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The Unknown War
Reviewed by
Simon Black
on
The Unknown War DVD Review There isn’t really much more to be said - if you’re anything approaching a WWII buff or armchair historian, you owe it to yourself to invest in this one. 
Rating:
4.5

Feature 9.5
Video 6.0
Audio 7.0
Special features 8.0
Total 9.0
Distributor: Madman
Running Time: 990 Minutes
Reviewer: Simon Black
Classification
: M15+

9.0


The Unknown War (1978)

Produced at the height of the Cold War with the full cooperation of the Soviet State, who felt the landmark 1973 series The World at War failed to place sufficient emphasis on the Eastern Front of World War II, monumental 20-part series The Unknown War aimed to rectify this oversight and comprehensively document the almost unimaginable sacrifices made by the Russians in their efforts to expel Hitler’s marauding hordes. 

The title of the series represents the very fact of the Great Patriotic War’s curious omission in the post-war Western psyche.  Though terms such as D-Day, the Normandy Landings, the Battle of the Bulge and the evacuation of Dunkirk have entered the public consciousness, the average non-Russian may find it easy to overlook the fact that more than 20 million Soviets died in the war against Nazi Germany, compared with well under a million from England and the USA combined. 

I was actually asked to leave a family friend’s home in Reading after disputing her claim made in passing at the dinner table that ‘we beat Hitler.’  ‘But you didn’t beat Hitler,’ I replied, ‘Russia and America did.  The Russians lost 20 million men and the US flooded you with food, money and equipment.  All you did was get your asses beaten off the Continent in three weeks, scurry off across the Channel and bomb civilians for the next four years.’  It was a family do and my words were met with a storm of stiff-upper-lipped invective and accusations of being an arrogant, know-nothing Colonial upstart.  After a heated discussion in which I summed up my thesis by stating ‘all this shit about how England beat Hitler makes me fucking sick’ (or words to that effect) I was literally asked to pack my bags and leave the premises.  I thereafter took up residence at a local pub, which saved me having to walk there most nights, and was not subsequently invited to dinner. 

I suppose the point I’m making is that of all the World War II documentaries on the market, it’s nice to have one dedicated solely to the Eastern Front.  Russia’s War: Blood Upon the Snow and Ovation’s three-part Stalingrad series are other fine entrants into this modest canon, yet no other series comes close to matching the sprawling, gargantuan majesty of the 17-hour Unknown War

The series was pulled off American television screens after six episodes following the ill-fated Russian invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and has never perhaps been given the wider appreciation it deserves, yet it is a stunning accomplishment and provides a fascinating, eye-opening glimpse into every aspect of the war from the Russian perspective, as evinced by the episode list: 

1. June 22, 1941

2. The Battle for Moscow

3. The Siege of Leningrad

4. To the East

5. The Defence of Stalingrad

6. Survival at Stalingrad

7. The World's Greatest Tank Battle

8. War in the Arctic

9. War in the Air

10. The Partisans

11. The Battle of the Seas

12. The Battle of Caucasus

13. Liberation of the Ukraine

14. The Liberation of Belorussia

15. The Balkans to Vienna

16. The Liberation of Poland

17. The Allies

18. The Battle of Berlin

19. The Last Battle of the Unknown War

20. A Soldier of the Unknown War 

Much of the material culled from the Soviet archives had never been seen in the West before, and from footage of workers toiling in armaments factories to shots of peasants grieving at the sites of atrocities committed by the Wehrmacht and SS it all blends seamlessly into an affecting and stunningly comprehensive whole.  For a long time this series was unavailable on home media, and Madman are to be complimented for doing such a fine job with the Region 4 edition.  There isn’t really much more to be said - if you’re anything approaching a WWII buff or armchair historian, you owe it to yourself to invest in this one. 

Audio & Video

Not much appears to have been done in the way of restoration and the 35-year-old series does show its age.  The transfer is filmic and grainy, which may prove unsurprising given that the bulk of the series was shot on grainy film, and the almost exclusively black and white period footage varies considerably in quality.  The grit and artefacts don’t look too much worse than many of the History Channel’s equivalent documentaries, however, and in the end don’t prove too distracting - some of us evidently having being spoiled by the recent abundance of HD ‘World War II in Colour’ sets on offer.  The English soundtrack is a perfectly serviceable two-channel affair, with crystal clear narration and a curiously jaunty classical score accompanying the battle sounds and so on.  Unsurprisingly the original aspect ratio is a 4:3 which has been stretched out to 16:9 for the current edition. 

Bonus Features

A comprehensive 23-minute Interview with series writer and composer Rod McKuen and an equally incisive two-part, 40-minute analytical Interview with Willard Sunderland, Associate Professor of Russian History at the University of Cincinnati (incorrectly labelled as ‘Interview with Rod McKuen’ on the Extras menu).  Madman’s five-disc fatpack set also comes with a booklet containing several photos and an extensive episode guide.






 
 



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