History has gathered together two previously released CGI-saturated WWII (and a few other wars) combat shows for a new boxed set entitled, Military Combat, just in time for Father's Day shoppers. Included in the set are the first season of Battle 360, as well as the first and second seasons of Dogfights. The final episode of Dogfights' second season, Dogfights of the Future, is included as a separate disc. All of the transfers and extras are exactly the same as the ones used for these series' previous DVD releases, so double-dipping isn't necessary. And since DVDTalk has already covered these same releases (in excellent reviews, Jeffrey Kauffman covered Dogfights Season 2 and Todd Douglass, Jr. covered Battle 360, while I wrote about the first season of Dogfights), there's no need in this review to go into any great new depth for these series.
It's an interesting fact that series like Dogfights, Battle 360, and Shootout!, which rely almost exclusively on gaming-imitative graphics to vividly bring to life their combat documentaries, have brought an entirely new - and younger - audience to History. For a while there, The History Channel was a sure-fire go-to joke for anyone wanting to crack-wise about older men's TV viewing habits. But now, thanks to the CGI animation that routinely pops up in even the most mundane docs, History and Discovery and TLC seem kind of "cool" again, where younger viewers can get a quasi-gaming fix while learning about dinosaurs ripping each other apart, or watch F6F Hellcats ripping apart a Japanese Zero.
There can be, though, a potential for exploitation with these new kinds of CGI docs. You can't say that they're not educational. I found Battle 360, which I missed when it premiered (I did catch its sort-of "spin-off," Patton 360), to be not only highly informative, but also quite emotionally involving (I know hard-core history buffs tear these docs apart, but most of us are just casual viewers of these). Utilizing a chronological approach to its 10 episodes, this exploration of the U.S.S. Enterprise's role in the Pacific conflict from the beginning to the end of WWII, was much more narrative in overall scope than say Dogfights, which skips back and forth along time-lines from episode to episode, covering many decades of U.S. combat operations. The majority of Battle 360's running time may consist of CGI animation sequences, but its storytelling of the men who lived, fought and died on the "Lucky E" is far more compelling than the average Dogfights episode because we're spending quite a bit of time with this single ship, getting to know the sailors and Marines who served on her, as well as becoming involved with the actual fate of the ship, caring about her as she's blasted and torn apart by the unrelenting Japanese forces - only to come back stronger and more deadly (the U.S.S. Enterprise saw more action against the Japanese than any other ship, earning a phenomenal 20 battle stars during operations, where she was responsible for 71 enemy ships sunk, and 911 enemy aircraft blown out of the sky). Battle 360 gets that "family" feeling across remarkably well, making it a most resonant documentary in comparison particularly to the old style newsreel-and-narrator docs that used to crowd The History Channel's schedule.
But I wonder sometimes if the result of the viewer excitement generated by the almost-interactive nature of the CGI effects, is more akin to Alvin Kernan's take on the possibility that the U.S.S. Enterprise almost turned into a floating museum. Having served on the ship, and being interviewed for Battle 360, Kernan states his disdain for "sideshow boat" museums where kids run up and down the decks screaming and yelling, while candy and ice cream are sold to tourists. He calls such behavior - as well as the state these boats find themselves in after giving patriotic service - "degrading," and he may be right on one level. It may also seem to veterans like Kernan that shows like Battle 360 and Dogfights cheapen the memory of the sacrifices made by the aviators and sailors who were killed in the crashes and explosions that are depicted with such sensational, visceral detail in these docs. I know I've certainly caught myself getting into the action of these episodes much like a video game, only to catch myself up short when I realize these were real events, with real human lives lost as a result of these "cool," "fun" animated explosions. At times, the marveling at the animation supercedes the meaning of what's being depicted. I suppose that's a dilemma that's present with most war movies, as well, regardless of the intent of their messages (Where Eagles Dare is beloved as flat-out meaningless fun, yet most people still remember the excitement of the beach landing in Saving Private Ryan, and forget its anti-war sentiments). Still, we're always searching for new ways to bring "history" to life, and the dynamic presentations of these war docs may indeed present a chance for "zoning out" on the action, but they also bring these events vividly to life, and if one truly listens to the veterans interviewed here, and understand their stories, their sacrifices, their courage and their enduring legacies, these docs transcend their gaming hooks to become informative and moving testimonials to those who served.
For more extensive, in-depth looks at the individual series included here in the Military Combat set - again, the content and transfers are exactly the same as the previous DVD releases - my review for Dogfights: The Complete Season One can be accessed here, with the excellent reviews for Jeffrey Kauffman's Dogfights: The Complete Season 2 here, and Todd Douglass, Jr.'s Battle 360 here.
Having watched and reviewed several History docs just in the past few months, I'm again flummoxed as to why they continually release substandard transfers in non-anamorphic, cropped 1:78:1 widescreen. Why, History? The actual source material is sharp as a tack, with excellent color values and better-than-expected CGI animation. So why not showcase that anamorphically? HD TVs are here to stay, History; time to join the big boys.
As well, the relatively paltry Dolby Digital English 2.0 audio tracks, while healthy enough, certainly don't take advantage of the possibilities inherent in hearing planes spitting out rounds and smashing into the water. Close-captions are supposedly available, but they didn't work on any player or monitor I tried (something I've seen with other History releases, as well).
On Battle 360's fourth disc, there are additional snippets of scenes (perhaps cut from the various episodes), along with some behind-the-scenes looks at the animation process, that total 24:19. For the first season of Dogfights, 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. For season two, additional footage (again, perhaps left over and cut for time?) concerning the events covered in the main episodes, is included; it runs 31:02. Again, these are the same bonuses from the original DVD releases - nothing new.
Undeniably exciting, as well as informative, the CGI-saturated combat series included in the Military Combat set vividly recreate the battles and skirmishes that defined the technology-driven wars of the 20th century. Transfers and extras are exactly the same as the previous DVD releases of Battle 360 and Dogfights, so there's no need to double-dip. However, someone new to these series will find the Military Combat set an excellent starter. I highly recommend the Military Combat boxed set.
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.