Historical documentary films thread

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Historical documentary films thread

Postby K. A. Pital » 2010-05-12 02:18am

Now, we all know and love the "Hitler Channel" and Discovery, etc. noted for extremely poor quality of their TV documentaries.

But there always are gems in the mud. Good historical documentaries exist out there and perhaps it's time folks offered some recommendations.

I'll start with recommending a very recent documentary about the Eastern Front in World War II - "Great War" (Russian 1st TV channel, 2010).

It has a fairly accurate depiction of events, very graphic displays of maps and movements of forces on all fronts. Essentially, watching it from the start to the end gives you a very good general overview of everything that transpired (major battle-wise) on the Eastern Front and explains many nuts and bolts (whys and hows) about the war - from the first disastrous battles of 1941 to the following battles of the Red Army; showing how skill and experience grew, how new weapons were introduced by the USSR and Germany, and how they were utilized. The show has a very grand feeling because it explains how several small battles can decide the outcome of a large offensive which then in turn can change the whole course of attack on a strategic direction. It's pretty awesome if you ask me.

Lots of technical goodies and some stuff from the archives that's going to impress even some of the buffs (the facts on introduction of Sturmgewehr, and how it changed the stability and survivability of German defensive positions, for example, is one of those).

So far in Russian only, but I think someone will make subtitles sooner or later. It's out on DVD, which ought to have English subtitles, too (or will in the nearest future).

Look for new series on Youtube and elsewhere; like I said, subtitles should come soon.
Episode 1: Barbarossa http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=if5vfU4VLFU (1 out of 5 fragments, look in the same channel)
Episode 2: Battle of Moscow http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GqkNW3oSMtU (1 out of 5 fragments, look in the same channel)

There's 8 episodes in total. They cover the following events: 1941 attack and German offensive until autmn, battle of Moscow, siege of Leningrad, battle of Stalingrad, battle of Kursk, operation Bagration, Russian offensive from Soviet border to Germany and finally battle of Berlin.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby wautd » 2010-05-12 03:42am

I recently highly enjoyed NGC's Apocalypse: World War II. Just when you think you saw all WW2-related recording, you get 5 or 6 episodes with fresh material. Trailer linked


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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Thanas » 2010-05-12 03:46am

Alright people, here is how this will go:

You will provide some context to your recommendation or review. Not simply say "I like" and then spam the thread with youtube videos.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby K. A. Pital » 2010-05-12 03:53am

Adding to Thanas' point: NO EMBEDDING. Please.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Big Orange » 2010-05-12 05:58am

In the last four weeks I've been engrossed by Channel 4's Blitz Street, hosted by Tony Robinson, where an authentic row of 1930s terrace houses have been built on some MoD artillery/bombing range and are then gradually demolished by a progression of Luftwaffe ordinance in controlled explosions, ranging from the diminutive SC50 warhead up to the amount of explosive material that was put into the V2. These segments are intercut with footage from the Blitz, statements by surviving eye witnesses, and statements by historians.

Here's the official website.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Minischoles » 2010-05-12 10:11am

The Real Dad's Army (also from Channel 4) is a little sensationalised and glossed over for TV as you might imagine from the title, but it does have some very interesting little tidbits during the episodes, going from the original conception and training, through the fortifications and the last episode details the Auxiliary Units.

The best episode (at least IMO) is the second episode, which is almost entirely focused around the bunkers and fortifications that spread through Britain during WW2 in preparation for the invasion, and it's very illuminating to see just how extensive these fortifications really were. The second episode also briefly touches upon the wargames that occurred at Sandhurst (where surviving German generals attended).

Site will work if you're in England, but I don't believe it's available elsewhere. So for anyone outside of the UK, you'll likely have to set up a proxy for yourselves (which is legal in most countries, but i'd advise checking your local cyber laws, since it is illegal in some places like China).
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Big Orange » 2010-05-12 06:13pm

From the BBC I can recommend Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World, a four part documentary presented by Dan Snow that charts Britain's history as an ocean power and how it built its modern identity (not just its empire) around the Royal Navy. It begins in the Elizabethan era, with the Spanish Armada, and ends at the Great War, with the Battle of Jutland. The series has been released on I-Player and there is also a book based on the mini-series.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby JBG » 2010-05-12 11:46pm

"I'll start with recommending a very recent documentary about the Eastern Front in World War II - "Great War" (Russian 1st TV channel, 2010)."

That sounds well worth waiting for. As far as I am aware there is a vast quantity of documentation, photos and film in Russia about WW2 that has barely been seen in the West.

Apart from that, most military history docs are just good for the imagery as I usually know the history already. That said, I'm sure I'm not the only one on this forum who is a bad person to be watching such docos with when, for instance, the narrator somberly talks of the start of WW2 with the Germans invading Poland, all against a backdrop of a (probably) panzergrenadier in a snowy ditch wearing a 1943 splinter pattern camo jacket carrying a sturmgewehr!

One documentary that I saw many moons ago and has not since been repeated downunder to my knowledge was "Wings of the Luftwaffe". It wasn't a Wehrmacht ubermensch type program from memory but focused on the metal, in some detail. So, again from memory for the Ju 52 they got hold of an aircraft and, inter alia, someone dressed as Luftwaffe ground crew went around opening and closing hatches, operating flaps etc. Quite fascinating.

Does anyone recall that one?

Perhaps it is the subject but planes and tanks seem to make the best subjects for technical docos. It helps that there are many still around to climb all over. Most warship docos are not too good but I did see a good one about HMS Belfast that followed the technical route and was good fare. Maybe I am being unfair as it is unlikely that we'll ever get a Friedman type doco though any doco where they have snared his services is at least worth the price of entry.

Sorry I can't remember all the good ones, many years of cable have meant that I've seen too much dross.

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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Elfdart » 2010-05-13 09:31am

wautd wrote:I recently highly enjoyed NGC's Apocalypse: World War II. Just when you think you saw all WW2-related recording, you get 5 or 6 episodes with fresh material. Trailer linked



What the fuck? That's colorized black & white film.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Twigler » 2010-05-14 06:48am

I could be quick and say anything by Bettany Hughes, but that will probably get me a rap on the knuckles from a mod :).

Her The Spartans series was very accurate and didn't just focus, as so many other documentaries, on the military traditions. She really delved into the Spartan psychology, culture and mentality. An nice change from the usual Thermopylae wankery.

My other favourites are:
[urlhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_The_Moors_Ruled_In_Europe]When the Moors Ruled in Europe[/url] - a two-parter that outlines the contributions of Moorish culture to Europe and Spain in particular. One of the more memorable moments was her interview with a Spanish history professor who flatly denied they had any influence at all on Spanish culture. Denial much?

And:
The Minoans - for me this was a first serious exposure to their culture and it was probably the best intro anyone could hope for. It really drew me in and explained how they lived and thought. And while it suffered a bit from the drama-camera problem, it wasn't jarring. It really made me want to find out more, which I think is one of the hallmark signs of a good TV documentary.

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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Joviwan » 2010-05-14 11:41am

Is it acceptable to ask questions regarding documentaries? If so:

What are people's opinion of The World at War? My family bought the DVDs for this set a few years ago, and I've gone through the entire series in a more or less active fashion over time, and was always impressed at the quality of the episodes and felt like they were communicating real information for basically the entire duration... but I certainly don't want trust my gut on that because I'm not in any way formally educated with any precision about WW2. Anyone else seen it?
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Bedlam » 2010-05-14 02:45pm

Joviwan wrote:Is it acceptable to ask questions regarding documentaries? If so:

What are people's opinion of The World at War? My family bought the DVDs for this set a few years ago, and I've gone through the entire series in a more or less active fashion over time, and was always impressed at the quality of the episodes and felt like they were communicating real information for basically the entire duration... but I certainly don't want trust my gut on that because I'm not in any way formally educated with any precision about WW2. Anyone else seen it?


Well I'm not a WW2 expert either but like you I do like that series. It seems to cover much of the war including a few less well covered point, the early phoney war, Italy, Burma, etc. I'm a bit undecided about how they tend to group things by topic rather than chronology which can make things a bit choppy but I dont think you could cover the whole of the war purely keeping up with chronology.

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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby MarshalPurnell » 2010-05-14 06:18pm

JBG wrote:
One documentary that I saw many moons ago and has not since been repeated downunder to my knowledge was "Wings of the Luftwaffe". It wasn't a Wehrmacht ubermensch type program from memory but focused on the metal, in some detail. So, again from memory for the Ju 52 they got hold of an aircraft and, inter alia, someone dressed as Luftwaffe ground crew went around opening and closing hatches, operating flaps etc. Quite fascinating.

Does anyone recall that one?


I remember it very well, because it was one of my favorite programs when I was growing up. It wasn't a documentary so much as a series focused on the aircraft of World War II and the Cold War. Wings of the Luftwaffe used an alternative narrator and credit theme but was very much the part of the broader series focusing on German aircraft. It covered the fighters, but also the bombers and transport craft, usually doing a lot to put the plane into a context of the overall war effort. The episodes would tend to focus on a particular plane but also explore similar designs or the broader development of a particular role within the Luftwaffe. It had another side-series, Wings of the Red Star, notable for being narrated by Peter Ustinov.

It aired on Discovery Channel in the '90s, usually in the afternoon. Still airs on the Military Channel in mid-day in the US. Rare I see it, but it provokes fond nostalgia even if there was a tendency to hyperbole and some of the broader context they present can be debated. Very much unsure of the production history, though I was under the impression the British had something to do with it.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Spoonist » 2010-05-15 07:06am

So I can recommend BBC's History of the Scots. (You can find it on youtube if you want).
What I liked about it at first was it was a similar approach as thye former History of Britain but with a more charismatic host. hen what I really liked after a while was how they when starting a new segment first would tell the tale that people think is true, then say "well that is not accurate" and then go into detail about what the written and archeological record gives us.

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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Big Orange » 2010-05-15 08:35pm

From way back in 1997, I really enjoyed Michael Wood's In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great, a documentary and travelogue that follows the path of Alexander and his Greco-Macedonian army deep into Eurasia, detailing Alexander's triumphs and atrocities through the Middle East, as he toppled the Persian Empire around 300 BC. The documentary is up on YouTube (in 31 parts).

Also recommended is World War II: Behind Closed Doors - Stalin, the Nazis and the West, an engaging docudrama that is also in the vein in The World At War with the hours of period footage, the morbid narrator, and interviews from survivors of the period. It depicts the political events within the Soviet Union during WWII and how Stalin dealt with diplomats from the Axis and Allied powers. It is made by Laurence Rees who is also responsible for Auschwitz – The Nazis & the 'Final Solution', War of the Century, and Nazis – A Warning from History (which are also in a similar vein, though the latter two documentaries are more similar to The World at War). World War II: Behind Closed Doors is up on YouTube.

One last thing, the makers of the much acclaimed The World At War back in 1998 also did Cold War. The whole thing up on Google Video (it starts with nuclear bomb test footage and a tour around the Greenbrier bunker facilty).
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Elfdart » 2010-05-16 12:02am

The Hitler Channel churns out a lot of crap, but they do have some winners.

One documentary I liked was Up the Deadly Boot: The Italian Campaign. First, for covering part of WW2 that is often overlooked. Second, for debunking a number of myths about the war in the Med. Third, for giving details of the political skulduggery going on in Rome in 1943.

Another was the series Lincoln from a few years ago, covering his early life and career, including his distaste for religion.

The Bloody Cliffs of Peleliu was also very good, and got a big thumbs up from my grandfather (who was there), though after watching it my opinion of Nimitz, MacArthur and especially Rupertus was lowered quite a lot.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby weemadando » 2010-05-16 12:07am

Bedlam wrote:
Joviwan wrote:Is it acceptable to ask questions regarding documentaries? If so:

What are people's opinion of The World at War? My family bought the DVDs for this set a few years ago, and I've gone through the entire series in a more or less active fashion over time, and was always impressed at the quality of the episodes and felt like they were communicating real information for basically the entire duration... but I certainly don't want trust my gut on that because I'm not in any way formally educated with any precision about WW2. Anyone else seen it?


Well I'm not a WW2 expert either but like you I do like that series. It seems to cover much of the war including a few less well covered point, the early phoney war, Italy, Burma, etc. I'm a bit undecided about how they tend to group things by topic rather than chronology which can make things a bit choppy but I dont think you could cover the whole of the war purely keeping up with chronology.


The World at War is probably the best, existing, WW2 doco series by virtue of the fact that it is fairly impartial, it doesn't pull many punches and most importantly, it is of an era where we have hours and hours of interviews with primary sources as it's main content.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby JBG » 2010-05-16 09:49pm

weemadando wrote:
Bedlam wrote:
Joviwan wrote:Is it acceptable to ask questions regarding documentaries? If so:

What are people's opinion of The World at War? My family bought the DVDs for this set a few years ago, and I've gone through the entire series in a more or less active fashion over time, and was always impressed at the quality of the episodes and felt like they were communicating real information for basically the entire duration... but I certainly don't want trust my gut on that because I'm not in any way formally educated with any precision about WW2. Anyone else seen it?


Well I'm not a WW2 expert either but like you I do like that series. It seems to cover much of the war including a few less well covered point, the early phoney war, Italy, Burma, etc. I'm a bit undecided about how they tend to group things by topic rather than chronology which can make things a bit choppy but I dont think you could cover the whole of the war purely keeping up with chronology.


The World at War is probably the best, existing, WW2 doco series by virtue of the fact that it is fairly impartial, it doesn't pull many punches and most importantly, it is of an era where we have hours and hours of interviews with primary sources as it's main content.


Not to mention the quality narrator. It was SOP viewing on the ABC in my house when I was growing up.

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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Majin Gojira » 2010-05-17 09:21am

One of my favorite documentaries--one that can actually be watched repeatedly is Terry Jones Medieval Lives (which is available from the BBC on their Youtube Channel). Given it's hosted by Terry Jones, a Monty Python alum, it's irreverent and has Python-Esque animation using medieval paintings and tapestries.

Funny, informative and actively seeking to deconstruct the common misconceptions regarding Medieval England by looking at 12 different lives/jobs of the time from the peasant all the way to the king.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Iosef Cross » 2010-05-17 05:20pm

Joviwan wrote:Is it acceptable to ask questions regarding documentaries? If so:

What are people's opinion of The World at War? My family bought the DVDs for this set a few years ago, and I've gone through the entire series in a more or less active fashion over time, and was always impressed at the quality of the episodes and felt like they were communicating real information for basically the entire duration... but I certainly don't want trust my gut on that because I'm not in any way formally educated with any precision about WW2. Anyone else seen it?


it is a very good documentary. Perhaps the classiest WW2 documentary ever. But since it was made nearly 40 years ago, it has some inaccuracies.

The technically best documentaries are the Battlefield series, although they are a bit long (~2 hours per episode):

Barbarossa:
http://www.youtube.com/user/HoustonGD#p/c/842B97394AACFF17/0/fqWxUwfh1Jk

Stalingrad:
http://www.youtube.com/user/HoustonGD#g/c/1B85696703D57791

Normandy:
http://www.youtube.com/user/HoustonGD#p/c/033466090DEDECFB/0/EPOuwPYyhPQ

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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Macunaima » 2010-05-22 04:09pm

I've always enjoyed BBC's The Great War, about the World War 1. It is as long as The World at War, and covers a lot of material, even though I just wish they should have detailed more regarding some of the immediate post war period -- but other than that, a great series.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Patrick Degan » 2010-05-22 06:00pm

A very good PBS documentary that was on last year was On A Wind And A Prayer about the Japanese fugo balloon assault against North America during World War II. It detailed the efforts to both accurately map the jetstream currents that could take the balloons across the Pacific Ocean and the design and construction of the balloons, but also the engineering solutions the designers devised to ensure full automechanical control of each balloon and the automatic release of bombs according to the timing of the flight —and why the mechanisms failed. Only one or two bombs ever hit American soil and considerably off-target, with only one fatality. A most interesting film about this very little known aspect of the war.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Elfdart » 2010-05-22 06:18pm

Twigler wrote:I could be quick and say anything by Bettany Hughes, but that will probably get me a rap on the knuckles from a mod :).

Her The Spartans series was very accurate and didn't just focus, as so many other documentaries, on the military traditions. She really delved into the Spartan psychology, culture and mentality. An nice change from the usual Thermopylae wankery.

My other favourites are:
[urlhttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/When_The_Moors_Ruled_In_Europe]When the Moors Ruled in Europe[/url] - a two-parter that outlines the contributions of Moorish culture to Europe and Spain in particular. One of the more memorable moments was her interview with a Spanish history professor who flatly denied they had any influence at all on Spanish culture. Denial much?

And:
The Minoans - for me this was a first serious exposure to their culture and it was probably the best intro anyone could hope for. It really drew me in and explained how they lived and thought. And while it suffered a bit from the drama-camera problem, it wasn't jarring. It really made me want to find out more, which I think is one of the hallmark signs of a good TV documentary.


I saw her documentary on Helen of Troy and it was very good. You can watch her shows on the Moors and Spartans on YouTube.
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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby JBG » 2010-05-22 11:32pm

"The Russian Front" with Ian Kershaw is showing on Ozzie cable at present.

What do our Russian friends think of this series?

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Re: Historical documentary films thread

Postby Big Orange » 2010-05-26 10:25pm

I'm sorry I can't provide a link to videos, but from what I can vaguely remember, Station X - The Codebreakers of Bletchley Park was a decent late 90s documentary that followed Britain's highly successful and highly secretive code breaking program that gave the Allied powers the means to stay a few steps ahead of the Axis powers in WWII through Bletchley Park's data machines, used to descramble messages encoded by Nazi Germany's Enigma devices. Station X helped to forge a solid base for true computers from the 1940s onwards. I don't think it's on DVD and I haven't heard of it being repeated in recent years, but it can be found on prehistoric VHS.
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