World War II in HD

Last week the History HD channel broadcast the multi-part documentary World War II in HD. Most of the footage was in color, dredged in an exhaustive two-year search from private collections or the back shelves of dusty museum storerooms. (Rumors to the contrary, it was not found in an Area 51 warehouse next to a crate with an ark in it.)

In its content, the show made for compelling drama, even if, like me you have seen enough about WWII for nine lives. One scene that struck a personal note with me showed people listening to a pro football game on a car radio. The game was interrupted by a news flash reporting the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The scene hit home because my future father and uncle were at that same Giants game at the Polo Grounds in New York. When the announcement was made, their common reaction was, "Where the hell is Pearl Harbor?"

That was one of the few stories my father ever told me about his experiences during the war: his reports didn't to beyond the facts that he served in a radar unit, was made corporal for one day before talking back to his commander, and how cold it was at night in the North African desert.

If you have a chance to see the series when it's re-broadcast (and it eventually will be) I highly recommend it. But not if you're squeamish. There are many shots (too many, perhaps) showing the full-color carnage of war.

But is the title of the show, World War II in HD, accurate? Good question. Claims on the History Channel's website that scratches and wear were digitally removed, and that color 16mm film from that era rivals the quality of modern HD, were in no way confirmed by the results I saw. Apart from the opening titles, and recent interviews with survivors around whose experiences the show was structured, the footage is old, of mediocre to poor resolution, and riddled in spots with scratches and dirt. Some parts are better than others, but none of the war footage is even close to what you would expect to see from modern high definition.

But don't let the less than stellar video quality put you off. If we define high definition as pristine photography and crisp detail, the program doesn't make the grade. If we categorize it as true to the source material and intention, however, it does. The History Channel is one of my favorite go-to HDTV destinations, and World War II in HD is an exceptional production. Like me, you'll forget your HD issues ten minutes into the first episode.

The source material was also reframed from 4:3 to 16:9, which means it was cropped (virtually all movie footage from that era is 4:3). But this didn't even occur to me until the series was over. The result is totally seamless. But more to the point, all the battle footage here was shot on the fly, under the most difficult of conditions imaginable. Precise framing and pristine focus were the last things on the minds of the cameramen. They were capturing events while trying not to get killed. The result is history, not art.

If you miss this production on the cable or satellite, it's coming out on Blu-ray in January. DVD, too, though I suspect that the producers didn't give much thought to how the title will play on standard definition DVD. World War II in HD in SD?