‘Victory at Sea’ takes documentary cinephiles back in time

By Jeff Nelson

Before PBS, Arts & Entertainment and the History Channel dominated historical documentaries, there was NBC. For over a decade, this mainstream national network invested time and money in a successful documentary division, and it all began in 1952 with a series called “Victory at Sea.”

“Victory at Sea” wasn’t a one-shot look at the great struggle at sea during World War II;  it was a 26-part series that ran on Sunday afternoons from the fall of 1952 to May 1953. The series had several planners, but the major driving force in creating this ground-breaking series was Henry Salomon. Salomon had been a Lt. Commander in the US Navy during World War II, and he knew the research materials and where the film footage from all sources was stored. His contribution as co-author of the narration and producer of the series would be critical.

Salomon convinced NBC’s top executives to bankroll the preparation and production of this prodigious project. Salomon and editor Isaac Kleinerman waded through 60 million feet of World War II 16 and 35mm footage from Allied and Axis sources. This was a multi-year job as that footage comes to about 13,000 hours of film. But, NBC was totally behind it and put up $500,000 in the money of 1951, an astonishing sum for a documentary project.

Fellow Navy vets M. Clay Adams (director) and Richard Hanser (co-scriptwriter) rounded out the creative team, and by the summer of 1952, they had about 61,000 feet of film ready for broadcast. But, two gilt edges would be added to this extraordinary project. One was narrator Leonard Graves, a lesser-known actor; he had the engaging dramatic voice for this project. The other was a musical score that would become the most memorable musical score ever to accompany a documentary. The men who provided that score are two of the giants of 20th Century American music, Richard Rodgers and Robert Russell Bennett.

Rodgers was busy with the film version of “Oklahoma!” and worked on a new musical with Oscar Hammerstein II, which would become “Me and Juliet.” So, he provided 12 musical themes on 17 pages of sheet music and turned them over to his long time orchestrator, Robert Russell Bennett. Bennett was more than up to the job. He added variations to the original themes, orchestrated all of Rodgers’ themes, composed most of Episode 18, and then conducted the NBC Orchestra in all of the recording sessions.

Rodgers, in his autobiography, “Musical Stages,” paid tribute to the work his long time collaborator did on “Victory at Sea”—“I give him credit, without undue modesty, for making my music sound better than it was.” Sixty-five years later,  Bennett’s recordings of the music from “Victory at Sea” are still available. This great music has been recorded by other ensembles like the Cincinnati Pops and New York Philharmonic.

NBC’s gamble scored success with more than the musical score. “Victory at Sea” received rave reviews and huge audiences. In 1953, it won the Peabody Award for outstanding television programming, and in 1954, it grabbed the Emmy Award for Best Public Affairs Program.  In 1954, editor Isaac Kleinerman created a 108-minute editing series for theatrical release, with Alexander Scrourby as the narrator. By 1964, the “Victory at Sea” series had been broadcast in over 40 foreign countries.

Historians gave it high marks for interesting the public in the history and its general level of accuracy.  Yet, Episode 21, “Full Fathom Five,” which deals with the submarine war against Japan, is short on critical details. The problem with defective torpedoes that cursed our Pacific submariners until mid-1943 is not mentioned. This issue was technically still not officially declassified in 1952, but ironically a 1951 Hollywood film, “Operation Pacific,” deals extensively with this problem with accurate details, so the word was out.

NBC was thrilled with the success of “Victory at Sea” and the interest in historical documentaries it created. It immediately launched its famous “Project XX” series in 1954 to dominate quality documentaries until 1970. It would even reissue a 79-minute version of “Victory at Sea” for the “Project XX” series, again narrated by Alexander Scrourby, in 1960 with much fanfare. But, the age of video would breathe even more life into “Victory at Sea.”

By the 1990s, “Victory at Sea” was in the public domain as NBC did not renew its copyright (Please note here the Rodgers/Bennett music is still under copyright.). Many video formats hit the market from various sources. There are many inexpensive complete sets of “Victory at Sea,” but it is worth reading the posted reviews as they are of varying quality. The best way to guarantee a quality transfer is to get the blu-ray edition with an interesting commentary on Episode 6 by military historian Peter C. Rollins.

Perhaps the final testimonial to this groundbreaking historical documentary’s lasting appeal is that former President Richard Nixon requested that the legendary Rodgers/Bennett music be played at his funeral, and it was.

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