Author's note: I've written before about Dogfights, and since this latest collection, Dogfights: The Complete Series is in no way different than the individual Seasons 1 and 2 releases I've already reviewed - the same transfers, no new bonuses, the same disc art and packaging - I'll port over those reviews, combine and rewrite them, while adding some new observations and comments, as well.
In a word: spectacular. Combining awesome state-of-the-art (at least for 2006-2007) CGI recreations, interviews with historians and the pilots who were there in battle, archival and newsreel footage, and computer graphics, charts and maps, the ten-disc, 29-episode Dogfights: The Complete Series analyzes and vividly depicts the most notable aerial combat missions flown during the 20th century. Dogfights was new to me when I first reviewed the series on DVD last year, and I was blown away catching it then for the first time. Revisiting it with this Dogfights: The Complete Series release, I was surprised to find myself engrossed all over again with episodes I've already seen several times by now - always a good sign for this kind of TV series. No new bonuses or transfers this go-around (including History's frankly stupid insistence on releasing flat letterboxed versions of their widescreen shows), so double-dipping isn't necessary if you already own the previous releases.
As has become the norm now with most educational and historical programming on cable networks like History or Discovery, computer generated images make up a big part of these Dogfights programs' content. It's an interesting fact that series like Dogfights 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 watching a F6F Hellcats ripping apart a Japanese Zero.
The aim of Dogfights is simple: putting the viewer right in the cockpits of some of the fastest, deadliest war planes of the 20th century, while vividly illustrating just how hairy those famous aerial battles were for the brave aviators who flew in them. Each episode of Dogfights sets out to show the viewer exactly what was involved in celebrated aerial combat missions from World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Israel's Six Day War, and the first Gulf 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 of course, the stunning CGI recreations of the battles themselves, Dogfights presents a view of air combat that's not only informative, but that's also more exciting than most war film depiction I've ever seen on the big screen.
Particularly impressive in Dogfights 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, putting the viewer right in the action. 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 an effective trick, heightening 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. There can be, though, a potential for exploitation with these new kinds of CGI docs.
Watching many of the episodes in Dogfights: The Complete Series, and seeing the enthusiastic reactions from my younger sons towards the action sequences, I did wonder if the result of the viewer excitement generated by the almost-interactive nature of the CGI effects was appropriate. Do the realistic gaming sequences of these real battles somehow 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 supersedes 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. Still, we're always searching for new ways to bring history to life, and while the dynamic presentations of these war docs may indeed present a chance for "zoning out" on the action for some game-happy viewers, these docs also bring these historical events vividly to life. 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.
Indeed, I found those testimonials, those amazing stories of these battles and the aviator warriors who fought them, far more engaging than the cool action sequences. 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 MiG Alley, with air ace Captain Robbie Risner detailing his harrowing chase of a Soviet MiG-15 deep into Chinese territory during the Korean War, is one of the most exciting, breathless depiction of a combat battle I've ever seen. Forget the movies, this is the real deal. In Season 2's Thunderbolt, the story of WWII American fighter ace Robert Johnson's gut-wrenching encounter with German ace Egon Meyer, is equally fascinating, as the episode recounts how Johnson survived three deadly machine gun assaults on his "tank with wings" Thunderbolt, to the incredulous admiration of his would-be assassin (Meyer, giving up, gave a wave of his wings to Johnson and finally pulled out of the assault). I was also fascinated with George Sutcliffe's encounter with 20 ME109, as he desperately tried time and again to spiral up into the clouds to escape his equally adept, deadly German foe (it's an amazing moment when you hear that at one point, both pilots shook their heads at each other in wonderment over what they were trying to do to each other).
Now I know there are historians and history buffs and experts out there who don't have a lot of good things to say about History documentaries (the general consensus among the naysayers seems to be the docs are too general and contain inaccuracies), and they may indeed also find fault with individual episodes of Dogfights, 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 ultimately have nothing to do with the experience of watching a series like Dogfights. What came through clearly to me in the series, after the initial excitement of the CGI animation battles settled in, 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 it helps to make Dogfights an emotional, patriotic, and moving experience.
Here are the 29 episodes of the 10-disc box set, Dogfights: The Complete Series, as described on their slipcases:
American aces Robbie Risner and Ralph Parr stake their lives in sleek F-86 Sabres against nimble Russian-built MiG-15 fighters.
Legendary fighter pilot Colonel Robin Olds and his squadron use themselves as bait in the most elaborate air sting of the war, code-named Project Bolo.
The legendary band of Americans known as the Flying Tigers fight to the death in their P-40 Tomahawks against the agile Japanese 1-97 Nate.
Marine Capt. John Smith and Medal of Honor recipients Jeff De Blanc and Jim Swett pit their instincts and 4F4 Wildcats against Japan's deadliest flyers in the skies over Guadalcanal.
Hell Over Hanoi
F4 Phantom pilots Fred Olmstead and Dan Cherry take on the most-feared threat in the sky, the MiG-21, in a supersonic in the skies over Vietnam.
The Zero Killer
The American navy deploys the fearsome F6F Hellcat with the legendary dogfighters Robert Duncan, Hamilton McWhorter, and Alex Vraciu against Japan's deadly Zero.
The Last Gunfighter
The Navy's best fighter, the F8 Crusader, with missiles ran-out and guns jammed - faces the fierce and lethal MiG-17.
Death of the Japanese Navy
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.
Hunt for the Bismarck
The Brits retaliate with every weapon they have, including the Swordfish torpedo-bombers who aid in the Bismarck's ultimate destruction in the North Atlantic during WWII.
The legendary World War II Navy ace "Swede" Vejtasa in his F-105 Thunderchief relives the 45-minute battles against the Japanese flight of skilled MiG-17s 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.
Japan's poorly trained volunteer fighters turned themselves and their planes into devastating weapons in suicidal attacks against America's Pacific fleet.
Jet vs. Jet
In the skies over North Korea, jets faced off against one another for the first time in history.
This classic World War II warhorse survived machine gun attacks and even fires to protect its pilot and keep on fighting.
Gun Kills of Vietnam
The arrival of missile technology lead many to believe that a fighter's guns were useless relics, but air-to-air battles in the skies above Vietnam proved differently.
The arrival of the Delta-Wing MiG-21 in the Middle East forced the Israeli Air Force to counter with a fighter force of its own.
The First Dogfighters
In the skies about France and Belgium, some of the earliest fighters - Fokker triplanes, Spads, and SE-5s - battled to the death.
Luftwaffe's Deadliest Mission
Facing wave after wave of devastating bombing attacks against Germany, the pilots of the Luftwaffe began using their own planes to ram into American bombers.
No Room For Error
While dogfights are famous for taking place at vertiginous heights, it is at low altitudes that flying is most perilous. Flying near deck and at the level of treetops, there is no margin for error.
Courageous airmen take to the night skies in Hellcats, P-61 Black Widows, and F-16s.
The Bloodiest Day
The day saw pioneering efforts in the development of electronic warfare, but is also remembered for numerous heartpounding dogfights.
One of the most storied fighters in the history of air combat, three of P-51 Mustang's most heroic battles are recreated here in dramatic detail.
Dogfights of Desert Storm
High above the unforgiving desert, American F-15s faced off against the sophisticated Iraqi MiG-25s and MiG-29s.
The talented pilots who formed the 332nd Fighter Group were among the most sought-after in the Air Force when the U.S. military was desegregated.
MiG Killers of the Midway
The Midway's F4 Phantoms engaged the North Vietnamese fighters unrelentingly, in some of the war's fiercest air battles.
The stories of those who tested these aircraft in their early stages and in battle are told here and some of the greatest supersonic air fights are recreated.
Death of the Luftwaffe
Narrated by pilots from both sides who were there that day, this was essentially the end of Germany's feared air force.
These advanced technologies included a terrifying new Kamikaze weapon, a rocket-powered Me 163 Komet, and the first remotely-controlled airplanes backed with explosives.
Dogfights of the Future
Take an unprecedented look at the aircrafts of tomorrow, such as the F-22, F-35, Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian Su-35 and Su-37, and Chinese Chengdu J-10. Learn about the tactics that will determine air superiority above the battlefield of the future, and watch as these aircraft engage in realistic air combat scenarios.
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.
Although there are separation effects, 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). And one would think History would try remastering these as an added selling point for a series that's been released several times already.
The extras that were included in the individual releases of Dogfights are included here with no changes. 2005's Dogfights: Greatest Air Battles, the ninety minute special that inspired the series, is included on disc one of Season 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
Dogfights: The Complete Series'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. Nothing new here, though, as far as transfers and extras, for those thinking about double-dipping. I highly recommend Dogfights: The Complete Series.
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.