Pros: Fine montages set to Richard Rodgers' music
Cons: Glosses over American mistakes in tactics
Since 1952, when NBC first aired its 26-part Victory at Sea series of 30-minute documentaries about the U.S. Navy during the Second World War, it has been a staple of both broadcast and cable channels. Millions of viewers in the U.S. and elsewhere have seen at least a few episodes of writer-producer Henry Salomon's ode to the sailors and Marines who fought and often died fighting their German, Italian, and Japanese counterparts for control of the world's oceans.
Because battles on the air, land, and sea aren't scripted for the cinematographers as if for a Hollywood production, any major documentary about World War II is, in essence, a montage of shots and snippets of 35-mm film photographed by combat photographers stationed on different ships, aircraft, and military installations. There is actually precious little continuous footage of entire single naval battles; sometimes cameramen and their equipment were lost when their ships sank, or the censors snipped away too much material to preserve wartime operational security, or stored tins of film were destroyed by enemy air raids.
In the summer of 1942, exactly eight months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, a fleet of American, Australian and British warships and transports arrived off the northern coast of a little-known island called Guadalcanal. From the decks of the gray-painted vessels, sailors and Marines assigned to Operation Watchtower gazed upon the seemingly idyllic landscape of this Japanese-occupied island, with sandy beaches, swaying palm trees, and jungle-covered hills and ridges.
The beautiful view was a deceptively attractive one, particularly for the Americans and Japanese who would fight and die on Guadalcanal, particularly around Henderson Field, the airstrip that was being built by the Japanese for bombers, fighters, and reconnaisance aircraft that could be used to cut the lines of supply from the United States to Australia. For over 120 days and nights, Marines under the command of Maj. Gen. Alexander Vandergrift endured all sorts of attacks from the Japanese: aerial and naval bombardments, banzai charges, sniper and mortar attacks, as well as nature's own hell: heavy rains, tropical heat, and jungle-related diseases such as beri-beri, jungle rot and malaria.
At sea, the Navy was caught in a special kind of hell. Tactical and strategic mistakes by senior admirals led to several naval engagements that ended in disaster for the Allies, the worst being the Battle of Savo Island, in which a Japanese task force of cruisers and destroyers handily defeated a numerically superior Allied task force and sank several warships, including four heavy cruisers. It was the worst defeat in U.S. Navy history, and it was only the start of a bizarre campaign in which the Americans controlled the seas around Guadalcanal by day, the Japanese by night.
Volume 6: Guadalcanal covers, as best as possible, the deadly months-long sea-air-and-land struggle for Guadalcanal, where the 1st Marine Division carried out the Allies' first offensive operation in the Pacific War. From August 7, 1942 until early February 1943, the Marines (and later an Army division) fought against the Japanese in a series of kill-or-be-killed battles to maintain control of Henderson Field, while the sea around Guadalcanal became a graveyard for many Allied and Japanese warships.
Richard Rodgers' classic score, here arranged and conducted by Robert Russell Bennett, backs Leonard Graves' narration over the montage of combat footage in a precursor to later and more polished documentaries, such as Jeremy Isaacs' The World at War. Because Salomon and director M. Clay Adams rely so much on the music to move the narrative along, experiencing Victory at Sea is like watching an early version of a music video, albeit an informative one.
If you are watching Victory at Sea for the first time, keep in mind that its clearly patriotic tones are a reflection of the times in which the series first aired. World War II was still relatively a recent event; only seven years had passed since VJ Day, and the military was still very much admired even though the Korean War was still raging overseas. Besides, NBC was co-producing the series with the Navy, so some bias is very much in evidence.
Nevertheless, the Emmy-winning series is still a very involving and informative endeavor, and its regular appearances for over 50 years and on various broadcast and cable networks are evidence of its enduring appeal.
A cautionary note: don't expect the quality of the sound to be crystal-clear or earthshakingly amazing. The episodes were made at a time when television audio was monophonic, so even though they were recorded in what was then state-of-the-art RCA Victor sound (and RCA, by the way, was NBC's parent company), the quality of the audio signal isn't going to be up to par with even the cheapest home theater system.
Victory at Sea - Volume 6: Guadalcanal: Main Credits
Directed by: M. Clay Adams
Written by: Henry Salomon and Richard Hansen
Narrated by: Leonard Graves
Musical Score: Richard Rodgers
Music Arranged and Conducted by: Robert Russell Bennett
Technical Advisor: Capt. Walter Karig, USN