Review of 1997 BBC series, NOT of 2004 Madacy set!!!
!!! (Note: This is based on the 26-part Time-Life video/BBC series with the exact same name. This 1997 series produced by Nugus/Martin Productions for the BBC is 1,352 minutes, or 22 hours long, and fills 7 DVDs. The 4-DVD Madacy set is 502 minutes long, and has received terrible reviews online. Do not confuse the two. However, IMDb does not have an entry for the 1997 BBC version, which is difficult, though not impossible, to find. So here it is.) !!!
The producers are to be commended for avoiding the distracting special effects of some documentary makers, such as Rupert Murdoch's National Geographic. What you get are lots of film footage of early flights combined with footage of restored airplanes, descriptions of the early flights, plus some modern aviators who retraced their paths.
As this series is to mark the 100 years since the first century of flight, episodes sometimes end with modern footage to emphasize how far and fast aviation has come, which truly is amazing. The episodes are broken into topics that show the phases that helped stimulate development, particularly WWI, which came only 11 years after the Wright brothers' first flight, but greatly increased the pace of technology. There is also discussion of what went on before 1903, including hot air balloons and dirigibles.
The text is clear and narrated at a reasonable pace with a British accent. It was originally produced for the BBC, and there's the usual British mispronunciation of American place names. There is a fairly even-handed presentation of accomplishments by other countries, such as Germany, France, Italy and Australia, as well as America.
The number of episodes and length are truly encyclopedic. They seem to have scoured the world for film footage to fill the 22 hours. The footage is appropriate and interesting. A fair amount even from WWII is in color, though not digitally corrected.
While it would seem from the episode titles that there would be overlap, including several dealing with bombers, there is surprisingly little redundancy, with the content broken into episodes in an orderly fashion that maintains the interest of even non-aviation buffs.
This allows time to touch many points, yet not always in depth. Episode 11, The Bomber as Winner, has some remarkably interesting footage, including of a grinning (and unidentified) Clark Gable in uniform shaking hands with a general, a German ball bearings plant that was the target of bombardment and the subject of a Hollywood movie, and of the real Memphis Belle, also of Hollywood fame. These are the subject of documentaries elsewhere, and assume some familiarity on the part of the viewer. You can't do everything, even in 20 hours.
My background is that I've been to some aviation museums, especially the Air and Space Museum in D.C., so I've seem some of the actual planes highlighted in this series. This documentary greatly enhances this experience, and vice versa. If you don't have a background in the subject, I think you will find the material interesting and surprising. The history of a technological subject like this provides a good entre into learning more ,about history, in general. Since many of these planes are now in museums, it would have been nice for the documentary to show the actual plane, today.
The documentary episodes look a bit dated, perhaps because the footage is so old, and they avoid most special effects, outside of occasional rudimentary computer graphics. The style, relying so heavily on off-screen narration is a bit old fashioned, compared the the Ken Burns style using expert commentators or participants for insight. This makes it a bit dry, but not dull, because the facts and images are so compelling and informative. And there are occasional interviews or voice-overs.
This set really merits re-release. If it were supplemented with some new episodes featuring commentary and analysis by historians, and some in-depth interviews with aviators from WWII and later events, it would be improved. It should be in every library, and shown on TV.
The value of learning about history is that it helps us to understand how we got to where we are today. The story of aviation is truly remarkable for how far we have traveled so fast. It is a shame, not knowing this, that some take the present state of technology for granted.
The credits include acknowledgments for 20 sources, so there was a lot of research for information and footage. Writer-historical director: Charles Messenger. Research director: George Marshall. Editor Crispin Julian. Music: De Wolfe. Producer/director: Jonathan Martin. Executive producer: Philip Nugus.
BBC EPISODES: 1 Man Learns To Fly (1900 - 1914). 2 High Above the Trenches (Military Aviation 1914-18). 3 Wings Over the Sea (Naval Aviation 1914-18). 4 Strike from the Air (Birth of Strategic Bombing 1914-18). 5 The Trailblazers (Epic Flights 1919-39). 6 The Romance of the Air (Civil Aviation 1919-39). 7 The Shadow of the Bomber (Military Aviation 1919-39). 8 Struggle for the Skies (Fighters of World War II). 9 Airpower and Armies 1939-45. 10 Airpower and Navies 1939-45. 11 The Bomber as War Winner? (Strategic Bombing 1939-45). 12 The Coming of the Jets. 13 Cold War Skies. 14 The Helicopter Story. 15 Korea to the Gulf War (Air Warfare Post 1945). 16 Naval Aviation 1945-95. 17 Embracing the World (Civil Aviation Post 1945). 18 The Spectacle of Flying (Post 1945). 19 Law Enforcement from the Air. 20 Angels of Mercy. 21 Anyone can fly (private flying since 1945). 22 To the Furthest --sic.farthest -- Corners of the World (Aircraft and Exploration). 23 The Parachute Story. 24 To the Moon and Beyond (The History of Space Flight). 25 Madcaps and Oddballs (Aviation Ideas that Failed). 26 The Future of Flight.
I highly recommend this BBC - Time-Life series. Do not confuse it with the Madacy 4-DVD set, listed in this IMDb entry!
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