By Alessandra Stanley
Copyright 2014 New York Times News Service
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Produced by Stephen David Entertainment for History. Russ McCarroll, Paul Cabana and Elaine Frontain Bryant, executive producers for History; Stephen David, executive producer for Stephen David Entertainment.
The military historian Rick Atkinson needed more than 2,000 pages to recount the American role in the European victory during World War II in his three-volume opus, “The Liberation Trilogy.”
“Band of Brothers” was a 10-part HBO mini-series about the men of Easy Company that focused on their combat experiences from 1944 to 1945.
There is so much to learn and re-examine about World War II, and the temptation to keeping zooming in closer and closer is almost irresistible; 70 years on, there are still new discoveries, fresh interpretations or just the comfort of repetition.
And that makes “The World Wars,” a documentary on the History channel that runs for three consecutive nights beginning on Monday, remarkable.
It's a smart, imaginatively made and unusually sweeping look at what happened to the world from Sarajevo in 1914 to Hiroshima in 1945, or as Churchill put it, “one story of a 30 years' war.”
And it does so by examining how the commanders of World War II were shaped by their experiences in World War I, a conflict that was supposed to end all wars and instead made a Second World War inevitable.
Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt are central characters, but so are Tojo, Mussolini and two American generals, Patton and MacArthur. (De Gaulle is featured prominently only in an international version.)
Interviews are woven around archival material and also short, well-chosen re-enactments — the actors playing Churchill and Hitler in World War II are particularly good.
In that way, “The World Wars” is as engagingly informative as “D-Day: Normandy 1944,” an account in 3-D by the French filmmaker Pascal Vuong that is touring Imax theaters and museums around the world.
That film, narrated by Tom Brokaw, uses a 3-D format as well as computer-generated images, re-enactments, graphics and period film and photographs to explain what led to that day, big and small, from the strategic and tactical planning of Operation Overlord to a seasick Canadian soldier the night before the disastrous 1942 raid on Dieppe, France, crouching in an wave-tossed landing craft to write a farewell letter on the backpack of the serviceman in front of him. In real life, the letter made it home; he did not.
Both films are ambitious undertakings that help fill a gap in an education system that has moved away from survey courses to niche seminars and, perhaps rightly, to more immediate concerns further afield. At leading universities, many history departments offer two to three times as many courses on Asia as on 20th-century Europe.
Historians will find things to contest in “The World Wars”: It's impossible not to oversimplify or take liberties when the story jumps from Patton's ingenious improvisation of motorized warfare against Pancho Villa in Mexico (a machine gun was strapped to the top of an automobile) to Churchill's bold and disastrous Battle of Gallipoli.
Jeremy Renner is the narrator, and experts like Douglas Brinkley and Michael Beschloss share space with ex-government officials and retired generals who have their own experiences of war and hubris, including Dick Cheney. It may seem a bit odd to hear former elected leaders like John Major of Britain or Mario Monti, the recent Italian prime minister, recount historical events they didn't live through, but there is a certain poetic justice to it: Politicians were responsible for the senseless carnage of World War I, so it is fitting that later generations reflect on the missteps of their forefathers as well as their successes.
A lot of the narrative is illustrated with short dramatizations: Churchill and Roosevelt listening to Christmas carols at the White House in 1941 when they get word that Japan had taken Hong Kong; a banker jumping out of his office window on Black Tuesday, 1929; Hitler inspecting a Luftwaffe factory disguised as an elementary school in 1934.
The opening is also a re-enactment. During an artillery attack in 1914, a canister of tear gas sails into a trench occupied by soldiers of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry Regiment. In the panic, one soldier, a runner, can't seal his gas mask and, in German, shouts that his mustache is burning.
Finally he sticks his head up high near the razor wire atop the barricade, to get air. After the all-clear, he settles back into the trench and, crouching in front of a propped up mirror, takes out his razor and shaves off the bushy ends of his mustache, leaving only a small, black toothbrush.
That story of how Hitler got his famous look is discounted by some historians; still others dispute whether
Hitler spent quite as much time at the front as he claimed in “Mein Kampf.” But it is an evocative way to start a film whose tagline is “WWI: the world changed them. WWII: they changed the world.”
“The World Wars” and “D-Day: Normandy 1944” are tributes that inspire and, in an unstuffy way, also instruct.