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Brit Doc Extraordinaire: The Making of 'The World at War'

By Betsy McLane

The World at War
by Taylor Downing
Palgrave Macmillan, 2012
180 pages with black-and-white and color photographs

Are there reasons why a reader should spend time with a small book containing a detailed examination of a documentary series produced in England in the 1970s? The answer is yes, when the film at hand is The World at War. This remarkable work is a landmark in documentary, not only for its groundbreaking filmmaking and its insistence on authenticity, but for the lasting impact it continues to have on understanding the history and production of historical documentaries. To watch this film, even today, is an enlightening, entertaining and exciting experience.

The British Film Institute's publication of the series BFI TV Classics has become a classic endeavor of its own, and Taylor Downing's study is a happy addition to the list. His work provides a meticulous dissection of the politics, people and processes that made the shows possible. His recounting of the economic and political situation in Britain at a time when the BBC was beginning to lose its monopoly on broadcasting is an important background to the way that documentary production evolved there over the past 50 years.

Today, there are several sources of financing and outlets for broadcast in Britain, but in the beginning of the 1970s, the BBC and political powers both within and outside that institution exerted control over what was seen. Changes in TV documentary from the 1970s continue to have relevance for makers who want to understand how and why particular documentaries get made and seen in Britain today.

Although ITV was established in the 1950s under the auspices of the Independent Television Authority, it was regarded as the frivolous wayward second cousin to the government-mandated BBC. ITV's association with cheap entertainments even led to the government granting rights for a third television network to BBC, which became BBC2. In the early '70s, a newly reorganized ITV had much to prove to audiences and the government if it was to succeed culturally and survive financially.

To ITV's rescue came Jeremy Isaacs, a relatively young, but experienced producer of historical films. In Downing's analysis of The Great War, Isaacs is the triumphant warrior who deserves the lion's share of credit for the series. Indeed, The World at War would not exist without Isaacs' splendid mix of talents, most particularly a vision that encompassed a broad sense of history and combined it with then rare documentary techniques. His first treatment, written in 1971, is, as Downing writes, "without a doubt the product of a single hand with a single vision of how to construct the series... Twenty of the final 26 episodes are clearly recognizable, four are the clear foundation of what would become the final episodes, and only two would be dropped." This independence is an achievement that many series producers today (excepting Ken and Ric Burns) might well find unbelievable.

One of the reasons for this was Thames Television, a licensee of ITV, which needed to prove its credibility as a serious documentary channel. Another was that due to a shift in tax law, Thames was able to spend lavishly. A third reason was that Thames had to compete with the BBC. In 1964, the BBC had made The Great War, a grand and popular series of 24 shows, each running 40 minutes. It was logical that they would follow up with a World War II spectacular, but Thames and Isaacs beat them to the gate with a streamlined, for-profit bureaucracy. The series proved to be a great publicity coup for Thames, and ultimately made many times its production cost for the company.

Despite wide popularity, The Great War had proved to be quite controversial. Although it included interviews with survivors, the majority of it was archival footage. Problematically, not much footage exists from World War I. For battle scenes the producers relied heavily on staged re-enactments. Hollywood films like All Quiet on the Western Front were included. This blatant and continuous misuse of archival film had infuriated Dr. Noble Frankland of the London-based Imperial War Museum, which houses a very extensive archive.

It took Isaac's considerable abilities to convince the museum to participate in yet another war series, but an agreement was reached that eventually yielded revenue from overseas licensing fees. Strictly enforcing the proper use of archival material from every source was Jerry Kuel, whose insistence on complete accuracy at times infuriated directors and editors, but whose scrupulousness made the series a paragon of archival footage use. Unfortunately, far too many documentary makers fail to emulate Kuel's and Isaacs' standards, and viewers are often misled by a mish-mash of misused and improperly identified shots. Herein lies a lesson for today's filmmakers about the relationships and the care that must be taken with archival sources, despite fair use.

When it came to the individual episodes, Isaacs let directors use their own sensibilities and styles, working from two- or three-page outlines he provided. While The World at War contains common thematic and stylistic threads, each episode was designed to stand alone. During production, Isaacs was heading up another division at Thames, which took him away from the millions of details involved in the research, shooting and editing of The World at War. But his and Frankland's insistence on creating a story-driven series that emphasized the experiences of common people is what made The World at War unique.

Many who had lived through the war were alive when the series was made, including leading officers, politicians, strategists and other prominent figures. In most cases, these notable individuals were not presented on screen as voices of authority. Nor did the episodes dwell on tactics and battle plans.   Rather, the series focused on the lives of ordinary people, men and women, at home and at the front, who saw the war from their own personal perspectives. The film emphasized that this war had been fought on many fronts, by many different soldiers and civilians, each of whom had a unique story to tell. The World at War allowed these stories to be told in ways that the public had not seen before. 

The effort to find and organize individual experiences within the larger history of the war was enormous, and Downing judiciously selects a range of examples. He does not try to cover episodes in detail, but offers enough information on selected shows to demonstrate the overall approach. He also explains the ways in which original music and written narration were planned and executed. Especially fascinating is the experience of working with Sir Laurence Olivier, who narrated every show, and not initially with enthusiasm.

Downing gives detailed credit to the phenomenal work of the researchers, who dug out pieces of film from all over the world, worked with subjects over years of production to get them to reveal themselves, and pulled all the information together. Especially interesting was a section that included long-neglected color home movie footage of Adolph Hitler, Albert Speer, Herman Goebbels, Heinrich Himmler, Claus Ribbentrop and others relaxing with Eva Braun at the Führer's mountaintop retreat. These images are now common, but The World at War first brought them to the public. Editors, who worked closely with directors, are given their due credit.

Dowling's writing compresses the years of production and distribution into an easy-to-read flow. He conducted extensive interviews, consulted references and, most importantly, sought original letters, contracts, scripts and other primary sources. There is little in the way of aesthetic analysis or detailed critique, but these are not the focus of the book. Downing's The World at War mixes anecdotes with hard numbers and facts to create an engrossing account of one of England's most important documentaries.


Betsy A. McLane is the author of A New History of Documentary Film, Second Edition.