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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II
The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II
A&E Video // Unrated // November 28, 2006
List Price: $59.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Paul Mavis | posted November 27, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II is a ten disc set featuring some of The History Channel's best documentaries on WWII. These are the old school docs from The History Channel's beginnings, when military history buffs could turn on the "Hitler Channel" as it was affectionately (and perversely) called, seemingly at any time of the day or night, and find an excellent documentary, loaded with archival footage, about the various battles and strategies of The Big One: World War II. This was a revelation to most history buffs. Prior to The History Channel (as well as its host network, A&E), PBS was about the only place you could catch a TV documentary on WWII, with 1974's miniseries, The World at War, the preeminent example.

Started in January, 1995, The History Channel was an off-shoot of The A&E Network, which was launched in 1984. At its beginning, much of A&E's schedule was devoted to more esoteric programming, such as shows about dance, theatre and literature, as well as dramas and mysteries. But it had enormous success when it aired its war documentaries, particularly those themed around WWII. This was no doubt due in part to the coming 50th Anniversary of WWII, an historical milestone that was gaining public awareness through an increasing supply of new books, films and documentaries on that monumental struggle. Eventually, with much of its schedule dominated by such series, the network spun off The History Channel, which initially devoted much of its time to these war documentaries, garnering big ratings in the cable Nielsens. As was the case with most cable networks with multiple channels, various programs would overlap on each channel, cross-breeding and expanding the schedules through repetition. The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II showcases such programming, including series that were produced prior to the A&E Network's launch, episodes of A&E's popular Biography series, as well as series developed exclusively for The History Channel.

These documentaries, made up almost exclusively of archival footage, are exactly the kind of classic documentaries that die-hard WWII historians like to watch. A voice-over narrator gravely intones the story of each battle or conflict, while grainy, washed out, and scratched-up black and white footage of the war plays out, with dramatic music and loud battle sound effects added for emphasis. Frequently, maps (sometimes as primitive as someone using a pointer on a cardboard-back map; other times, animated) are utilized to place the action and to illustrate troop movements. And military experts and historians, seated directly in front of the camera in the invariable head-and-shoulders shot, interrupt the narration for their overviews of events, often giving a broader historical context to the descriptive narration. This is square, primal, often aggressive filmmaking; there's nothing "arty" about the presentation to the viewer. The horrors of battle (which are unflinchingly shown in numerous shots of the dead) are respected by the purposefully sparse, conservative, no-nonsense, head-on productions. The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II is a tremendous resource for viewers who want an exhaustive overview of the single most important event of the 20th century.

Here are the various episodes included in The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II, with their DVD box descriptions, as well as some production history:

DISC ONE:

World War II: The War in Europe - Part 1
This disc contains four episodes from War Chronicles, a multiple-episode series of war documentaries written and directed by Don Horan, and hosted and narrated by actor Patrick O'Neal. Running about 26 minutes each in length, the episodes included on this disc were produced in 1983 and 1985. They feature no interviews, just O'Neal (and at times, an anonymous narrator who, inexplicable, drops in additional voice-over material) explaining in detailed narration over the graphic archival footage, the various battle campaigns. Primitive visual aids are used to highlight the action (at times, it's just O'Neal, pointing at a map). The episodes included are:

The Greatest Conflict: From the German Blitzkrieg to the Allies' bloody battle for Berlin, experience a breathtaking overview of the savage global fighting that marked the war.
North Africa...The Desert War: This riveting account details the German attack on Kasserine Pass, where the British 1st Army and untested American troops faced the full force of Germany's seasoned Afrika Corps.
The Beachhead at Anzio: Follow the story of the Allied landing, the brutal German counterattack, and the final Allied offensive that would turn the tide of this historic battle.
D-Day...The Normandy Invasion: The day the Allies threw the full weight of their forces at Hitler at Normandy remains the largest amphibious assault in world history.

DISC TWO:

World War II: The War in Europe - Part 2
This disc contains another four episodes from War Chronicles, a multiple-episode series of war documentaries written and directed by Don Horan, and hosted and narrated by actor Patrick O'Neal. Running about 26 minutes each in length, the episodes included on this disc were produced in 1983 and 1985. Again, as with the first disc, they feature no interviews, just O'Neal explaining in detailed narration over the graphic archival footage, the various battle campaigns. The episodes included are:

Pursuit to the Rhine: In a daring offensive move, the Allies boldly thrust forward under tactical air support to break through German lines, and the enemy resistance ultimately crumbled.
The Bomber Offensive: Air War in Europe: The Allies launched this historic penetration raid on a German munitions factory and ultimately paid an extraordinary price in men and machines, but this battle would prove to be a turning point.
The Battle of the Bulge: It was the largest pitched battle in American military history, the last major engagement of the European campaign, and the scene of some of the war's fiercest fighting, leading to a final blow against the Nazis.
The Battle of Germany: The final campaign of the European theater unfolded in the aftermath of the Battle of the Bulge with the British and Canadian offensive, the historic crossing of the Rhine at Remagen, and Eisenhower's final drive to Berlin.

DISC THREE:

World War II: The War in the Pacific - Part 1
This disc contains another four episodes from War Chronicles, a multiple-episode series of war documentaries written and directed by Don Horan, and hosted and narrated by actor Patrick O'Neal. Running about 26 minutes each in length, the episodes included on this disc were produced in 1983 and 1985. Again, as with the first two discs, they feature no interviews, just O'Neal explaining in detailed narration over the graphic archival footage, the various battle campaigns. The episodes included are:

Island Hopping: The Road Back: Follow the epic story of the Allies' island-by-island Pacific campaign in which they utilized massive amphibious assaults.
Jungle Warfare: New Guinea to Burma: In the steamy jungles of the Pacific, soldiers battled not only the Japanese, but malaria, heat exhaustion, and swarms of parasites.
Air War in the Pacific: Chronicling the war's first days through the suicidal Kamikaze attacks and the bombing missions that brought the war to the Japanese homeland, this documentary utilizes extensive air combat footage.
The Bloody Ridges of Peleliu: From the opening naval bombardment, to the hand-to-hand combat and vicious guerrilla warfare, this is the complete story of this brutal and historic battle.

DISC FOUR:

World War II: The War in the Pacific - Part 1
This disc contains two episodes from War Chronicles, a multiple-episode series of war documentaries written and directed by Don Horan, and hosted and narrated by actor Patrick O'Neal. Running about 26 minutes in length, the episodes included on this disc were produced in 1983 and 1985. Again, as with the first two discs, they feature no interviews, just O'Neal explaining in detailed narration over the graphic archival footage, the various battle campaigns. The episodes included are:

The Return to the Philippines: From MacArthur's strategy to the heroics of the ground troops, the 7th Fleet's naval forces, and the pilots of the Air Force, the heroic saga of the Philippines is a stunning story of unstoppable determination.
Okinawa...The Last Battle: Winston Churchill described it as the most intense and famous battle in military history. Witness the desperate, suicidal resistance of the Japanese in the final battle of the Pacific campaign.

In addition to the two War Chronicles episodes, this disc contains an episode of A&E's famous Biography series, hosted by Jack Perkins. Perkins, who seemed to pop up on A&E every half hour in the 1990's, was a genial host with a trademark AM radio voice delivery that hooked people into watching his shows. Here, Perkins narrates a 45 minute tribute, with help from interviews with military historians, to Admiral William Halsey; it is also written and directed by Don Horan, and was produced in 1995:
Admiral William "Bull" Halsey: Naval Warrior: One of the most celebrated naval commanders in American history, Admiral Halsey led the Battle of the Bismarck Sea and helped neutralize the Japanese offensive.

DISC FIVE:

Biography: General Douglas MacArthur: Return of a Legend
This disc contains another 50 minute A&E Biography episode, hosted by Jack Perkins, discussing the life and career of General Douglas MacArthur. Directed by Don Horan, and written by Norman Stahl, this 1995 documentary isn't narrated by Perkins, but by noted actor Fritz Weaver:

General Douglas MacArthur: Return of a Legend: General Douglas MacArthur was one of America's greatest and most complex commanders, a warrior so tough and determined that he helped win World War II with a simple promise: "I shall return." Featuring rare footage and interviews with MacArthur's comrades, family, and friends, this compelling Biography program reveals the man who remains a hero to millions.

DISC SIX:

Okinawa: The Final Battle
This disc contains a 50 minute documentary, narrated by Fritz Weaver again, exploring the bloody battle in the Pacific. Directed by Don Horan, and written by Norman Stahl and Joseph H. Alexander, this 1995 documentary doesn't have a title card that might indicate what series on A&E or The History Channel it may have appeared on, but it's a safe bet to assume it was featured as a one-shot doc on The History Channel:

Okinawa: The Final Battle: The war in the Pacific was long and bloody, and when the final battle came, it was perhaps the fiercest of all. At Okinawa, over 250,000 people fought a desperate battle for control of the island, in which nearly half of them died. Dramatic footage -- some of it unseen for decades -- captures the chaos and destruction of this ultimate battle, and military historians probe its lasting legacy. Okinawa: The Final Battle is a gripping portrait of one of the most important engagements in military history.

DISC SEVEN:

Empires of Industry: War Planes of World War II
This disc contains a 50 minute documentary, narrated by Peter Thomas, exploring the planes that were used during WWII. Written and produced by John Jefferson, this 1998 documentary is part of the popular Empires of Industry series on the A&E Network:

War Planes of World War II: Flight was born in America at the turn of the century. But World War II saw more planes built in a single year -- 300,000 -- than had been built in the previous forty. Modern shots of restored aircraft, historic footage ranging from factory floors to dogfights, and interviews with pilots and designers recapture the aviation industry's finest hour.

DISC EIGHT:

Nuremberg: Tyranny on Trial
This disc contains a 50 minute documentary, narrated by Paul Sparer, gives a detailed look at the war tribunals in Nuremberg. Written by Norman Stahl and directed by Don Horan, this documentary was produced in 1995 for The History Channel:

Nuremberg: Tyranny on Trial: World War II didn't end on the battlefield -- it ended in a courtroom. The Nuremberg Trials bore witness to some of humanity's darkest hours and revealed the full scope of the atrocities of Nazism, culminating in the execution of many top Nazi leaders. Join The History Channel for an in-depth investigation of the Nuremberg Trials, a moment in history the world has promised never to forget.

DISC NINE:

Great Blunders of World War II - Part 1
This disc contains four, 21 minute episodes from The History Channel miniseries, Great Blunders of World War II. Produced in 1998 by director Jonathan Martin, and written by Charles Messenger, these compact little docs are fascinating looks at the fatal mistakes made by the Axis powers, that aided the Allied victory:

The German Blunder at Dunkirk: Hitler's 1940 Blitzkrieg upon Europe drove the British Expeditionary Force into the sea at Dunkirk, but his reckless plan of attack turned his chance to destroy the British into history's greatest escape.
Hitler's Declaration of War on the U.S.: Even with Hitler's forces ravaging Europe, America hesitated to join the fight against him. All that changed, however, with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and a foolish decision on the Fuhrer's part to ally with Japan.
The Pilot who Bombed London: One lost and confused Luftwaffe pilot mistakenly dropped his bombs on London, igniting what became known as the Blitz and pushing Britain's durability to its furthest limits.
Hitler's Flying Blunders: The Luftwaffe's lighting-fast, short-range fighter-bombers were used in support of highly mobile ground forces, a strategy which ultimately went horribly awry.

In addition to these four episodes, two additional episodes of Great Blunders of World War II are included: The Battle of the Bulge and A Bridge Too Far.

DISC TEN:

Great Blunders of World War II - Part 2
This disc contains four, 21 minute episodes from The History Channel miniseries, Great Blunders of World War II. Produced in 1998 by director Jonathan Martin, and written by Charles Messenger, these compact little docs are fascinating looks at the fatal mistakes made by the Axis powers, that aided the Allied victory:

Japan's Mistakes at Midway: On June 4, 1942, the fanatical and efficient Japanese war machine wanted to finish off the U.S. Pacific Fleet, but their blind arrogance and underestimation of American willpower led them to disaster instead.
The Failure of the Kamikaze: Steeped in the ancient code of the Samurai, Kamikaze forces on land, sea, and air sacrificed themselves in battle in a desperate bid for victory that spelled ultimate doom for the Japanese Empire.
Death at Stalingrad: In Hitler's quest to take Stalingrad at all costs, he underestimated both the Russian winter and the steadfastness of the Russian people in the face of the Nazi threat.
Operation Sea Lion: In the wake of the British army's flight from France, the British were all but beaten. But a Nazi invasion of England was inexplicably postponed, diverting certain triumph and ultimately leading to the Allied victory.

In addition to these four episodes, two additional episodes of Great Blunders of World War II are included: The Bomb Plot to Kill Hitler and The Scattering of Convoy PQ17.

The DVDs:

The Video:
The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II by no means delivers crystal clear video images. Quite a bit of it looks rather rough, with some footage from the documentaries coming from second or third generation video that looks pretty bad. However, most of the archival footage, while admittedly scratched up and contrasty, still impresses with its grainy power. All of the programs are presented in the full screen format.

The Audio:
The audio tracks for The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II are a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix. It's strong, and carries the numerous explosions well. There are, unfortunately, no subtitles available for the collection (which is a particular disservice to many of the older viewers who will undoubtedly make up a large block of this set's buyers).

The Extras:
Although the last two discs advertise on their boxes that they have "bonus" episodes, really, they're just four extra episodes of the same series, and as such, don't really count as different extras outside of the documentaries presented here.

Final Thoughts:
Let's face it: if you're a regular viewer of The History Channel or A&E (like I am), you've probably seen one or two of these documentaries. But if you're a military history buff, you won't mind having these entertaining docs in your DVD collection. No, they're not the definitive historical answer to these battles and campaigns (is there such a thing in history?), but the docs contained in the massive, 15 hour The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II, with their no-nonsense, square-headed, scrupulously researched approach to their subjects, are welcome reliefs to the fractured, "morally equivalent" historical documentaries that are increasingly turning up on cable networks. I highly recommend The History Channel Ultimate Collections: World War II.


Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.

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