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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » America: Stories of War 36 DVD Collection
America: Stories of War 36 DVD Collection
Mill Creek // Unrated // October 14, 2008
List Price: $79.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by John Sinnott | posted March 6, 2009 | E-mail the Author
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The Collection:
There are several DVD publishers who specialize in public domain films and it's often hard to know just what you're getting with the budget prices sets that they release.  Luckily DVDTalk has been able to get some copies of Mill Creek's output.  We already have reviews up of their 150 Sci-Fi TV show set and their collection of 300 Western TV shows.  Though neither was perfect, both were interesting sets that are worth checking out.  Our next Mill Creek review is for the intimidatingly large collection of documentaries and movies entitled America:  Stories of War.  This 36 DVD set contains over 170 hours of content composed of 50 feature films and complete documentary series covering the five major conflicts in US history.  (The Civil War, WWI, WWII, the Korean War and the Vietman conflict.)  After wading through this huge set I was pretty impressed.  While the audio and video quality leaves something to be desired in some cases there are a lot of worthwhile shows and movies available at a budget price.
The set is divided into documentaries and feature films.  The first 24 discs have various series that give a factual look at the wars America has participated in.
Discs 1-3:  The Civil War:  America Divided:
This series consists of 10 hour-long episodes and was made by Creation Films in 2008.  It covers the war between the states using vintage photographs and maps, reenactments of battles, and some animation.  From John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry to the assassination of Lincoln all of the important battles are covered as well as the major participants on both sides of the conflict.
While this series is very thorough, it is a little dry.  Dates and names are thrown out a little to often and it didn't bring the events to life the way Ken Burns' classic documentary did.  Even so there is a lot of information in this series and it does a good job of covering the conflict.
Discs 4-6:  World War I:  The War to End all Wars:
This is another Creation Films product (also copyright 2008) and it was a bit better than their Civil War series.  Once again told in 10 one hour episodes, this series uses the same techniques as the previous one, but includes actual film footage from the war instead of reenactments.  Again, it was a little on the dry side but not nearly as bad.  The series does a good job tracking not only the complex origins of the war but also the various fronts and battlefields.  A very nice introduction to this conflict.
Disc 7-10:  The Great Battles of WW II:
This is a very interesting collection of documentaries mostly made during the war but newsreel companies or the US Government.  There are mainly propaganda films but are still quite interesting.  Frank Capra's award winning "Why We Fight" series is included (with the single exception of War Comes to America), as well as a Russian film about the war, "The Great Battle of the Volga."  The films included in this section are:
Disc 7:  Attack! The Battle for New Britain, The Battle of China, Payoff in the Pacific
Disc 8:  Appointment in Tokyo, Attack in the Pacific, Marines on Tarawa - Return to Guam, Two the Shores of Iwo Jima - This is Guadalcanal
Disc 9:  Prelude to War, The Nazis Strike, Divide and Conquer, The Battle of Britain
Disc 10:  The Battle of Russia, The Great Battle of the Volga, Desert Victory, The Battle of San Pietro
Discs 11-14:  The War in Europe:
This is a 26-part TV series that looks as the European theater of the war.  Each 15-minute episode is filled with contemporary footage of the men and machines that fought the war.  Unfortunately there are no closing credits so I'm not sure when this was made or where it was originally broadcast, but it's a very good series and a highlight of this set.
Discs 13-14:  War in the Pacific:
This 24-part docu is a companion to War in Europe.  Like its sister piece, this is a nice overview, presenting the events in the Pacific theater.  Once again the credits are left off so it's hard to say where this originated from.
Discs 15-17:  Victory at Sea:
All 26 half hour episodes of this Emmy-winning production are included in this set.  Running from 1952 through 1953 on NBC this was a landmark series that paved the way for other TV documentaries.  It covers the Pacific theater very thoroughly and it's just as impressive today as it must have been back in the early 50's.
Discs 18-20:  Korea:  The Forgotten War:
This section consists of 33 half hour episodes of The Big Picture, a long running series that presented films created by United States Army Signal Corps Army Pictorial Service.  The program was almost certainly created in response to the success for Victory at Sea.  Like most of the Army produced documentaries, there's a fair amount of propaganda and flag-waving in these shows but they're still very engaging. 
Discs 21-24:  Vietman:  America's Conflict:
This section may prove a little hard to watch for people who lived through this war.  It consists of more government produced films, and since the conflict is nearly as controversial now as it was back when it was being fought, not everyone may agree with the sentiments contained in these.  They also so American soldiers being wounded and cared for, which seems a little more 'real' since many of us at least know someone who fought in this war.  In any case the 53 half hour shows will start discussions if nothing else.
Overall I was very pleased with these documentaries.  They were enlightening, interesting, and for the most part very well done.  I was a little bit disappointed that the Revolutionary War was not represented in this set, but that's a minor gripe.  I can only assume that a suitable (i.e. inexpensive or in the public domain) one was not available.
The feature films:
The other 13 DVDs in this set are devoted to war related movies.  Most of these deal with WWII and many of them were made in Hollywood during the war.  Though these are often low budget flag-waving affairs they're still entertaining to a large degree, plot holes and all.  While I did not discover any lost classics in this set there were a few that were very good and event the worst efforts had an innocent quality to them that films today often lack.  (Spoiler:  In one an American was seemingly cooperating with the Nazis, selling them arms.  At the end it's revealed that all the munitions he sold them were booby trapped and would explode soon after the Germans left his base, yet the stupid Nazis never connected two and two.  "Hmmm, every time someone buys ammo from this guy they blow up?  I wonder why?")
Disc 25:
This Is the Army (1943) - Technicolor - Ronald Regan
Identity Unknown (1945) -  An interesting tale of a soldier who survives a firebombing and wakes up with amnesia.  Since his mates who died were burned beyond recognition no one knows who the survivor is.
Kansas Pacific (1953) - Clayton Moore - A civil war drama
The Lady from Chungking (1942) - Anna Mae Wong - One of the better films in the set.  Anna Mae Wong leads the Chinese resistance against the Japanese
Disc 26:
The Big Lift (1950):  Montgomery Clift, Paul Douglas - The experiences of two pilots during the Berlin Air Lift
They Raid by Night (1942):  Lyle Talbot British commandos head into Nazi territory to rescue a captured General.  Pretty average.
The Torch (1950):    Paulette Goddard - Not sure what this Mexican production is doing in the set.  A Mexican revolutionary takes over a village and falls in love with a young woman with a lot of spirit.
Yellowneck (1955):  Pretty bland film about some deserters from the civil war who travel through Florida trying to make it to Cuba.
Disc 27: 
Hitler's SS:  Portrait of Evil (1985):  José Ferrer , Tony Randall - Not bad TV movie about two brothers in Hitler's Germany.
The Marines are Coming (1934):  William Haines, Conrad Nagel - an amusing programmer that involves a marine who has to save the commander who has it out for him.  Silent star Haines last pictures. 
Submarine Base (1943):  Stranded in a South American country, an American ship captain suspects a local of collaborating with the Nazis.
Minesweeper (1943):  Richard Alen, Robert Mitchum - the dangerous work of the men who clear landing areas of floating mines.
Disc 28: 
Three Came Home (1950):  Claudette Colbert, Patrick Knowles - a very good and moving film about a young lady who is imprisoned in a Japanese POW camp.
The Proud and the Damned (1972):  Chuck Connors, Caesar Romero - five confederate soldiers have to chose sides in a rebellion.  Pretty poor film.
Spitfire (aka The First of the Few) (1942): David Niven, Leslie Howard - a very good biopic of the man who designed the Spitfire.
Submarine Alert (1943):  Richard Arlen - not a bad war-time thriller.  In order to finish a prototype radio needed to send ship movements to an offshore receiver, Japanese spies hire a recently fired engineer who needs money for his ward's life-saving operation.
Disc 29:
Eagle in a Cage (1972):  John Gielgud - Another strange pick.  This film shows Napoleon during his exile on Saint Helene Island.
Mark of the Hawk (1958):  Sidney Poitier, Eartha Kitt - Set in colonial Africa, a man tries to stop a war between the British and the natives.
Sundown (1941):  Gene Tierney Bruce Cabot - The English fighting Nazis in Africa.  Pretty average.
Then There Were Three (1961):  A Nazi spy hides among a group of Allied soldiers.
Disc 30:
War Devils (aka Diavoli della Guerra) (1969): A Spanish film about a German and an English office who help each other to survive in Northern Africa only to meet again in France.  Not that great.
Go For Broke (1951): Van Johnson -  A very good film about the U.S. 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a group of Japanese Americans who fought in Europe during WWII.
Gung Ho (1943):  Randolph Scott, Noah Beery Jr. - A good movie about a group of volunteers who fight in the Pacific after WWII.
Hearts in Bondage (1936): James Dunn - a melodrama centering around the building of one of the first iron clad ships, the Monitor.  *Yawn*
Disc 31:
The Last Chance (1945):  One of the better films in this collection.  An English and an American officer escape from a train taking them to a POW camp and try to get to a neutral country with the Nazi army after them.
Drums in Deep South (1951):   Two friends find themselves on opposite sides of the civil war.
Hell in Normandy (1960): Guy Madison - An Italian film about a group that has to parachute into Nazi held France prior to the D-Day invasion.
Mutiny (1952): Angela Landsbury - During the War of 1812 a naval officer is ordered to run the British blockade.
Disc 32:
Battle of the Eagles (1979): - This is an interesting Yugoslavian film that tells the story of the Yugoslavian Partisan air-force which took on the might of the Luftwaffe with WWI era biplanes.
The Navy Way (1944):  A group of recruits makes their way through Navy boot camp.
Prisoner in the Middle (1977):  David Janssen -  sent to the middle east to find and disarm a nuclear warhead, a weapons expert is captured and has to survive.
Desert Commandos (1967):  An unusal Italian film where five Nazi commandoes are dropped off in the African desert and have to make their way to Casablanca so they can assassinate Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt who are meeting there.
Disc 33:
The Battle of El Alamein (1969): An Italian production, this film tells the story of the famous battle from the point of view of a group of Italian soldiers.  Not bad.
One of our Aircraft is Missing (1942):  Peter Ustinov -   a Michael Powell/Emeric Pressburger film, this film was nominated from two Oscars.  The crew of a plane shot down in enemy territory has to seek out the help of the underground.  Well worth watching.
Outpost in Morocco (1949):  George Raft - a Foreign Legion officer is sent to find out what the local emir is up to and discovers that his garrison is about to be under attack.
Pacific Inferno (1979):  After the fall of Manila, the Japanese commander forces two captured Navy Deep Sea Divers to dive for treasure.  You can safely skip this one.
Disc 34:
The Steel Claw (1961):  George Montgomery - after a marine looses his hand, he's discharged.  Living in the Philippines, he's called back to active duty once the Japanese attack.  With a metal claw for a hand, he has to go into the jungle and rescue a captured General.
Battle of Blood Island (1960):  Two GIs are the only survivors on a Japanese held island in the Pacific.  They must learn to work together to survive.  Eh, not that great.
Commandos (1968):  Lee Van Cleef - A group of Italian-Americans disguise themselves as Italian soldiers and try to replace a squad in Africa.  Horribly dubbed and non-anamorphic this is not the highlight of the set.
Disc 35:
Dawn Express (1942): Anne Nagel - Nazi spies try to capture a secret formula.
Corregidor (1943): Otto Kruger - A doctor trapped on the island of Corregidor has to beat back the Japanese attack.
Black Brigade (1970):  Richard Pryor - a racist is in charge of a group of black soldiers during WW II
Immortal Battalion (1944):  David Niven, William Hartnell  - an excellent film about a group of draftees who are turned into fighting men.  Unfortunately this is the 91 minute version, not the 115 minute edit.
Iron Angel (1964): During the Korean War a group of soldiers has to silence some North Korean guns.
Disc 36: 
Bombs over Burma (1943): Anna Mae Wong - A Chinese teacher spies for the Allies
British Intelligence (1940): Boris Karloff - A British Cabinet Minister's butler is secretly a German spy, and the new maid he hires is his contact.  Karloff does a wonderful job.  A nice wartime film.
The Bushwhackers (1952):  Lon Cheney Jr. -  A typical western, which isn't a bad thing.  A Union soldier arrives home after the civil war and promises never to fire a gun again.  When a local rancher starts to force settlers off their land so he can sell it to the railroad however, the ex-GI has to decide if he's willing to fight one more battle.  A nice film.
The Adventures of Tartu (aka Sabotage Agent) (1943): A man goes undercover and behind enemy lines to sabotage a German factory, but when his contacts are all killed no one knows that he's not really a Nazi.
Aerial Gunner (1943):  Richard Arlen, Robert Mitchum - two GIs vie for the love of the same woman.  A pretty standard film.
The DVD:


This mammoth set is packaged quite nicely.  The 36 DVDs come in black paper DVD sleeves which are housed in a nice metal box that resembles an ammo canister.  When you open the top there's even a cardboard image of bullets covering the discs.  That was a nice touch that made the set just a bit cooler to own.  There is also a very handy booklet included that list the contents of each disc. 
The two channel mono sound is about what you'd expect from unrestored vintage films.  There is some background noise in many of the feature films, though the documentaries sound significantly better (the episodes of The Big Picture have a lot of background hiss though), and the range is very limited.  Some of the movies have muddled audio and there are a couple of segments where you really have to listen to understand the dialog, but none of the features or documentaries are particularly bad.
Like the audio, the video quality leaves something to be desired but none of the entries are so bad as to be unwatchable (like some public domain DVDs I've purchased.)  The documentaries overall look very good with clean clear images and excellent contrast.  The features fare a bit worse however.  Scratches, dirt, and other print defects are not uncommon but they're never so heavy as to ruin the viewing experience.  The image is generally soft, white tend to bloom, and the contrast is only average.  The color features come across a bit worse than the B&W entries.  There's color bleeding and none of the tones are as bright and solid as they should be. The Technicolor feature This is the Army was particularly disappointing since the colors were faded and poor and it could have looked so good.
I was happy to see that there isn't a bug or image superimposed on the picture for most of these.  Unfortunately there is one that randomly shows up in the War in Europe and War in the Pacific documentaries.
Mill Creek often puts 5-6 hours worth or film on each disc, and there are some compression artifacts present because of that.  Blocking is prevalent in fast action scenes and aliasing is also easy to find.  Even with these defects the image quality isn't horrible, and I've seen much worse, but it's not first rate either.
The big exceptions are the first two documentaries by Creation Films.  Being made last year they look fine.
With 170 hours (!) worth of features there's really no need for extras, which is good because there aren't any.
Final Thoughts:
This is not necessarily a case of quantity over quality.  Yeah, there's a lot here, but most of it is pretty good.  The Capra WWII films are great, and the documentary Victory at Sea is very impressive too.  On the movie side of things One of our Aircraft is Missing is excellent as is The Immortal Battalion. While most of the rest are standard B movie fare, they're still entertaining if forgettable.  All of this comes in a nice package too.  With a street price (as of this writing) significantly lower than retail (about ½ off if you look) this gives you literally months worth of entertainment for pennies an hour.  A very impressive set that comes recommended. 
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