Review: The Great War: World War 1

I somehow came across the three DVD box set of The Great War: World War 1 – a seven part documentary on three discs which I recently watched.

What I hadn’t realised was that this was an American interpretation of the war and is one of at least three documentary series all called The Great War. There is the 26 episode BBC documentary from 1964 (online) which was a military overview, the PBS 8 episode series of 1996 with Jay Winter as the main historian behind the series with Judi Dench narrating taking a wider social, cultural and personal view of the war and this 2008 MM&V edition produced by Marathon Music & Video (MM&V) and distributed by Delta Leisure group with Gary Rhay as historian.

The series is an interesting one in that it doesn’t tell the ‘usual’ story of the First World War. It starts off giving an overview of film and motion picture in the USA and then follows a thematic approach within a broad chronology. This means that there is some repetition throughout of narrative but also image. It is very slow moving (which is not necessarily a bad thing) and the narration style suggests the documentary is older than what it appears.

There are three mentions of Africa across the series – episode 2 mentions the conflict spreading to Africa which was not intended to be involved; episode 3 has a bit more with some detail on von Lettow-Vorbeck and the events in East Africa while episode 7 makes mention of the King’s African Regiment as part of the list demonstrating diversity of the war. There are a few inaccuracies in the documentary such as that of the King’s African Regiment which should be Rifles and also reference to the German Axis which is corrected by Rhay as soon as he’s said it but not edited out.

Gary Rhay seems to have been most involved with capturing veteran accounts of war which were incorporated into documentaries for MM&V. His work on World War 1 being a diversion from his main focus being World War 2 and the Vietnam War in which he served between 1971 and 1972.

There is very little on the worldwide web (3 search engines used) on the series which perhaps says a lot about the production. The reviews of the series, if you can find them, are not very complimentary, one teacher complaining about the footage only being primary source and slow. It’s the primary source material which makes it for me as does insight into another culture or person’s take on the conflict. And while there is no mention of Stilwell (who was quite involved on the Western Front) and the role he played in World War 2 Burma (in which British African forces served too) while there is a fair bit on Pershing, Patton, McArthur etc, he at least recognises that World War 1 extended to, and was fought in, Africa.

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