History Presents: The Definitive WWI & WWII Collection DVD Review: Nirvana in a Box for War Buffs

Forty-four hours of some of the best World War documentaries ever made by The History Channel.
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At the close of the Second World War, Winston Churchill was quoted as saying, “One must regard these thirty years of strife, turmoil and suffering in Europe as part of one story…One story of a thirty years’ war.” The events of those years are so complex and hard to believe that many of us remain absolutely fascinated by it all. The people at History know this, and have been producing some of the greatest World War documentaries ever made. This year they have put together the ultimate gift for guys like me, History Presents: The Definitive WWI & WWII Collection.

This 20-DVD set contains over 44 hours of material, all of which originally aired on History (formerly The History Channel) between 2001-2014. The first two discs are given over to the most recent program of the set, the mini-series The World Wars from early 2014. For someone looking to connect the dots from 1914 to 1945 in a relatively concise way, The World Wars is just about perfect. We see the events as they unfold, and the ways such men such as Churchill, Hitler, Stalin, and the many others responded. It was a great choice to begin the set with, and from there the programs get more specific.

Discs three and four are organized around the heading “100 Years of WWI.“ The four programs on the third disc of the set were plucked from the series History of WWI: The First Modern War. Each episode deals with the new, large-scale equipment introduced in that war. “Armored Beasts” looks at tanks, “Clouds of Death” is about the development and use of poison gas, “Massive Air Attacks” details the first use of planes in warfare, and “Underwater Killers” focuses on submarines. Like nearly everything on the set, these shows originally aired in a one-hour time-slot and run about forty-five minutes without commercials.

The fourth DVD features episodes which again focus on WWI technology, cherry-picked from various popular History shows. From Modern Marvels comes “World War I Tech,” from Dogfights we get “The First Dogfighters,” and from Man, Moment, Machine comes “Red Baron & The Wings of Death.”

The pattern is very similar for “75 Years of WWII,” which also occupies two discs. The fifth DVD of the set is given over to Parts One and Two of D-Day in HD. The program features rare footage presented in high definition documenting D-Day. These scenes of the landing at Normandy are incredible, as are the first-hand accounts of the survivors.

The seventh DVD and second part of “75 Years of WWII,“ features two episodes from Battle 360: USS Enterprise, “Bloody Santa Cruz,“ and “Enterprise vs. Japan.“ Actually both are about the Japanese efforts to sink the battleship. The final installment on this DVD comes from WWII Ultimate Weapons, “World War II Game Changers,” which is a top ten of most advanced weapons used in the war.

WWII in HD is the source for the material in discs seven through eleven. I remember this show in particular because at the time the discovery of color footage from the war was a big deal because there simply was not a lot of it. The following episodes are presented in high definition on these discs: “Darkness Falls,” “Hard Way Back,” “Bloody Resolve,” “Battle Stations,” “Day of Days” “At Ease,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “The Air War,” and “The Battle for Iwo Jima.”  Again, these shows were originally aired in one-hour time slots on the History, and their actual running time is around 45 minutes each.

WWII From Space is a show I had never seen before, and it is quite intriguing. The premise is about how the battles and events of the war looked from space, and it is a high-tech treat. With a running time of nearly 90 minutes, this must have originally been a two-hour special.

Discs thirteen through seventeen are from The Color of War. This was another series that presented rare color footage to tell the story of World War II. Most of the footage is from personal archives. It is an aspect of the war that I find very interesting, the point of view of these kids who were thrust into the jaws of Hell. The following episodes are included:  (Disc 13): “Face to Face,” “Air War,” and “Battleground.” (Disc 14): “Edge of the Abyss,” and “End Game.” (Disc 15): “Silent and Deep,” “Homefront,” and “The Price of War.” (Disc 16): “Victory,” “Aftermath,” “Man and Machine.” (Disc 17): “Covering War,” and “Dressed to Kill.”

Of these, I particularly recommend “Homefront,” which goes much further than one might think. It begins with stories about “Rosie the Riveter,“ but then moves on to show the reactions of English and German civilians when U.S. soldiers arrive. It concludes with the story of the Japanese internment camps on the West Coast following Pearl Harbor. There are 13 episodes in the Color of War portion of the set, and for this viewer they are the best of the collection.

The final three discs contain all ten episodes of Patton 360: The Complete First Season. Patton was a fascinating man to be sure, yet I have to admit that all I previously knew about him was the classic film Patton (1970) starring George C. Scott. Now Bill O’Reilly is topping the book charts with Killing Patton: The Strange Death of WWII‘s Most Audacious General, which suggests that Patton was the victim of an assassination by Stalin. Since I had never seen Patton 360 before, the opportunity to sit down and watch the entire first (and only) season of it was great. The series follows Patton’s actions in the Second World War in depth, and is another highlight of the collection.

Although the box is titled The Definitive WWI & WWII Collection, in truth it is overwhelmingly about the Second World War. The fact is that there was just not a lot of filmed coverage of the First World War. And while I may be mistaken in this, it also seems that World War II had a greater impact on the United States than did World War I. I really do not know, and mean no disrespect with that statement; it is simply an observation from the vantage point of 100 years after the fact.

There is a definite focus on weaponry early in the set, but this is balanced out by the personal stories in The Color of War, and in other programs. As for the world leaders of the time, only The World Wars deals with the psychological battle of wills between them, which is an element that I have always been intrigued by. And Patton 360 is an excellent study of the famous (infamous) general.

With hit programs such as Swamp People, American Pickers, and Ax Men airing now, History has changed quite a bit. They still air the historical documentaries they made their name with, just not as often. Still, the programs they have produced about the World Wars are just about the best I have ever seen. As someone who can watch this stuff for hours on end, I consider The Definitive WWI & WWII Collection to be nirvana in a box.

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