From S'More Entertainment comes the three-disc box set, Aviation Library: Combat Zone, featuring eleven half-hour long documentaries produced by filmmaker Ferde Grofe, Jr., covering various military subjects such as military warplanes, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, World War II, and military generals (which leads me to question that aviation-emphasized title). While the quality of these documentaries from 1988 and 1989 can be spotty at times, with generally awful transfers here, the information provided is interesting, and there is an old, vintage feel to these docs - a sort of anti-History Channel roughness - that is ultimately quite appealing.
Split up into three sections, Aviation Library: Combat Zone covers Chopper Fury on disc one; The Jet Age on disc two; and WWII: The Frontlines on disc three. As you can see by this grouping, the Aviation Library: Combat Zone is gathered together rather haphazardly. It's also difficult to tell exactly where these documentaries came from. Opening titles are either altered with cheaply shot new titles, or eliminated altogether, while end credits are rather misleading. I'm leaning towards most of these docs coming from two series called Air Combat from 1993, and Masters of War from 1994. Both of those series had H. M. Neely as a frequent director, along with actor Monte Markham serving as narrator - both of whom show up on many of the docs presented here. However, the docs listed in Aviation Library: Combat Zone all have copyrights of 1988 or 1989, and they're listed as produced by Ferde Grofe - who is not, by any records I can find, associated with either Air Combat or Masters of War. Unfortunately, S'More Entertainment, which is usually pretty thorough about providing background info for its releases, offers none here for Aviation Library: Combat Zone.
Putting aside the matter of authorship or origin of the docs on Aviation Library: Combat Zone, the half-hour (really closer to twenty-five minutes) episodes have that old, pre-History Channel feel of military documentaries that used to come out only on video or obscure cable channels for military enthusiasts. Using vintage archival footage including U.S. military training films, archival battle footage, and actual newsreels almost exclusively (although I did spot a couple of scenes that looked like left-over film footage from some of Grofe's Philippine-shot fictional war pictures), the various docs on Aviation Library: Combat Zone do have that authentic, rough feel of cheaply assembled stock footage that gives them a different, harsher tone than the slickly produced, expensive product you'll find on today's cable channels. The information imparted to the viewer in these docs is usually tech-specific, adding to the no-frills approach. As well, the generally terrible transfers here add to that gritty feel. The source material often looks like third or fourth generation video dupes, with washed out, contrasty images that sometimes white out to the most insignificant image detail. The DVD transfer doesn't help, with compression problems - lots of jaggies - making the already compromised original source material come off even worse.
Still, if you're a military history buff, or an military aviation fan, you might want to check out Aviation Library: Combat Zone. You may have already heard most of this information, but the exclusive use of archival footage - many of it official military-shot footage - is a real bonus for the military historian; you won't find a single CGI shot here. The docs have that kind of creepy, authentic feel (aided by some curious psychedelic, weirdo music cues that give the episodes an Apocalypse Now feel at times) that are a nice antidote to the sometimes too-slick-for-their-own-good military docs floating around The History Channel, The Discovery Channel, and The Military Channel.
Here are the 11, one-half hour documentaries included in the three-disc boxed set, Aviation Library: Combat Zone, as described on the back of the DVD hardcase:
DISC ONE: CHOPPER FURY
See fully loaded Hueys carrying wounded out of hot LZs and other harrowing situations where only a chopper dares tread.
The story of Operation Junction City and the Viet Cong's stranglehold in the Iron Triangle.
Take off with the huge AH-1 Cobra as it swoops in to rescue a platoon of Americans.
Vietnam: The Hell Zone
Listed as a bonus, this documentary looks at two battles that scared even the strongest of men: Khe Sahn and the Tet Offensive.
DISC TWO: THE JET AGE
Mig Alley, Korea
Unforgettable footage of Sabre F-86/MiG dogfights and tales of unbelievable bravery.
The Jet Wars
Quick tricks of the F-4 Phantom, F-86 Sabre, and devastation reaped by U.S. Airforce troops.
The Fighter Aces
Witness America's elite battle German and Japanese pilots during four wars.
Jet Fighter Attack
Listed as a bonus, this documentary looks at the F-14 Tomcat, the F-15 Eagle, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, and the F/A-18 Hornet tearing up the sky.
DISC THREE: WW II -- THE FRONTLINES
Great Warbirds of WWII
Celebrate three of America's greatest airplanes: Lightning F-38, Thunderbolt F-47, and Mustang P-51.
The Frontline Generals: Part I
Witness rare spectacle and heroism in this exciting, hard-to-forget footage.
The Frontline Generals: Part II
Joseph Stilwell and Douglas MacArthur lead the fight across the Pacific in a display of awesome power.
Featuring some of the worst full-screen video images I've seen this year, the Aviation Library: Combat Zone discs will win no awards for video fidelity. The original source materials for the DVD transfers look like fourth generation video, while the inadequate DVD encoding further compromises the video image. Only the smallest of monitors will work here, and even then, it looks pretty bad.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo audio track is okay, but nothing spectacular. Levels go in and out, probably owing to the original source track, which haven't been cleaned up or adjusted.
There's a picture gallery of some restored American warplanes in action -- those still images look remarkably clear. There's also a text bio on Ferde Grofe, Jr., which tellingly doesn't mention these docs at all when discussing his career.
You have to be a real military enthusiast to put up with the terrible transfers here in Aviation Library: Combat Zone. While the documentaries utilize valuable archival footage, offering a welcome relief from the super-slick military docs that now flood the airwaves, Aviation Library: Combat Zone is still a haphazard collection that will probably only appeal to hard-core military buffs. Even so, rent it first to see if you can put up with the compromised video.
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.