Aesthetic Issues Are Not Enough To Sink ‘Hell Below’

Courtesy: Smithsonian Channel/Public Media Distribution

Smithsonian Channel officially released its latest World War II documentary Hell Below earlier this week.  The two-disc collection focuses warfare waged from below the waves throughout the war.  It is not the network’s first time focusing on WWII submarine warfare, but it is still enjoyable in its own right, even despite its negatives.  The stories that are told over the course of the documentary’s two discs are collectively the documentary’s primary positive.  This will be discussed shortly.  While the stories do plenty to keep audiences engaged over the course of the documentary’s 360 minute (six-hour) run time, the documentary is not perfect.  It suffers from a pair of negatives, too, the most significant of which is the lack of an episode listing anywhere inside or outside the set’s box.  This will be discussed later and is hardly the set’s only negative.  While the set does suffer from some negatives, it is not a total loss, as already noted in regards to its featured stories.  The re-enactments, used to help tell the featured stories add to the stories.  That being the case, they are key in examining the set’s presentation, too.  Each element is important in its own right to the set’s presentation.  All things considered, they make Hell Below a program that is worth at least an occasional watch by history buffs and more specifically WWII history buffs alike.

Hell Below, Smithsonian Channel’s latest WWII feature presentation, is a program that history and WWII history buffs alike will appreciate.  They will agree in watching it, that it is a history-based program that is worth at least one watch.  That is due in part to the stories that are presented throughout the course of its six-hour run time.  The stories focus on some of World War II’s most significant submarine conflicts including conflicts in both the Atlantic and Pacific theaters.  From the Allies fighting against German U-Boats to Allied subs fighting German and Japanese ships (and even saving allied troops), the stories tell a variety of intriguing pieces of the war’s history.  Audiences will be shocked to learn how Native American POWs were inadvertently shot and killed by American sea men after a German ship carrying them was sunk and the lack of fallout from that event.  Just as interesting to learn is the story of the American sub Harder in the episode “Destroyer Killer.”  This underdog story of sorts follows the crew of the Harder as it rescued allied commandos from Japanese clutches and survived multiple Japanese attacks en route to and from a covert surveillance mission. The sub’s sad fate following its return to its Australian base adds even more depth to the story.  The surprising story of two allied convoys’ escape from multiple U-Boat attacks in another episode is yet another truly interesting piece that will keep audiences enthralled. Between those episodes and the others not noted here, the stories in whole prove to be the most important overall element to Hell Below’s overall presentation.

The stories that are presented over the six-hour course of Hell Below are critical to the program’s presentation.  That is because from one to the next, the stories will keep history buffs, WWII history buffs and audiences in general enthralled with the stories of the Allies’ determination to defeat the Axis powers.  While the program’s featured stories are undeniably important to its overall presentation, the program is not perfect in its home release.  It does suffer from a handful of issues, not the least of which is the issue of its episode guide.  Audiences will be saddened to discover that the program’s episodes are listed only on the program’s menu.  In other words, audiences are forced to play the discs and virtually memorize which episodes are on which disc in order to know which is where.  There is no episode guide inside or outside the box even as an insert.  It may seem like a minor element about which to be concerned, but the reality is that having something as minor as an episode guide makes choosing which episode(s) to watch much easier and more enjoyable.  To that end, being forced to choose episodes only by playing the program’s discs detracts greatly from the program’s presentation in its home release.

On another level, the redundancy of the CG sequences and even some of the re-enactments takes away even more from the program’s presentation.  From one episode to the next, it seems like the same CG sub is shown attacking the same CG ship right down to the ships being hit by the same torpedos.  The same applies when the subs surface and dive.  Obviously this was a cost cutting measure.  That is understandable.  But the reality is that the Allied and Axis subs did not look exactly the same.  By presenting the same sequences over and over again, it presents the image that the subs all looked the same.  To that end, cost cutting might not have been such a good move.  Hopefully those behind this program (and Smithsonian Channel’s executives) will take this into account with the network’s next WWII documentary.

The lack of an episode guide for Hell Below and the redundancy of its CG sequences do much to detract from its overall presentation in its new home release.  The lack of an episode guide makes choosing episodes more trouble than it should be.  The redundancy of the CG sequences is takes away from the program’s aesthetic value on the surface.  That is because seeing the same sequences from one episode to the next eventually gets boring.  On another level, it raises a concern about presenting historical accuracy in regards to the design of the Axis and Allied ships and subs.  Considering all of this, these negatives greatly detract from the program’s overall presentation.  However, those negatives are not so great that they make the program wholly unwatchable.  The re-enactments that are used to tell the featured stories, while at times redundant themselves, add to the stories’ interest.  The actors enlisted to portray the crews of the subs and ships are to be applauded for their work on camera.  The tension on their faces and the very immediacy in their actions drives home the importance of the real crews’ efforts to defeat the Axis subs.  It truly serves to pull audiences even more into the story, even with their occasional redundancy, too.  Yes, even some of the re-enactment sequences are recycled in these episodes.  Luckily though, that recycling is not as common as the recycling of the episodes’ CG sequences.  Keeping this in mind, the re-enactments used to bring the stories to life prove to be another key positive to Hell Below’s home presentation.  When it is set alongside the positive of the program’s featured stories, the two do just enough to make up for the program’s negatives.  This in turn makes the program worth at least an occasional watch by history and WWII history buffs alike.

Hell Below, Smithsonian Channel’s latest venture in to the history of WWII, is an offering that is worth at least an occasional watch.  History and WWII history buffs alike will enjoy watching it every now and then thanks to its gripping stories and the re-enactments that are used to tell those stories.  The lack of an episode guide inside or outside the two-disc set’s box detracts from the program’s presentation to a point.  The same can be said of the redundancy in the stories’ CG sequences.  While the program is not perfect, the positives do just enough to make up for the negatives, thus making the program, again, worth at least an occasional watch.  It is available now and can be ordered online direct via PBS’ online store.  More information on this and other Smithsonian Channel programs is available online now at:










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