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War and Remembrance: 'WWII in HD 'on DVD

By Bob Fisher

"Those who can not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
- George Santayana


WWII in HD premiered on History last November. The 10-hour, five-part documentary was produced by Lou Reda Productions, and will be released January 26 in standard and Blu-ray HD DVD formats through A&E Home Entertainment.

The story, spanning the entire Second World War, is told in color with 65- to 70-year-old film and the words of American journalists, soldiers, a sailor, an airmen, a marine and an army nurse. The images were culled from some 3,000 hours of film found in archives and private collections in 35 nations.

There are breathtaking shots of aerial dog fights, nurses tending to wounded and dying soldiers, American troops landing on beaches, crawling through jungles and hunkered down in foxholes. There are scenes where you can mentally feel the ground rumble as the soundtrack emulates artillery shells exploding.


From WWII in HD. Photo: Library of Congress



"The footage research team found a treasure trove of color film," says executive producer Matthew Ginsburg, who co-authored the scripts, directed the final five episodes and co-directed two others. "There is a sense of immediacy with color film. There is a texture that makes these events feel like they happened yesterday.

"According to our historical consultant, Marty Morgan," Ginsburg continues, "Marine combat cinematographers shot a lot of 16mm Kodachrome film in the Pacific, starting with the landing at Tarawa, where they faced a formidable force of Japanese soldiers. The amount of color footage available grew incrementally as the Pacific campaign went from Kwajalein to Saipan, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Much of the content is horrifying, but the colors are vibrant and the images are arresting."

There is also color film taken by civilians, including footage of Nazi storm troopers marching in a parade in Munich and tossing swastika flags to the crowd in 1938.

The images are augmented with a script narrated by Gary Sinese. Twelve other actors read words in diaries and letters written by a dozen people during the war. Six of them were still alive, and they shared feelings and memories in new interviews.

Donald Miller, a historian and professor at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, who has written about World War II, and producer Liz Reph identified the individuals whose words were used. One of them was Robert Sherrod, a correspondent for Time and Life Magazines. The others included journalist Richard Tregaskis, an army nurse, an African-American pilot who was a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, the son of Japanese immigrants who served in the US Army and was a prisoner of war in Europe, and a Jewish émigré from Austria who was a soldier in the Pacific war zone.


Jack Yusen, one of the subjects in WWII in HD. Courtesy of History



The idea for producing the documentary in color originated with History president Nancy Dubuc. Lou Reda Productions, which has one of the largest privately owned archives in the world, was commissioned to produce the series. Their archive contains more than 13,000 hours of film, including some 5,000 hours of military footage dating back to the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Ginsburg was brought on board to run the project by History senior vice president of  development and programming Michael Stieler and executive producer David McKillop. Ginsburg estimates that some 60 percent of the footage that made the final cut came from the National Archives in Washington, DC. The Lou Reda Archives also provided considerable content. Other sources of visual content include:

* The 8th Air Force Museum in Savannah, Georgia, which has some 300 reels of World War II film, ranging from aerial combat footage to intimate images of an airman writing a letter home, and airmen playing football with children from a nearby village.

* The Army Heritage & Education Center, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, owns some 400 reels of training films and personal footage donated by veterans and their families.

* The Ian Spring Collection, in Dublin, Ireland, was assembled by a private collector. It includes film shot by a German soldier in Africa and footage of Japanese war brides who married American soldiers after the end of the war.

* The Pacific War Museum, in Fredericksburg, Texas, contains film taken in China and Japan during the mid-1940s, and footage of American soldiers interacting with indigenous people in the jungles on South Pacific islands.

* The Marine Historical Center, in Quantico, Virginia, has more than 500 reels of film taken by US Marine cinematographers during battles in the Pacific.

* The Naval Historical Center, in Washington, DC, has some 550 reels of combat footage, documenting warfare at sea in the Pacific Ocean, including Japanese airplanes during suicide Kamikaze attacks on US warships.

* The National WW II Museum, in New Orleans, has more than 30 reels of film documenting the invasion and battle on the island of Iwo Jima and the post-atomic bomb devastation of Nagasaki, Japan.

* Mike Lanier, of Clarksville, Georgia, provided his collection of home movies, which document what life was like for an average American family during the 1940s.

* Homer Helter, of Naples, Florida, offered color footage that was taken during a victory parade on the streets of Paris after the Allied forces liberated the city.

* Robert Haught, of New York City, had a private collection of 160 films, including German propaganda newsreels produced between 1939 and 1945.

The footage provided by the National Archives was converted to HD format by one of that institution's two authorized post-production facilities. The other film was scanned, restored when necessary, and converted to HD format by Lou Reda Productions.

"Filmmaking is a team sport," Ginsburg observes. "Many people, nearly 50 all told, worked tirelessly for many months to bring this project to life. They included the field production team, writers, sound designers and editors who brought an incredibly high level of craft to this project. We were on a mission to accurately represent the journeys of  the 12 people who we featured in this pivotal event in human history.


Sailors at the Pearl Harbor memorial in Hawaii. From WWII in HD. Photo: Bettman/Corbis.



"Our goal and hope was that this series will encourage viewers to think about World War II in terms of the experiences of individuals and not just the broader military mission and strategies," he continues. "We want this film to provide a better understanding of the sacrifices made by those who served, and the lasting emotional toll it took on them.

"For me, this first hit home when I saw an early rough cut scene of 18 and 19 year-old kids on their way to battle, not knowing where they were going or what they were about to get into," Ginsburg notes. "It was stirring. I could see the determination, the fear and the vulnerability on their faces in living color. As we delved deeper into post-production, the narrations of the intimate memories of our characters, and the footage of those struggling in the midst of the chaos and carnage made the realities of the war graphically tangible.

"What these men and women were exposed to on the battlefields was vicious and brutal," Ginsburg observes. "As veteran Jack Yusen reflects at the end of Episode 10, ‘War is a terrible thing.' I believe this film highlights the tremendous debt of gratitude that we owe those who fought in this war."

Ginsburg notes that according to Lou Reda Productions archivist Greg Miller, since WWII in HD aired on History, many people have come forward with personal films that they, their parents, grandparents other relatives or acquaintances shot.

The moral of this story is that moving images recorded on film are the Rosetta Stone of our times. These images are the way future generations will get to know who their ancestors were and how they helped to create the world of tomorrow.


The DVD package of WWII in HD includes two behind-the scenes documentaries: Finding the Footage and Preserving the Footage. For more information, click here.


Bob Fisher has been writing about documentary and narrative filmmaking for nearly 40 years, mainly focusing on cinematography and preservation.