Spectacular. Combining recent interviews, archival footage, graphics, and awesome state-of-the-art CGI recreations, Dogfights: The Complete Season One is one of the most exciting programs currently running on The History Channel. A steady viewer of the channel, I never had a chance to catch one of these episodes, so I was blown away watching all eleven episodes of this series dedicated to telling the stories of the world's greatest aerial combat missions. As with other History Channel offerings such as Lost Worlds and Engineering an Empire, computer generated images make up a big part of the show - and create much of the excitement - as Dogfights: The Complete Season One realistically puts the viewer right in the cockpits of some of the fastest, deadliest war planes, and vividly illustrates just how hairy those famous aerial battles were for the brave aviators who flew them.
Each episode of Dogfights: The Complete Season One sets out to show the viewer exactly what was involved in celebrated aerial combat missions from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and even Israel's Six Day War. Using interviews with the actual air aces who fought the battles, an intricate mix of high-tech computer graphics (which perfectly illustrate complicated air maneuvers such as the "high yo-yo" and the "split S reversal"), stat sheets on the relative strengths and weaknesses of the matched-up planes and their armaments, archival footage of the real planes in action, and stunning CGI recreations of the battles themselves, Dogfights: The Complete Season One presents a view of air combat that's not only informative, but that's more exciting than any war film depiction I've ever seen.
Particularly impressive are the computer simulations of the aircraft battling each other in the skies. Not only are the graphics themselves outstanding, with photo-realistic depictions of the sky and land, but special care has been taken in the computer animations to simulate all sorts of "camera moves" that enhance the reality of what you're seeing. For instance, when a shot has a plane barreling down on the viewer, the animation simulates a camera "wake," as if the non-existent camera was buffeted by the wash of the plane. It's really an effective trick, and heightens the realism of the animation. Other simulated "camera" tricks such as swish pans (to follow the lightening fast jets), sudden, jerky zooms (as if the camera operator had trouble getting a bead on the receding jets), and slow motion repeats to more clearly see the action, are included, as well as realistic lighting effects such as solarized shots (when a plane goes into the sun, the picture washes out in bright light). Heightened sound effects marry quite well with these "camera" tricks, creating an awesome simulation of what aerial combat sounds and feels like to the aviator.
But Dogfights: The Complete Season One isn't just an exercise in realistic computer-game graphics. What I found even more compelling about the series were the amazing stories of these battles, and the aviator warriors who fought them. Without a shred of guilt or apology in their enthusiastic descriptions of their dogfights, these battle-hardened warriors, often in their own words, display the kind of personal courage and battlefield finesse that made them aces in the skies. The series' opening episode, with air ace Captain Robbie Risner detailing his harrowing chase of a Soviet MiG-15 deep into Chinese territory during the Korean War, is about the most exciting, breathless depiction of a combat battle I've ever seen. Forget the movies, this is the real deal. Now I know there will be history buffs and experts out there who may find fault with Dogfights: The Complete Season One, nitpicking little historical inaccuracies such as a stray incorrect labeling of a gun caliber, or the like. That kind of noodling is the providence of true war and military historians - of which I am most certainly not. I wouldn't know what caliber gun went on which dogfighter if my life depended on it. But occasional arguments over so-called inaccuracies have absolutely nothing to do with the experience of watching a series like Dogfights: The Complete Season One.
What came through clearly to me in Dogfights: The Complete Season One, after the initial excitement of the CGI animation battles, was a patriotism and an almost child-like joy that these air aces achieved when their ability to master such complicated machinery translated into victories for their country. Creating a seamless whole between man and machine, a kind of poetic grace comes across these survivors' faces when they detail their exploits. It's a Hemingway-esque feeling of man totally in synch with his craft and his surroundings, and ultimately makes Dogfights: The Complete Season One an emotional, patriotic, and moving experience.
Here are the 11, one hour episodes of the four-disc box set, Dogfights: The Complete Season One, as described on their slipcases:
Cruise the deadly skies of Korea's MiG Alley with American aces Robbie Risner and Ralph Parr as they stake their lives in sleek F-86 Sabres against nimble Russian-built MiG-15 fighters in history's first jet dogfights.
Legendary fighter pilot Colonel Robin Olds and his squadron, the Wolfpack, use themselves as bait to lure North Vietnamese MiG-21's into the most elaborate air sting of the war, code-named Project Bolo.
It's two weeks after Pearl Harbor, and Aces Tex Hill and John Alison, in their P-40 Tomahawks, lead the legendary band of Americans known as the Flying Tigers as they slash through China, and fight to the death against the agile Japanese 1-97 Nate.
Join celebrated Marine Capt. John Smith and Medal of Honor recipients Jeff De Blanc and Jim Swett of the tiny Cactus Air Force as they pit their instincts, courage, and 4F4 Wildcats against Japan's deadliest flyers in the skies over Guadalcanal in August of 1942.
Hell Over Hanoi
Dogfights goes supersonic in the skies over Vietnam with F4 Phantom pilots Fred Olmstead and Dan Cherry, as they take on the most feared threat in the sky, the MiG-21. Relive the battle that made an Air Force Ace out of American Steve Ritchie.
The Zero Killer
No Allied aircraft can match Japan's deadly Zero until the American navy deploys the fearsome F6F Hellcat. Strap in with legendary dogfighters Robert Duncan, Hamilton McWhorter, and Alex Vraciu to relive the epic dogfights of 1943 that wrote a new chapter in the annals of aerial combat.
The Last Gunfighter
Tackle the fierce North Vietnamese MiG in the Navy's best fighter, the F8 Crusader, alongside jocks Paul Speer and Phil Wood, and re-live Lt. Commander Richard Schaffert's legendary dogfight as, out of missiles and guns jammed, he faces a lethal MiG-17.
Death of the Japanese Navy
Witness the 1944 Battle of Samar, one of the most lionized David vs. Goliath naval battles in history. Taffy III, a small U.S. task unit of tin can destroyers and baby flat-tops -- utterly destroys a mighty Japanese fleet led by the Yamato, the world's biggest battleship.
Dogfights gets in the cockpit with legendary World War II Navy ace "Swede" Vejtasa, relives the 45-minute battle for survival against Japanese fighters with medal of honor winner Jay Zeamer, and soars with Air Force Lt. Col. Leo Thorsness as his F-105 Thunderchief takes on a flight of skilled MiG-17's in the skies over Vietnam!
Dogfights of the Middle East
The Israeli Air Force soars into combat over the tombs of the Pharaohs in the 1967 Six Day War, and enters hostile Jordan for a top secret mission with 119 Squadron Commander Ran Ronen before getting into a swirling dogfight directly over the Egyptian base.
Hunt for the Bismarck
As the Germans' Bismarck attacks the British forces in the North Atlantic during World War II, the Brits retaliate with every weapon they have -- including the Swordfish torpedo-bombers who aid in the Bismarck's ultimate destruction.
The widescreen, 1.78:1 video image for Dogfights: The Complete Season One is crystal clear digital perfection; unfortunately, it's not anamorphically enhanced here. No artifacting or compression problems arose with this DVD transfer.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio mix is lively, especially during the battle scenes, but honestly, I would have loved to see this in 5.1; let's hope they remix the second season to blast out our speakers.
2005's Dogfights: Greatest Air Battles, the ninety minute special that inspired the series, is included on disc one. It is presented full frame, which I assume is the way it was originally broadcast (all the framing looks correct). On disc four, a special 21 minute featurette, Dogfights: The Planes, looks at the various American planes and jets that achieved air superiority over every battlefield they fought.
Dogfights: The Complete Season One's awesome computer graphics of the hyper-realistic aerial combat scenes will initially blow you away, but the stories of courage, patriotism, and sheer poetry of men melding with machines will ultimately stay with you far longer. Dogfights: The Complete Season One is one of the most exciting, informative, and ultimately uplighting shows on The History Channel. I highly recommend Dogfights: The Complete Season One.
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.