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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > WWI > History > World War I: American Legacy + Blood and Oil: The Middle East in World War I (Inecom)

Inecom World War I Documentaries

 

Blood and Oil: The Middle East in World War I

 

Picture: B- Sound: B Extras: B- Main Program: B+

 

World War 1: American Legacy

 

Picture: B Sound: B+ Extras: D Main Program: A

 

 

Inecom Entertainment Company has been quietly carving out a substantial place for itself in the home video documentary market. With titles like "Johnstown Flood," narrated by Richard Dreyfuss, and "Expo: Magic Of The White City," narrated by Gene Wilder (both reviewed elsewhere on this site), the upstart documentary-on-DVD company based in Pittsburgh has been releasing quality programming, all with excellent production values, that give PBS and WGBH programs a run for their money.

 

Two of Inecom's latest releases, "World War 1: American Legacy" and "Blood and Oil: The Middle East in World War I," continue that tradition. Both WWI documentaries expertly explore two fronts of the Great War. The first, "American Legacy," narrated by David Carradine, goes in-depth into the short-but-important involvement of the United States in the war, while the second, "Blood and Oil," details how crucial the Middle East was in the war and how the post-war carve-up of the region is still felt today. Both DVDs were released last December, are 112-minutes long, and are presented in high-definition anamorphic widescreen.

 

Of the two, "Blood and Oil" is a more straightforward documentary. Using interviews with historians and experts on the involvement of the Ottoman Empire in WWI, interspersed with stills, maps, and some motion picture footage, the documentary gives a full exploration into one of the least understood aspects of the war. The Ottoman Empire, which spanned what is now called the Middle East, entered the war on the side of German and Austria-Hungary. Through intense combat and deadly action, the empire lost over a hundred lives during the war, and because of its alignment with the losing Germans, the Allies showed little mercy after the armistice. The region was carved into English and French areas of influence, and nations like Iraq and Iran were formed from the rubble left in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

 

When discussing WWI, most attention is paid to the trench warfare of the Western Front and the collapse of the Russian Empire, giving way to communism and the Soviet Union. The impact on the Middle East is usually glossed over, but in today's wars of ideology and culture that impact deserves revisiting. Without WWI, needless as it was, the conflicts in the Persian Gulf region might not exist quite as extremely as they do today. And because they do exist, understanding the roots of the conflicts and struggles is paramount. Thanks to Inecom's efforts, there is a solid, easily digestible text on the subject that should be a fixture in classrooms all over the United States.

 

The DVD includes the high-def program in Dolby Digital surround sound and a group of three "extended commentaries" by authors and historians on the topic. The commentaries range in length, from eight minutes to 11, and are extended on-screen interviews with three of the primary voices in the documentary: Edward Erickson (nine minutes), author of "Ordered to Die: A History of the Ottoman Empire in the First World War"; David Fromkin (11 minutes), author of "A Peace to End All Peace: The Fall of the Ottoman Empire and the Creation of the Modern Middle East"; and David Woodward (eight minutes), author of "Hell in the Holy Land: World War I in the Middle East". These commentaries add depth to various aspects of the Middle East in WWI and give the DVD, already brimming with authority, a little extra oomph, making it that much more indispensable.

 

While the "Blood and Oil" documentary is strong and not to be overlooked, the second, recent Inecom DVD, "World War 1: American Legacy," is superb. Narrator Carradine is a suitable even if sometimes-clumsy guide for viewers through American involvement in WWI. His gravely voice is keenly equipped to evoke desolate heartache and weathered celebration, but occasionally he steps over his words and leaves too long a pause between statements or thoughts. This becomes an issue only because his voice doesn't bridge interviews and footage, keeping the documentary moving. Instead, it's the only real voice here; it's the mortar cementing together a series of photographs, paintings, illustrations, letters, magazines, newspapers, and contemporary music together into a coherent structure. While there are pockets of instability in that cohesion, it's easy to overlook and forgive them because he's so good in this role.

 

The pastiche approach here is also effective; a moving way of exploring the pivotal role the United States played in WWI. Rather than having people from the 21st century talking about the war and the people in it, we get the people themselves their faces in photos, their voices in letters and other writings as first-person recollectors of the gruesome war. This does lend itself to an overuse of the "Ken Burns Effect" the images given a sense of movement that becomes a bit distracting. But in the scope of the documentary, it's a small quibble in an otherwise ambitious presentation of material.

 

Heightening this evocative approach is the segmentation of the documentary into vignettes about certain people or groups that were vital to the war effort. There's a section on the New York Fighting Irish, the Lafayette Escadrille airplane squadron, writers that fought in the Great War (like e.e. cummings), the Harlem Hell Fighters (the most successful American unit in the war, and the group primarily responsible for bringing jazz to France), the Hello Girls, the soldiers that left lives of privilege in America to fight in the French Foreign Legion (like Alan Seeger), and even Cher Ami, a hero carrier pigeon.

 

There are other segments, of course, and they all tie together into this quilt of American stories from the Great War that reflect what great sacrifices were made, as well as how crucial the US was to the global war effort. Like with the involvement of the Middle East in WWI, American involvement tends to get overlooked because it was so brief (American soldiers engaged in heavy combat in 1917, and the war ended in 1918). But as this documentary attests, American contributions were crucial and have been (almost) unfairly dismissed. "World War 1: American Legacy" likewise belongs in classrooms, but it also deserves a place on the shelves of history lovers. The documentary is a beautiful account of the war, and it's a fitting tribute to the sacrifices made during it.

 

The DVD includes the high-def program and three audio options: Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, DTS 5.1 Surround Sound, and Dolby Digital 2.0. There are no extras to speak of, besides a collection of Inecom trailers, but that's OK. The program is outstanding, and along with the presence of a DTS track (almost unheard of for a documentary) more than makes up for the lack of extra content.

 

Inecom should be commended for these two wonderful DVDs. They flesh out key aspects of World War I, and they do so in style.

 

 

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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