Home Video Hovel: Victory at Sea, by Sarah Brinks
Victory at Sea is a documentary about World War II made up of some really stunning, rarely seen wartime footage. Originally it was a 26- episode series produced in 1952-53 and aired on NBC. Since then, it has been edited together into a full-length feature film. The film is made up mostly of spectacular footage of land and sea battles. Victory at Sea has been digitally restored and made available on DVD.
In its short 1 hour and 37 minute runtime, Victory at Sea manages to tell the story of World War II from start to finish across all campaigns. Due to its grand scope, it never gets into much detail, but instead focuses on the major battles and events of the war. The film manages to not only tell an epic story of war, but also manages to tell the human side of it. Beginning with Hitler’s movements in Europe and the London Blitz, it then moves on to the attack on Pearl Harbor and eventually the war on all sides. There is a great deal of battle footage, but also footage of liberated Italy, and of the enemy. Some of the most interesting footage is of Hitler’s visit to Italy with Mussolini and their inspection of the navy.
The footage is often raw, but occasionally is obviously staged. The most impressive footage is from the Atlantic and Pacific theaters of war. There is extensive footage of what life on board the US Naval vessels was a like and what it was like on the German U-boats. It is fascinating to see how real war was waged. You see men setting depth charges, arming torpedoes and working sonar. Both my grandfathers were in the Navy during World War II so I must admit a personal interest in this section of the film. The narrator describes the mood aboard ship as they make the long trek across the ocean and the fear of both enemy attacks and bad weather. There is some remarkable footage of men on deck during storms and typhoons. You see them struggling to tie down planes and to even walk against the galling wind.
The score, by famous Broadway composer Richard Rodgers, is a major component of the film. Rodgers created a soundtrack that fit perfectly with the epic footage. He catches the bombastic nature of the gun battles at Pearl Harbor, the constant tension of crossing the Atlantic, and the sharp fear of battles across the European continent. During one of the tense submarine battles Rodgers uses a repetitive, staccato trumpet to demonstrate the intensity of waiting for a battle. The score is very much of its time but so is the footage so it works well together. The only distracting element is a strain of music that plays several times that is note for note the same as “A Whole New World” from Disney’s Aladdin. Obviously this film came first, but it is occasionally distracting.
While the footage and score are impressive the film does sometimes feel like “war porn”. What I mean by that is there are sections where there is no narration and it is just explosion after explosion and sinking ship or burning building; one after another. The footage is impressive but it doesn’t take long to become cold to it. There is a hint of American propaganda to the film, but for the most part it focuses on the historical facts of the war. Victory at Sea is in no way kind to the Japanese, Germans, or Italians but it doesn’t paint them as faceless monsters either. When the film is really effective is when the narration is detailing the hard truth of war, the footage is engaging and the soundtrack is supporting it all. It is also very effective when you see the human side behind the war. You see soldiers helping wounded men, soldiers protecting each other, reading letters from loved ones, and experiencing the tedium of war: shaving, bathing, laundry, etc.
Victory at Sea is an important film, documenting the battles and victories of World War II. It would be interesting to see the 26-episode version but the feature film version condenses the story to its most important parts. Anyone who enjoys wartime films or wants to see some rare footage wound enjoy Victory at Sea. Fans of Richard Rodgers would enjoy the soundtrack.