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:
Hell Over Hanoi
The Zero Killer
The Last Gunfighter
Death of the Japanese Navy
Hunt for the Bismarck
Dogfights of the Middle East
Jet vs. Jet
Gun Kills of Vietnam
The First Dogfighters
Luftwaffe's Deadliest Mission
No Room For Error
The Bloodiest Day
Dogfights of Desert Storm
MiG Killers of the Midway
Death of the Luftwaffe
Dogfights of the Future
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.