British Universities Film & Video Council

moving image and sound, knowledge and access

The World at War – 40 years later

The World at War also prompted a vocal response from members of the viewing public. Thames received hundreds of letters about the series: these are now deposited with the Imperial War Museum and they are valuable as evidence of actual viewers’ opinions. They reveal a surprisingly wide range of responses. Many are highly laudatory and heap praise upon the producers. Others are extremely nit-picking and point out myriad ‘errors’. (7) There were accusations of national bias – several British veterans, for example, felt that Britain’s contribution to the defeat of the Axis powers was under-valued – while some correspondents took exception to the representation of events such as the Battle of Stalingrad (‘I feel compelled to protest at the grudging – even derogatory – tone taken by the writer of last night’s episode towards the heroic battle put up the Russians at Stalingrad’) and the Warsaw Uprising (‘Shame on you for perpetuating the myths that bedevil the Warsaw Uprising of 1944’). The most controversial episode was ‘Occupation’, dealing with the German occupation of the Netherlands, which several correspondents felt gave more attention to the activities of collaborators than the resistance. In fact this was not the case: but for obvious reasons there was no archive film of resistance activities. As Isaacs replied to one viewer: ‘You bring home to me once again the very strong impression that pictures always leave of a film, as opposed to words. That, I think, must explain the impression you and others have received of our film.’

For all the controversy in some quarters, The World at War was an important landmark in the use of archive film for the presentation of history. It was made at a time when professional historians were starting to take seriously the value of film as a historical source. The landmark conference ‘Film and the Historian’ at University College London in April 1968 had resulted in the setting up of the University Historians’ Film Committee. The use of archive film in the teaching of modern history was being actively promoted in the production of teaching programmes by the Inter-University History Film Consortium and by The Open University. The producers of The World at War took a keen interest in this field and kept abreast of developments by sending delegates to a conference on ‘Archive Film in the Study and Teaching of Twentieth Century History’ at the Imperial War Museum in 1972. The ‘film and history’ movement gathered momentum with the publication of Paul Smith’s edited collection The Historian and Film in 1976 – a book in which The World at War was held up as a model of how to navigate the competing demands of academic history and narrative television – and by the formation in 1977 of the International Association for Media and History (IAMHIST) with the purpose of bringing together historians, archivists and practitioners. It is no exaggeration to say that The World at War probably did more than any other single programme (or book for that matter) to legitimate the use of film in the study of twentieth-century history.

The World at War reflected the state of historical knowledge in the early 1970s

The World at War reflected the state of historical knowledge in the early 1970s: a significant omission from the series, for example, is the role of ‘Ultra’ in decoding German wireless traffic as this was still classified. More generally its representation of the Second World War was influenced to a large degree by the intellectual climate of the time. In particular it was made at a time when events such as the Vietnam War and the Troubles in Northern Ireland had tarnished the image of the military. It is significant in this context that The World at War begins (and ends) with an incident chosen to symbolise the brutality of war – the massacre of French civilians by the SS at Oradour-sur-Glaze in 1944 – which seems also to bear uncanny parallels with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam (March 1968) and ‘Bloody Sunday’ in Londonderry (January 1972). The World at War may fairly be described as an anti-war narrative: its prevailing themes are the tragedy and horror of war and that all participants are victims. This has been acknowledged by members of the production team, including Jeremy Isaacs and Jerome Kuehl. It is evident from one letter from Mrs Chambers of Newcastle that this message was also understood by viewers: ‘My husband and I have not missed viewing any of the series. It has been extremely harrowing but the programme is so intensely informative that we consider it is the most vivid propaganda for future peace that has ever been portrayed.’ Ultimately, The World at War, like all television programmes, was very much history for and of its time.

James Chapman is Professor of Film Studies at the University of Leicester.



  1. James Murray, Daily Express, 15 October 1983, p.21.
  2. Donald Watt, ‘History on the Public Screen (I)’, in Paul Smith (ed.), The Historian and Film (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), p.171.
  3. Noble Frankland, History at War: The Campaigns of an Historian (London: Giles de la Mare, 1998), pp.182-90.
  4. Cineaste, 9: 2 (Winter 1978-9), p.19.
  5. The Guardian, 13 May 1974.
  6. Memorandum from Jeremy Isaacs to ‘All Second World War Personnel’, 4 October 1972, in the World at War production materials held by the Film and Video Archive of the Imperial War Museum. I am grateful to Paul Sargeant and Toby Haggith of the IWM for allowing me to see this material and to Jerry Kuehl for telling me it existed!
  7. The most sublime of these concerns the episode ‘Wolf Pack’ about the Battle of the Atlantic. Mr Lumley pointed out that the programme did not differentiate between Type IA, Type VII and Type IXA U-boats and that the steamship Ben Vrackie was sunk not in the North Atlantic but at 0049N/2015W ‘which, if you care to check, is slightly to the north of the Equator and approximately 800 miles to the south-west of Sierra Leone. This is the SOUTH ATLANTIC, and U105 was operating independently and not with a wolf pack.’ The episode’s producer, Ted Childs, replied: ‘With respect, I would point out that being torpedoed in the position of 0049N/2015W is not necessarily more or less traumatic to the victims of the attack than being torpedoed anywhere else in the Atlantic’.

*A shorter version of this article first appeared in Viewfinder 80.

Delicious Save this on Delicious |

« previous     1 2 3    next »