the unfortunate use of B-roll footage. Some of it is effective, such as shots of former battlegrounds that now grow with nature and suggest some kind of vindication, rebirth from the ashes of war. However, when the narration is describing the cities of Europe in 1916, images of modern day Paris, Berlin, or Moscow create a disconnect. It would be much more effective to limit the footage entirely to vintage newsreel film. The actors providing voiceover readings of various diaries and official documents help create the different personalities that they depict. Listening to the words of men tired by war gives a new sense of appreciation for the men who sacrificed so much for freedom, honor, and country.

This is a beautiful, comprehensive look at World War I. The events and people are relayed in great detail, though it isn't until the final ten minutes that the documentary takes on a life of its own. As the effects of the war are discussed, from the Treaty of Versailles to the death toll, the most disturbing thing is to see how much good camefrom this conflict. Democracy began to spread, militarism lessened, the League of Nations was created, oppressed people formed national identities, and foreign aggression was defeated. Yet this war could not resolve the violent underpinnings of human nature. Instead, it gave them new hope, for, as the narration points out, "Its terrible message was that war can effect change. That war can fulfill ambitions. That war can work."

Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A


Image Transfer

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

Image Transfer Review: The image quality is largely dependent on the source material, which is drastically different from shot to shot. Some of the vintage footage is washed-out, while others have fairly strong detail. All archival shots are scratched and dirty, though there's very little that could be done to change this. As for the newly shot B-roll footage, I noticed a bit of artifacting though it wasn't terribly noticeable.

Image Transfer Grade: B-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishno

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby Stereo 2.0 sound mix comes across nicely when played in ProLogic. The score plays lightly in the surround speakers, with the bulk of the mix being devoted to the front sound stage. Sound effects are effectively balanced in the mix, with directionality and separation helping to create the fog of war, especially during the Battle of Gallipoli. Most importantly, however, the voiceovers are audible and mix is crisp.

Audio Transfer Grade: B+


Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 40 cues and remote access
Packaging: Digipak
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. Insert—a 31-page guide to the documentary, containing an episode directory.
Extras Review: The sole supplemental feature is a collectible insert. The 31-page collection of viewing notes introduces each episode of the documentary elegantly. It also contains some interesting replications of World War I propaganda. The extras are scanty, but the feature film more than makes up for it.

Extras Grade: D


Final Comments

War is Hell. These immortal words of General Sherman are put to the screen in The First World War: The Complete Series. Although the special features are virtually nonexistent, the documentary is well worth the price of purchase.


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