- The Perilous Fight: America's World War II in Color
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 33, Number 2, 2003
- pp. 70-72
- View Citation
- Additional Information
Film Reviews | Regular Feature Film Reviews The Perilous Fight: America's World War Il in Color Picture this: a little boy of no more than five stands alone, drab green clothes hang offhis thin frame and a hat is pulled tight over his almost too-round head. He is clutching a chocolate bar and underneath the scene music measures the tragic nature of the image. Then the tone shifts, the music lightens slightly and softens as a tear falls from an eye of this poor little soul. Can you picture that? You won't have to if you watch a PBS series on the SecondWorld War entitled, The Perilous Fight: America 's World WarII in Color. He appears about two-thirds of the way through the sixty-second set-up for the series and it crushes me. I have watched this introduction a number of times, and every time I see that little boy my eyes well-up and I silently curse the people who tortured little boys and their parents and slightly begrudge the composer Chris Elliot for making my emotions so visceral. Martin Smith is the executive producer ofthe series and the man responsible for choosing that tragic image. Smith is a British documentary filmmaker who assembled a team at the offices of KCTS (Seattle's public television station) in the summer of 2001 to complete a four-film series in a little under a year's time. A veteran of historical documentaries, Smith has worked on a few ofthe most influential ofthe last thirty years, including World at War, Vietnam: A Television History, and CNN's Cold War. For The Perilous Fight, he and his team worked at breakneck speed— considerresearching and writing a 300-page book in a single year. Preparation for each episode took eight to twelve weeks, thus while one episode was in the editing stage, another episode was being prepped. In the eighth month, for example, the team had episode two in the latter stages of research, episode one in late post-production, episode three in early post-production, and episode four in the editing room. All this work was done in two fairly small, windowless offices, and two very small editing rooms with a team that numbered at various times between ten and fifteen people. For those of us who watch history documentaries for sport— condemning the bad, championing the good—footage of war has become something akin to advertisements —we pay attention when our attention is piqued. Our intelligence is rarely engaged, though, and while we might be slightly moved by certain images, such a response is little different from those television commercials that make us a bit teary. The Perilous Fight is not more pap—it is a documentary heavy on authenticity. Many of us have seen color film of the Second World War, but just as many have been frustrated by the inaccurate juxtaposition of footage and dialogue— the narrator discussing the invasion of Iwo Jima while the film we see is of Okinawa. That sort of thing does not happen in The Perilous Fight. Smith made a decision to verify film footage and coordinate the narration and voice-overs with the clips. Thus the creation of this film was decidedly unique and something worth investigating because the approach not only broke with much of what is typically done in historical documentaries but it also posed an interesting dilemma: what comes first, the footage or the narrative ? For example, no color footage exists of Pearl Harbor, yet no filmmaker would dare produce a documentary about the Second World War without discussing December 7th 1941. Smith and his team faced that problem and other situations like it while making The Perilous Fight. I have chosen, therefore, to provide a slightly unorthodox review of this film. What follows is a discussion of how the filmmakers of The Perilous Fight and the historians who they used as consultants wrestled with the tension between footage and narrative . I will add now two points for clarification: first, for those wondering whether the film is any good let me assure you that it is first-rate and should impress audiences; second, I had access to...