Victory at Sea (1952 – 1953)

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By Scott Ross

For an industry in its infancy the 26 episodes of Victory at Sea, broadcast every Sunday afternoon from October 1952 to May 1953 were an unparalleled achievement. And for a nation (and, indeed, a planet) for whom the Second World War was still a very fresh memory, the series must surely have been as compelling as anything the new medium had ever broadcast. 60 years later and despite its occasionally strident tone, it is still a remarkable, often stunning, example of the documentarian’s art.

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(The edition I watched, released in an inexpensive 2-disc set by Mill Creek, has been criticized as truncated, but is also reputedly far better in picture quality and sound reproduction than the far more expensive History Channel set. One does wonder why NBC would allow one of its most honored and profitable series to lapse from copyright protection, but lapse it did.)

What is almost instantly apparent about Victory at Sea is how extraordinarily well its producer, Harry Salomon and his chief editor, Isaac Kleinerman, handled the phenomenal task of collecting, collating and editing an estimated 60 million feet of footage to 61 thousand for broadcast. Remarkable too is the series’ comprehensive overview, from Japan’s incursions into China to the return of America’s veterans. The footage, strikingly visceral and often deeply moving, is exceptional as well when one reflects on the immediate peril its many, unnamed photographers shared with the soldiers, sailors and Marines in the frame.

Few things date as fast, however, as another era’s dramatic conventions, and it is here that Victory at Sea occasionally founders. Fist, its narration. Leonard Graves tries for a dramatic gravitas but all too often shows himself an incorrigible ham. Second, its scripts. Salomon and Richard Hansen aim for a kind of simplicity laced with poetics that fall, all too predictably often, into sanctimony, empty jingoism and even downright Judeo-Christianist chauvanism. What was sorely needed was an Ed Murrow or a Norman Corwin; what Victory at Sea settled for was something far less exalted: Two William McGonagalls of prose.

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Richard Rodgers, who received a credit as the series’ sole composer, in effect created some 15 or 20 minutes’ worth of themes—many of them superb—leaving his estimable arranger, Robert Russell Bennett, to perform the bulk of the actual scoring. Bennett, for all his gifts (and it is rumored he secretly composed much of Rogers’ orchestral output as well as those of Kern and Porter) was not nearly the dramatic composer Rodgers was. His work here tends, all too often, to the overly emphatic, matching, rather than overcoming, the series’ dramatic flaws.

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Salomon would have done better to trust his own footage, which has a raw power that requires no adornment. The immediacy of the battle footage, and the terrible sense of loss it engenders, is something no fiction, at whatever multi-million dollar budget, can begin to approximate. Not that Salomon and company push the carnage. Indeed, it is only around the halfway mark that human cadavers begin to show up with regularity, as if the producer was easing us into a reality far grimmer than the mortal statistics Graves intones. For the viewer endowed with a sense of humane imagination, of course, the loss of life is always present; every ship bombed and sunk, every building brought down, presumes a terrible death-toll. Despite the Allies’ ultimate defeat of the hideous efficacy of the fascist powers, that is the innate sadness, built in to Victory at Sea, that almost overwhelms everything else.

Text copyright 2014 by Scott Ross