WWII From Space An Excellent Introduction To The History Of World War II

Courtesy:  History Channel/A&E Home Video

Courtesy: History Channel/A&E Home Video

History Channel’s latest WWII documentary, WWII From Space is a good jumping off point for anyone that has ever had any interest in the…well…history of World War II.  Much like last year’s release of History of the World in Two Hours, this documentary is not intended to go into the massively in-depth discussions of perhaps Vietnam in HD or WWII in HD just to name a couple of other History Channel war documentaries.  Rather, this feature scratches the surface in the war’s history.  It does so over the course of roughly an hour and a half.  And it does so largely thanks to its mass of CG based visual aids employed throughout the presentation.

Some audiences have criticized WWII From Space because of its use of CG based visual aids.  The reality is that this is not such a bad thing.  Rather, it along with the feature’s relatively short run time that is solidly segmented makes it a wonderful addition for any high school and entry level college history course.  The CG based maps of the earth present the movement of both the Allied and Axis forces throughout WWII.  It also employs the use of what would be the equivalent today of military spy tech to present the different movements and weaponry of forces on both sides of the war.  It’s like something out of the recent Iron Man movies.  And keeping this in mind, it is sure to entertain not just younger audiences, but older audiences, too that are enamored by the ever changing scape of technology.

The CG based maps make for excellent visual aids in following the course of the war.  Adding even more interest to this feature is the use of CG based graphics to illustrate the battles both on the land and in the air.  One good example of this would be the comparison of U.S. forces killed in Pearl Harbor as compared to Japanese forces that were killed.  Audiences learn the massively wide ratio of U.S. forces killed in comparison to Japanese dead.  It uses helmets highlighted to show each side’s dead and points out the ratio clearly on screen.  This is just one time that this strategy is used.  It is used throughout the course of the program.  Again, there is nothing wrong with such a method being used.  Instead of simply filling people’s ears and minds with facts and figures, these illustrations help to drive home the sheer magnitude of the seemingly overwhelming odds that Allied forces faced over the course of the war.

The CG based graphics are the biggest part of this introductory level WWII documentary.  Those behind its creation should also be applauded for touching on more than just the facts and figures of the war’s numbers in terms of casualties and force sizes, etc.  Throughout the feature, audiences will notice the constant subtle note that the war was largely economic both in the Pacific and European theater.  It takes the time to note that it was in fact an embargo on Japan that eventually led to the island nation’s military forces to attack American forces in Pearl Harbor.  Anyone that has any interest in this side of the war would be well recommended to read author Evan Thomas’ book, Sea of Thunder: Four Commanders and the Last Great Naval Campaign 1941 – 1945.  This book clearly notes the effect of the embargo on Japan and how it led to the decision by the Japanese government to attack U.S. forces in Hawaii.  Even more interesting to learn in reading this book is something echoed by actor/director Clint Eastwood’s 2006 WWII foreign language movie, Letters From Iwo Jima.  This movie, much like the aforementioned book actually points out that not all Japanese citizens wanted to go to war with the United States, nor did certain members of the Japanese government and military.  Again these much more in depth discussions are all started by History Channel’s WWII From Space.  So it proves just how valuable this documentary is even at an introductory level.

While the program and those behind it are to be applauded for their work providing introductory information concerning the economic influences of the war, there are other factors that are left untouched.  For instance, the late mention of Truman making the call to drop the atomic bombs on Japan was more than merely Truman making the call.  As anyone that has seen any of History Channel’s other documentaries will recall, Truman didn’t merely make the call.  He offered Japan more than one opportunity to surrender before making the call.  What’s more Truman took over during the course of the war after Roosevelt died.  History Channel’s multi-disc set focusing on some of our nation’s most well-known presidents goes into depth about this very subject.  Again, this goes back to the importance of this feature as an introductory level feature.

That WWII largely takes an introductory level is a very good thing for audiences of all levels despite what some might want to believe or say.  It doesn’t attempt to go into too much depth.  And yes it does move at a relatively fast pace.  But it also is segmented as if it was a televised feature.  There are breaks throughout the course of the documentary that will allow for audiences to stop, take breaks, and come back to the show at their own pace.  This is especially helpful both in the living room and in the classroom as teachers won’t be forced to decide where to stop for the sake of class time.  And home viewers can simply take the program at their own casual pace.  What’s more, the Blu-ray presentation of WWII From Space will allow viewers to stop the program, take it from one Blu-ray player to another and bring it back to the original player, and pick it up from where it was stopped on said Blu-ray player if so desired.  This is a minor detail on the surface.  But in the grand scheme of things, it proves to be one more nice addition to the overall presentation.  It prevents audiences from having to go through the scene selection menu on the main menu or from even having to search through the program to get back to where they originally stopped.  Again, this is subtle but impressive.  And combined with everything else already noted concerning this feature—from its CG based visual aids, to its introductory level information about the war, and its segmented presentation—it proves to be a great feature both for teachers and home viewers at any level and an enjoyable watch for anyone that has ever had any interest in the history of one of the world’s biggest conflicts.  It is available now in stores and online.  It can be ordered direct online from the History Channel store at http://shop.history.com/detail.php?p=450976&SESSID=30040cc7fc45da7ca4832f41ee690e27&v=history.

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New PBS DVD Shows The Importance Of Knowing One’s History

Courtesy: PBS/Inkwell Films/Kundhart McGee Productions/Ark Media/WNET Thirteen

America is a melting pot.  Its history is made up of the stories from the immigrants who settled here from its earliest days.  Sadly, many of those stories have been lost because we as a nation have forgotten our roots.  We have forgotten from where we came.  Now thanks to PBS, a new special has been released that will hopefully re-ignite the fire among Americans to learn their family roots. 

“Finding Your Roots”, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is a ten part special spread across three discs.  Gates interviews many of this great nation’s most famous names, discussing their family roots with them.  The famous names come from the world of music, acting, politics, and more.  One of Gates’ most interesting interviews comes in the segment featuring musicians and friends Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis.  Another was his interview with actors Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  And one of the most interesting cross sections shown in this ten-part special comes in his interviews with Doctor Sanjay Gupta, comedian Margaret Cho, and famed personality Martha Stewart.  They, along with the other unmentioned interviews, make this special one of PBS’ best to date.

“Finding Your Roots” starts with gates interviewing musicians Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis.  Starting the mini-series with this pair of interviews is more than just an interview with a pair of famous musicians.  What gates and those behind the camera intended to do with this segment was to try and bridge the racial gaps of our nation.  The connection between Connick and Marsalis shows that while people may have different color skin, that’s all that really separates us.  Connick admits in his interview that he wanted to be black.  He says that he dressed and acted the part.  What’s really interesting about this is the discovery that one of his ancestors, James Connick, fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.  On the good side, it should be noted that James Connick  did not fight for slavery.  He fought solely for economic reasons.  He wasn’t even a slave owner.  He was just trying to support his family.  Apparently, Harry didn’t know this.  But it raises what becomes a very interesting trend that viewers will see as the special moves to other notables.

Just as Harry Connick, Jr.’s roots proved to be rather interesting, so did those of Branford Marsalis.  Interviews with Branford’s famed father Ellis Marsalis, reveals that Branford may have actually gotten his musical abilities not so much from his father, but from his mother.  Or rather, he got his talent from her side of the family.  What’s more, it’s also revealed that one of his ancestors was actually the result of a relationship between a white man and black woman.  This brings this very first pair of interviews full circle.  Gates tells audiences that despite the popular belief, far fewer African American males were born of Native American blood than believed.  Many more will find that they have deeper African American and European roots than Native American.  What it seems that Gates is getting at in this first segment is that while the color of our skin is different, blacks and whites may be far more closely related than we think.  We need only take the time to look back and find our roots.

Gates’ interviews with Harry Connick, Jr. and Branford Marsalis are both entertaining and very insightful.  They’re just one part of what makes “Finding Your Roots” so impressive.  Another interesting pair of figures interviewed for the special is Robert Downey, Jr. and Maggie Gyllenhaal.  It’s revealed that both are descended from Jewish ancestry.  What’s more, Gyllenhaal’s Jewish ancestry is one hundred percent pure Jewish.  She admits in her interview some interesting facts that reveal ancestry and genetics play directly hand in hand.  Again, viewers will see this pop up a lot throughout all ten parts of the mini-series.  What’s really interesting to learn about Maggie Gyllenhaal is that apparently she’s descended from nobility.  It’s revealed through investigations and Gates’ interview with her, that Maggie Gyllenhaal is actually descended from King Henry I.  And somewhere along the line, she’s also linked to both George H.W. Bush and his son, George W. Bush, as well as Shirley Temple, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  She showed that she had no clue about any of these links, and just how amazed she was by all of it.

Robert Downey, Jr., on the other hand, had much different roots.  He and Gyllenhaal both are children of film makers.  And like Gyllenhaal, he too has Jewish roots.  It’s also revealed that he has Swiss roots.  Unlike Gyllenhaal’s roots, though, he can’t claim connection to any real famous historical figures.  Ironically enough, he himself has become one of the biggest names in Hollywood throughout his career.

Musicians and actors were only a tiny portion of the whole that makes up “Finding Your Roots.”  Gates also interviewed Sanjay Gupta, Margaret Cho and Martha Stewart.  This feature offers perhaps some of the most interesting material in the series.  These segments reveal to both the celebrities in question and to viewers some rather unexpected and surprising information.  One of the most interesting pieces of information is that Martha Stewart has links back to the Mongols.  She laughs in discovering this as she admitted to Gates that her dog is actually named Genghis Khan.  What’s more, many of her ancestors also had professions that involved much of what she does today.  As noted in previous segments, it seems yet again that there is at least some link between one’s ancestry and one’s own personal genetic makeup.  Maggie Gyllenhaal admitted her pleasant surprise at her link to her Jewish ancestry due to her own recent personal choices before her interview.  Branford Marsalis’ parents told Gates that he got his musical abilities from his mother’s side of the family.  That link is explained in the connection to specific well known acts from the rich history of music. 

The roots discovered in conversations with Martha Stewart are the revelations of Margaret Cho’s family.  Her interview reveals that one of her distant ancestors was a very well respected member of his community.  What’s most interesting in her discussions is that members of her family are not actually Korean.  They came from other regions of Asia.  She shows her surprise, laughing about it.  She tells Gates that this was a surprising revelation, being that her parents always claimed such national pride for Korea.  This discovery is made through genetic testing.

Sanjay Gupta’s interview was one of the most moving of the entire mini-series.  Gupta shows just how amazed he is by all of the information discovered through the research done for his interviewed.  At one point, he even begins to tear up.  That single moment is perhaps the defining moment of this entire special.  The emotion that he shows is the entire point of the presentation.  So few Americans are aware of their families’ histories.  It doesn’t matter if someone is related down the line to this famous person or that, or if they are simply related to some random person.  It’s that discovery of one’s past is the most important.  It can make all the difference in a person’s life.  It adds that much more to the nation’s already rich history as a whole.

Gates’ interviews with members of the entertainment community reveal some very interesting notes about them.  It also reminds viewers that they might be just as interested if they take the time to do some research into their own family roots.  There’s no telling what viewers might find if they take that time.  “Finding Your Roots” is proof of that.  “Finding Your Roots” is available on DVD now.  It can be ordered online at http://www.shoppbs.org.

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