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The film was shot in real color, that is to say, not colorized. (Ugh.) And it departs from the norm in other ways. There isn't much in the way of combat footage, for instance, although the misery and exhilaration of being at war is effectively conveyed. The "exhilaration" is real enough in Germany and Japan, but the general response in Britain is mostly rueful and, in America following Pearl Harbor and Hitler's declaration of war, a furious nationalism.
John Thaw's well-written narration is often interrupted by someone reading letters that were written at the front lines, or by observers at home. There are diary entries, sometimes moving. This material is drawn from British, Japanese, German, Polish, French, Russian, and American sources, though we see nothing of Japanese civilians. Two of the authors of those letters deserve special mention. Quentin Aanenson, a placid Midwesterner who piloted a P-47, writes dispassionately and with great insight about his experiences. If you can find his documentary, "A Fighter Pilot's Story," be sure to watch it. And Eugene Sledge was a corporal in the Marine Corps and fought at Peleliu and Okinawa, publishing his memoirs in 1981, and became a professor of biology. "With the Old Breed" is a generous and brutal book, not quite like any other in its genre.
Though the emotional element of that world-wide calamity is preserved, this can't really be considered a step-by-step history of World War II. Africa is hardly mentioned. Italy isn't mentioned at all, nor is Guadalcanal.
And most of the political juggling is missing, except for a couple of incisive observations in Thaw's narrative. I'll give an example. Here in America, as I write this, we are faced with intermittent "terrorist" attacks, as are some other Western nations. But we had a Big One on 11 September, 2001, that altered the skyline of New York City. Since then, whenever someone in power suggests moderation in our response to those who despise us, perhaps negotiating with our adversaries, poor Neville Chamberlain is brought up as an example of a coward who "appeased" the enemy and brought on the invasion of Poland. (As if, had Chamberlain declared war in Munich, there would have been no war.) Yet, as the narration points out, Chamberlain and his generation had already BEEN through the slaughterhouse that was World War I, and they had an excellent idea of what was at stake. Of course the point is obvious if you think about it, but few of us today think about it.
So, yes, the emotional content is powerful. Those piles of skin and bone in Buchenwald and Dachau. The little Okinawan girl sitting in rags and shivering all over. The tears of relief when the whole bloody affair ends. But it's "educational" too, and in a way that some of us now need more than ever.
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