I'm a man of science, so obviously, history isn't a subject I have a lot of expertise in. I do however, find the subject fascinating and sets like this one here are strongly appealing. The History Channel has compiled a rather extensive collection of programs regarding The American Revolution and presented them at a considerably affordable price. The collection spans 14 discs and consists of four series', two standalone programs, and two made for television films.
"Founding Fathers" (Discs 1 and 2)
The "Founding Fathers" miniseries like the majority of the programs in this set follows standard History Channel documentary format. Each episode runs around 40 minutes and is a mix of narration, dramatic recreations, and historian commentary. The one nice addition to this series is the use of actors such as Beau Bridges, perennial documentary fixture Peter Coyote and James Woods, to read the writings of the subjects discussed. The entire series spans four episodes and focuses, obviously on the founding of our country and the build up to war.
"Founding Brothers" (Discs 3 and 4)
"Founding Brothers" follows the same format of "Founding Fathers" but instead only features two episodes. The interesting thing to note is this series was based on the 2001 Pulitzer Prize winning history book of the same title. This series is made up of two, two-part episodes, each running an hour and a half. This is again, a solid series and has enough variety in presentation to be engaging.
"The American Revolution" (Discs 5 and 6)
Although it's not clearly stated, the early 90s A&E miniseries "The American Revolution" is featured in this set. The box listing chooses to list the episodes as if they were separate standalone programs though. Hosted by the voice and face of A&E, Bill Kurtis, the presentation is obviously a bit more, low budget, compared to the more recent programming, but it doesn't make it any less enjoyable. Actors are again used for dramatic readings; I particularly liked William Daniels popping up as John Adams, a role he famously played in the classic musical "1776." Unfortunately, this production is trumped by another piece in the set, History Channel's "The Revolution."
"The Revolution" (Discs 7-10)
"The Revolution" is a much more comprehensive and lengthier mini-series than "The American Revolution." Production values are much higher and recreations play a larger role as the backdrop for narration and historian commentary. Obviously there is a lot of overlap in terms of content, but it's still very much worth watching. I would actually recommend it over the earlier series if a person were only planning to watch one. Like all the programs in this set, the content and presentation is very accessible and is targeted to all ages, which is always a plus when it comes to documentary/informational programming.
"Washington the Warrior and Ben Franklin" (Discs 11-12)
"Washington the Warrior" is a separate, standalone program that through the use of recreations, chronicles the story of the first President of the United States. It's a fitting addition to this box set for obvious reasons and was an informative, enjoyable watch.
"Ben Franklin" is another 90-minute standalone program detailing the life and achievements of one of this nation's founding fathers. It's a well-paced program and a nice contrast to the other content in this set, as it looks at one man specifically. Like "Washington" it was also quite enjoyable.
"Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor" (Disc 13)
This program is a vast departure from the previous discs. Running 90 minutes, "Benedict Arnold" is a TV movie starring Aidan Quinn as the title character and Kelsey Grammar (who also pops up as a voice actor on earlier discs) as George Washington. While both men are fine actors, I feel both were not right here. Aidan Quinn is wasted on a very brief story in a very amateur looking production. I recently reviewed an older TV movie, "The Plot to Kill Hitler" and I felt that, despite being 20 years older, had a more polished feel to it than this. Kelsey Grammar is miscast here and like Quinn, does his best with the stilted dialogue. It's not a horrible production, but is easily the weakest part of this collection, save for its bonus features.
"The Crossing" (Disc 14)
The final entry in this collection is another TV movie, this time starring Jeff Daniels as George Washington. Unlike "Benedict Arnold," the crossing focuses on a specific event in the life of a great man and the 90-minute running time ends up being adequate enough. The dialogue is more up to snuff here, production values are increased, and Daniels is much better in the title role, than Kelsey Grammar in the prior title. While I can't fully speak to it's historical accuracy, I can say it's very much worth watching and a nice way to close out a set crammed to the brim with information.
The video quality of the programs in this set is all over the map. The majority of the programs are 1.33:1 presentations, with a few programs (notably "Washington the Warrior" and "Ben Franklin") being presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. The image quality is best on the TV movies, but "The Revolution" miniseries is also a standout. It is the most vibrant in terms of color and clarity, but still a far cry from a feature length production or even some PBS productions. The worst looking program on this disc is "The American Revolution." It is 15 years old and looks to be have taken from some less than stellar videotape. However, the quality of all these programs is the selling point here and the video quality, honestly, doesn't distract from the enjoyment.
Much like the video quality, the audio is average. All the programs are presented in English 2.0 stereo, which is suitable enough for the nature of the content.
Only four programs in this set feature any bonus content, and of those only two are of substantial value. "The Revolution" series sports behind the scenes featurettes discussing the making of the series, but was not something that held my interest; "Washington the Warrior" featured similar content. Where things get good are on the "Ben Franklin" disc and "Benedict Arnold: A Question of Honor." The Franklin disc sports a 45-minute piece of "Save Our History" on the Declaration of Independence, as well as a "The Many Faces of Ben Franklin," which was nothing more than an old program designed as a promotional tie in for the "National Treasure" movies. Rounding out the disc is some supplementary material on his inventions, a timeline, list of quotes/anecdotes, and a making of featurettes for the main program. The "Biography" episode of Benedict Arnold is the sole special feature on its accompanying disc and in all reality, a much more worthwhile watch than the TV movie.
Without a doubt, "The Founding of America" box set is a tremendous value of high-quality programming (27+ hours total). Despite, understandable repetition of content throughout the various programs, there is enough good material present, presented in a variety of ways to warrant a purchase for any history buff. The standout program, is without a doubt, "The Revolution," which is obviously the culmination of A&E/The History Channel's numerous efforts at telling the saga of this nation's Independence. Despite average video quality and one fairly mediocre TV movie, I have no problem giving this a strong recommendation. My interest was held steadily throughout my journey through this set and our nation's history. For history fans, this is a no brainier. Highly Recommended.