Victory at Sea

Review by
Robert W. Franson

Producer: Henry Salomon
Director: M. Clay Adams
Editor: Isaac Kleinerman
Writers: Henry Salomon, Richard Hanser
Music: Richard Rodgers, Robert Russell Bennett
Technical advisor: Walter Karig
Coordinator: Robert W. Sarnoff
Narrator: Leonard Graves
DVD host: Peter Graves

National Broadcasting Company (NBC)
in cooperation with the United States Navy:  October 1952 - May 1953

26 television episodes; black & white
11 hours — plus episode introductions on DVD

February 2013

A vast sketch of World War II at sea — historic, emotional, factual

Victory at Sea is a pioneering, invaluable documentary with which every American and citizen of the British Commonwealth should be familiar. And it surely would be salutary for the rest of the world if they knew it as well.

The series could be considered an extended set of newsreels, as the episodes cover various aspects of World War II, focusing on the war at sea but integrating considerable coverage of air, land, and combined operations. The Home Front is not neglected, as American production of food and materiel were vital. Yet the war could not be won without gaining control of the sea lanes: troops and supplies had to get through to America's allies as well as to the active battlefronts on South Pacific islands, North Africa, Italy, Normandy, and on to Germany and Japan. American and British control of the oceans — including the air above and the depths below — was absolutely essential.

Henry Salomon and his team assembled a vast amount of multi-national film footage, twelve hundred miles of it: much only released or declassified or ferreted out after the war. Their condensation is richly varied within its compass, presenting innumerable exemplary scenes and sequences: the Nazi Blitz on London; anti-submarine warfare protecting the North Atlantic Convoys; the sea-air-land deadly slugging match in the Solomon Islands; Maltese schoolteachers hustling their orderly charges to bomb shelters.

Keep in mind that Victory at Sea is a sketch of a huge complex of events involving most of the world's population to some degree in the years 1939-1945. The Second World War was much more thoroughly world-wide than the Great War of 1914-1918, traumatic as the earlier one was to the European Order and the optimism of the West. Victory at Sea is a great documentary overview of World War II, particularly its sea-based or sea-related aspects; but it is not designed to be a standalone history.

Bernard DeVoto has a superlative review of Victory at Sea in Harper's, June 1954; collected in The Easy Chair (1955). In a few handfuls of examples, he conveys a sense of the variety and intensity of this new documentary form:

A falling plane skips on the surface of the water like a stone, or a burning plane sinks and the gas goes on burning. A Marine uses his helmet to shield the face of a wounded comrade from the rain. ... A baby shakes with terror at Okinawa. At Peleliu the surf rolls the body of a soldier in full combat pack up on the beach. Arabs dance to the pipers of a Scotch brigade on a dock at Oran. Someone is reading a letter which has kisses printed on it in lipstick. ...

Some moments restore in full emotions we resolved never to forget: Hitler's turkey strut at Compiegne, the tinny bravado that makes every picture of Mussolini corrupt, the anger and shame of Pearl Harbor. Or moments of excitement so intense that one could not stand much of them: the Anzio landing, a Kamikaze almost missing a ship, a convoy under torpedo attack, the flaming death of a carrier. "Roman Renaissance", the fourteenth episode, ends with the crowds hushed by the appearance of the Pope on his balcony. At the end of "The Conquest of Micronesia" crippled planes land on a flight deck and burst into flame and the film closes with a solemnity intensified by the fact that not only the body of a pilot but his plane too is committed to the deep.

DeVoto demonstrates that with this pioneering approach to its grand theme,

What we have is a factual instrument used to break the hold of fact for the purposes of imaginative creation. ...

Victory at Sea created its own form. It used potentialities that exist only in its medium. It is imaginative drama, it is art, but it is television. ... It has shown that television is a medium in which an artist can work freely, at the top of his bent, in a major key.

The great, oceanic music from Richard Rodgers and Robert Russell Bennett and the NBC Symphony Orchestra has its own enduring fame. Rodgers even turned the theme from the episode "Beneath the Southern Cross" into a show tune, "No Other Love", a hit for Perry Como.

Negative points? Well, as the standard-DVD box warns us, its audio levels may vary, and they sure do. Keep your volume control ready to hand. Be aware that since the episodes are thematic, the chronology goes forward and back somewhat. Some ships are shown out of their proper time, and of course close-up scenes of pilots or turret gunners are representative rather than, for instance, filmed in the heat of the Battle of Midway.

NBC's first broadcast of Victory at Sea, twenty-six episodes over as many weeks, was without commercial sponsors. Thank you, gentlemen.

I did not see Victory at Sea when it first was broadcast on network television, but I did see it when I was quite young, and it made a lasting impression on me. Long before I ran across Bernard DeVoto's analysis, I reached a similar conclusion as to the enduring value of this documentary. It would go far to restore American and British history and pride if the series were shown in every elementary school to get kids' feet wet, as it were, as to how an earlier generation of Americans and British and their allies fought and often died so free nations could continue to live. And then, show it again in every high school as a springboard for extended discussion and study papers. American and British citizenship is worthless and unmaintainable if we do not learn, understand, and pass forward the vital elements of our history.


© 2013 Robert W. Franson

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