The Right and Wrong Fortunes of War

So I've been slowly replacing some of my US DVDs of UK programs... Not all of them arbitrarily, mind you.  I've just been trying to find the ones that are actually better overseas: be it longer cuts (Masterpiece Theater had a bad habit of trimming scenes down for American television), exclusive special features or just better PAL to NTSC transfers.  The problem is, DVDCompare often helps with the extras, but otherwise there's rarely information online detailing the differences between international editions, and when there is, you wind up having to trust one random Amazon reviewer or an ancient post from the IMDB boards.  So there's a lot of rolling the dice, and so far I've been lucky.  In fact, just recently, I landed a great on one I should've bought years ago.
Fortunes of War may go down in history as the first pairing of frequent collaborators and once actually married couple Kenneth Branagh and Emma Thompson, but it's so much more than that.  The word "epic" gets thrown around a little too often, but this 1987 series truly earns it.  It's a seven-episode adaptation of Olivia Manning's semi-autobiographical series of novels about a college professor and his wife traveling to and from the second World War.  The series is filmed in their authentic locations around Yugoslavia/ Romania, Greece and Egypt.  I couldn't help thinking about those awful shots of Branagh and co. standing around in front of phony pyramids for his latest production of Death On the Nile, while watching Ken and Emma actually climbing the very real pyramids in this.  There are truly impressive battle scenes with big explosions and lots of soldiers operating major military equipment.  But that appears quite sporadically, because Fortunes is really about a single marriage trying to survive the horrors of war, and the friends they meet and lose along the way.
This was major event programming when it aired in the 80s, with something like nine BAFTA noms and three wins (Thompson's first).  Rupert Graves gets third billing on all the packaging, and he's great, but he doesn't even turn up until episode 5.  It's Ronald Pickup who really steals the show as the expatriate Prince Yakimov, but the entire cast is spot-on with one brilliant character after another, including actor/writer Alan Bennett as the detestable Lord Pinkrose.  It has a subtle but effective little score.  And thanks both to Manning and adapter Alan Plater, it's sharply written, and apart from one trite plot device in the last act, heartfelt without being sentimental.  And in fairness to Manning, it could be what actually happened to her and her husband in real life. 
I can still remember waiting, watching websites and wondering when Fortunes of War would ever come out on DVD.  It finally did in 2005 as a flipper-disc from Warner Bros and BBC Video.  And since no one's ever seen fit to restore it to HD, that's been my copy for all these years.  But it's never been terribly satisfying.  So this winter, I got curious, and started searching for information on what they had in the UK, and come to find out in 2006, 2 Entertain released a "Collectors Edition" set of 3 dual-layered DVDs.  How much better is it?
2005 US Warner Bros/ BBC DVD top; 2006 UK 2 Entertain DVD bottom.
I was mostly just hoping the interlacing would be fixed, and yes, it is.  So many of these UK programs suffer from lazy ports that don't re-scan the original materials and so just wind up interlacing PAL material in North America, so importing is often the ideal solution, and so it is in this instance.  But I was pleasantly surprised to discover a very distinct and all-around superior transfer.  Both releases are 1.33:1, as indeed a 1987 television program should be.  But the UK edition has additional picture along all four sides.  What really sticks out, though, is the color correction.  The first thing you notice in these comparisons, especially the first set of shots, is that sickly green hue over the US image.  The UK edition looks much more natural and attractive throughout.  I mean, to give credit where it's due, in the second set of shots and other points through-out the series, Warners has boosted the contrast and saturation somewhat, which can sometimes be a little more appealing (although there probably shouldn't be any of that blue on the dog).  But overall, there's no contest, 2 Entertain is much preferable to look at.

Audio- and language-wise, there's not such a gulf.  Both releases have the original stereo track in Dolby Digital with optional English subtitles.
But another reason to avoid Warner Bros' disc is that it's completely barebones, apart from an annoying BBC commercial that plays on start-up on both sides of the disc.  Meanwhile, 2 Entertain, as its Collectors Edition banner implies, has some great stuff.  There's an almost 40-minute documentary on Plater.  Fortunes itself gets very brief coverage, but you come away with a stronger appreciation for what he's done here anyway, just based on what you learn about the rest of his career.  Then, there is a series of vintage BBC television programs from '87 and '88.  One interviews Pickup and series director James Cellan Jones, and another talks to Plater.  They're a bit trivial, taking phone calls from home viewers, with one young lady asking Pickup for acting advice; but there's some good insight in there as well.  There's an interview with Emma Thompson, which is fun but very much the equivalent of a Carson or Fallon appearance.  Then there's one labeled Breakfast Time, but it's actually a pretty traditional behind-the-scenes promo featurette, with on-set interviews and B-roll footage.  And finally, there's a segment with three critics, which feels a bit silly at first, but actually, they make some good points, and have familiarity with the novels, so fans should actually get something out of it.

2 Entertain's set also comes in a more attractive slipbox... not to mention, what is going on with that awful air-brush painting of Thompson on the US DVD cover?  Neither cover design is terribly good (look how both of them slap those airplanes around the pyramid in the background), but at least you can glance at the UK edition without wincing.
So even though we're talking DVD to DVD, I'd still say this is a must-update, even more than many DVDs to BDs or BDs to UHDs have been.  If you own the US DVD, you've gotta swap it out.  I mean, unless the BBC ever sees fit to restore this classic to HD.  You'd think with its massive production values, awards, artistic qualities, critical reception, star power, etc, this would be high on the list.  But for whatever reason, studios interest in putting out these celebrated classics is very low, and the prognosis for a blu is practically nill.  In the meantime, the Hoover dam couldn't stop the flood of Jess Franco, Andy Milligan, Full Moon and Troma titles getting issued and reissued out the wazoo.  And don't get me wrong, I obviously dig my trashy cult titles as much as anyone and more than most, but come on, where are our priorities?  They should be right here.


  1. I seem to remember when this series appeared on Masterpiece Theater, that it had a lot more scenes and substance. My version seems to have cut out a lot of scenes. Is there an uncut version out there?

    1. Hmm... Interesting. I didn't notice any differences between the US and UK editions (sometimes US DVDs of Masterpiece Theater series tend to be cut a little more than their original UK counterparts), though I wasn't specifically looking for it. Can you remember any specific moments?