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A Vivid and Dramatic Look at WWII with 'The Pacific War in Color'
June 24, 2018  | By David Hinckley  | 1 comment

Documentaries on significant events like world wars tend to be meticulously produced.

That’s also true for The Pacific War In Color, an eight-part series that premieres Sunday at 8 p.m. ET on the Smithsonian Channel.

But this Pacific War has another dimension that gives a familiar story a markedly different feeling.

In keeping with their title, these hours are comprised almost entirely of rare color film shot during the embryonic days of both color film itself and the personal cameras with which most of it was taken.

To be shooting color film from 1937 to 1945, you had to be an early adopter with unique access.

The Smithsonian Institute has made itself a repository for this kind of film. So like other Smithsonian Channel series, The Pacific War draws on hundreds of clips, many of them short and non-professional.

Cameras veer all over the place. Sometimes the event we want to see may have been incidental to the person who filmed it. Some of the film is almost vanity footage. General Douglas MacArthur, among others, loved any camera that was taking his picture.

Many of the clips are also short, and not because the subject didn’t call for more. It’s because the people filming this stuff, even those who were doing it professionally for the military, were not thinking about history. They had a more narrow, immediate mission and in many cases, they also had no idea that their content was about to happen. Hey, look, an explosion. Point the camera over there.  

For all that, The Pacific War in Color still tells the story of the Eastern front in World War II in depth with nuance. While we’ve seen the basic story many times before, the narrative and the unique details here make that story feel fresh and compelling.

That impact is enhanced by its reliance on almost random film footage. To use a contemporary term, it feels crowdsourced.

In the first episode, for instance, one short segment recounts the Doolittle Raids.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941, American President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered his commanders to find a way to drop bombs on Japan.

A clandestine mission began, and within six months a small convoy of primitive aircraft carriers made a dangerous journey that got them close enough to Japan, so they were within the fuel range of a dozen U.S. warplanes.

Commanded by James Doolittle, the raids accomplished their mission, sort of. The handful of bombs these pilots dropped on Tokyo did no significant damage, and the planes themselves mostly ended up crash-landing in China.

So the raids had little military impact. They were a godsend, however, for American morale, because the symbolism of striking back so quickly sent a massive message of “Yes, We Can!”

No film exists of the raids themselves. The Pacific War instead shows grainy footage of pilot training and the shaky takeoffs from the short runway, with background narration by a couple of the surviving pilots and crewmen.

Purely as historical documentation, it’s fragmentary, but, it conveys a strangely powerful sense of being there.  

Because the series is shaped to a significant extent by the availability of film, we may get less on a critical island invasion than we do on soldiers training in the swamps of Florida for the unknown of tropical warfare.

Here again, the producers turn this potential problem into a strength. They seem to have found some footage on almost every major element of the story, and because they don’t have to dwell at length on, say, the bombing of Pearl Harbor, they can devote more time to aspects of the story that aren’t always covered in World War II documentaries.

That includes the internment camps for Japanese-American families, the role of women in the war and the nuts-and-bolts of critical components like military equipment production.

The best Smithsonian documentaries come across as the television equivalent of a first-rate Smithsonian exhibition. The Pacific War In Color is precisely that.

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Dear David,
I received this on Monday June 25. It's dated June 24 and that's when this first episode ran. Is there somewhere else you publish this info in advance of the programs?
Thanks for all your good work!
Jun 25, 2018   |  Reply
Dear Brooks, Even though I'm not David, I hope you all don't mind if I answer this as I am a long time avid fan of TV Worth Watching. There is somewhere you can find this info, ahead of schedule. Every morning, on the home page, David Bianculli posts the best bets to watch that night for both TV or online streaming. And if you scroll down below that you'll find, "TV We're Watching" for each day of the week. Do keep scrolling below that to see all the shows David and his wonderful team of writers are watching in real time.
Welcome to TVWW, Angela.
Jun 26, 2018
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