Produced by Henry Salomon
Original Music Score by Richard Rodgers
Narrated by Leonard Graves
Edited by Isaac Kleinerman
Directed by M. Clay Adams
Written by Henry Salomon with Richard Hanser
DVD Release Date: 14 March 2006
List Price: $9.98
This Emmy-winning documentary culled from over 13,000 hours of wartime footage filmed by all participating countries and armies remains in high esteem almost sixty years after its debut on 26 October 1952. I bought the 3-disc DVD set for $5.00 several years back and only just got around to watching it this month for the second annual DVD Talk Historical Appreciation Challenge. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this series, to be honest.
Richard Rodgers's score is unmistakably beautiful, but I found it often incongruous with the footage. Perhaps if this was a dramatization I wouldn't have been so uncomfortable, but knowing that real men were being shot and killed on camera made Rodgers's score seem insensitive and vulgar at times. Likewise, Leonard Graves's narration often ventures into nearly vaudevillian theatrics, made even worse by some of the lines written for him by series producer Henry Salomon or Richard Hanser. From "The Road to Mandalay" (Volume 24), for instance, Graves actually says of the carnage:
"And the vultures? They never had it so good."Mind you, he says this after you've just witnessed armed combatants shooting at one another, and as you hear those words you're seeing surviving soldiers survey the carnage. It's just one of many WTF? moments to be found throughout this series. Those who think that video games represent some kind of unprecedented glorification of violence need to spend some time watching Victory at Sea.
Those caveats aside, my chief problem with Victory at Sea concerns its structure. Salomon was wise to build a thematic series. You learn everything the series has to say about each sub-topic within its episode, so you don't need to try to remember what was said in Volume 3 about the Philippines when watching Volume 14. There is a sort of broad continuity to the series; Volume 1 ("Design for War") establishes the state of the world leading up to the entry of the United States into World War II. I was impressed that they did not introduce the attack on Pearl Harbor until the second episode, "The Pacific Boils Over" (particularly fascinating as it draws heavily on footage of the Japanese). As my former history teachers and professors can attest, I'm lousy with dates, and I found myself confused trying to place each episode in context within the entire series. For some episodes, the focus was so specific that this wasn't challenging, but some others span several years.
Also, I was disappointed at the minimal use of maps. Hearing Graves tell me where a given battle took place isn't nearly as helpful to me as having a visual sense of where it was. I'm tempted to give them a pass on this, being made for an audience that 1) likely remembered where these places were because they had been there during the war and 2) wasn't accustomed to being inundated with graphics on their TV screen like we are today. Still, they used some maps and I feel that whatever logic led to those instances should have been good enough to use maps for more of the series.
I won't lie: Victory at Sea can be laborious to get through at times. Some episodes don't have the same focus or energy as others. There are times when the music and narration seem perfect, and others when you're reminded that aesthetics have certainly changed over the last 59 years. And then you see things on the screen that are nothing short of astounding.
There is spectacular footage of a naval battle, guns firing so brightly they create a strobe effect. It's chilling to watch Japanese pilots prepare to attack Pearl Harbor, and just as chilling to watch kamikaze pilots prepare for their one-way flights to death in Volume 27, "Suicide for Glory." Conversely, there's some heartwarming, perfectly candid footage of soldiers lounging with paperback books or pitching horseshoes. And there's some awe-inspiring imagery of weather, such as in "The Magnetic North" and "Target Suribachi." It can be mind boggling just to imagine the fortitude of whomever stood nearby and filmed these sights.
Ultimately, it's the footage that is the real draw here. Even without any context, music or narration, a lot of this is amazing to watch. My advice is to recognize it as an anthology, rather than a singular narrative spread out across 26 episodes, check your 2011 sensibilities about taste and decorum and then...just watch. If you learn dates and a sense of geography, terrific, but don't fret if you don't absorb that information. Victory at Sea does not focus on a personal level; you'll hear very few names (and most of those are Nimitz, Rommel and MacArthur). There is a distance between viewer and content because of this. Absent also is any discussion of African-American soldiers. No one would have expected a 1952 TV documentary to highlight the segregation of fighting forces, but it is disappointing that even the illustrious Tuskegee Airmen go unmentioned. Victory at Sea is a survey of combat, rather than a document of the combatants.