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Category:    Home > Reviews > Documentary > History > Countries > Nation States > TV Mini-Series > A History of Scotland: The Complete Ten-Part Series (BBC DVD) + Simon Schama: A History of Britain – Special Edition (BBC DVD) + America: The Story of Us (A&E/History Channel Blu-ray)

A History of Scotland: The Complete Ten-Part Series (BBC DVD) + Simon Schama: A History of Britain – Special Edition (BBC DVD) + America: The Story of Us (A&E/History Channel Blu-ray)


Picture: B-/B-/B     Sound: B-/B-/C     Extras: B-/B-/C     Documentaries: B



New to DVD and Blu-ray are several documentaries that chronicle the history of three very different countries that at the same time remain interconnected.  On DVD from BBC we has A History of Scotland: The Complete Ten-Part Series and Simon Schama: A History of Britain – Special Edition, documentaries that manage to squeeze centuries and centuries of history into only a few discs.  A History of Britain is a tad longer than A History of Scotland, with Scotland approximately a 9-hour running time and Britain with nearly an amazing almost 15 hours of footage.  America: The Story of Us from A&E rockets onto Blu-ray to show the adventure that was, forming America.  America runs 9 hours and 12 minutes as it delves into the people and ideas that built our nation.  Not one of these documentaries are tedious or boring and instead infuse action and adventure into the glimpses of time to make the viewer feel as if they are there.  Long gone (At least here) are the drab days of High School history class film reels that blandly project on the screen as a monotone voice lulls you to sleep.


Each documentary has the arduous task of cramming massive amounts of history into about 10 to 15 hours of film and by no means is that easy to accomplish.  With that said, however, each documentary does their country of choice justice and highlights as well as details the moments in time that shaped the country.  Now some critics may say (and have said) that the information presented is simplified and superficial.  I argue that these documentaries are meant for the masses, to explore history an insight further inquiry.  Surely each tiny segment of these documentaries could be explored to no ends (and people do spend their whole lives doing such), but that is not the point here and instead BBC and History Channel look to excite new generations about learning and knowing where we all came from.


A History of Scotland is split into ten episodes that are guided by Neil Oliver.  The documentary may be lost on many individuals who are not familiar with Scottish or English History, but the journey that the feature takes you on is stunning.  Viewers are guided through nearly 2,000 years of nobility with kings, queens and internal struggles taking center stage.  The most obvious highlight of the program is Scotland’s ties with England, a part of the documentary that has come under a certain amount of criticism.  A good amount of hostility still exists when discussing England, Scotland and even Ireland when it comes to history and who did what; I suppose it is all according to who is telling the tale.  Regardless of how an individual feels about the amount of involvement one country had with another, the fact remains that England and Scotland were (are) so tied that neither ones history is obtainable without the other.  The history of Scotland presented here by Neil Oliver is well done with his direct and rapid speech setting a good tone throughout.  Admittedly I had no idea who many of the historical figures or battles were, but I found it entertaining and enlightening nevertheless.  My only gripe with the documentary would be the poor acting.  Throughout the documentary there are reenactments, which are understandable since you can’t see the real event, but they are so poorly acted it becomes distracting.   Outside of the ‘King’s Court Restaurant Style’ acting the documentary was wonderful, as it highlighted historical figures from Sir Walter Scott to inspiration for Braveheart, Sir William Wallace.


A History of Britain is a bit more intense than Scotland (not to mention lengthy), but nevertheless it remained enjoyable.  Historian Simon Schama presents the expansive history of Britain in an exciting 15-part series that (like Scotland) highlights the key events and people that shaped Britain.  This British special seems to emphasize a lot more drama than Scotland had, but the colorful past (and the historian chronicling it) may explain this feature of the documentary.  In this special Schama travels the globe to emphasize what was going on in Britain and its impact on the world.  He visits hundreds of locations (yes, hundreds) and each stop using his unique and inspiring brand of story telling to highlight critical events throughout time.  There is no single focus and Schama uses wars, warriors, religion, birth, death, the fight for power, rise and fall of monarchs, castles, cathedrals and all in between to paint the detailed picture that is the history of Britain.  This special goes a bit deeper than Scotland did in terms of superficiality (if you care to call it that), but not so burdensome that it bores.  Instead, Schama manages to pull you along, as if sitting around a camp fire listening to a tale, learning who people were and how they lived.  It was all rather exciting and a pure pleasure.


I was automatically intrigued by America: The Story of Us when I initially saw the previews on the History Channel; unfortunately I only had the pleasure of seeing the first episode.  With the feature now released on Blu-ray audiences have a chance for the first time to view the special in High Definition Blu-ray; so whether you saw it on TV or this is your first experience of America: The Story of US, it remains a great one.  This ambitious special chronicles the history of America from the settlers in James town, to the American Revolution, our expansion West, through the Civil War and up to the new millennium.  The special uses a mix of many documentary tricks to propel the story forward.  There are heavy doses of all ‘talking head’ interviews, flipping through artistic renderings of history, reenactments and visiting historical sites.  The choice of interviewees I found really odd, with the likes of Michael Douglas showing up as an ‘expert’ on topics.  Now I understand he is old as dirt, but an expert?  The choice was just confusing and after the appearance of the likes of Sheryl Crowe it was more than obvious that these ‘experts’ were more of a marketing ploy, than a historical credibility choice.  Never the less Liev Schreiber is a good narrator and the historical series does an excellent job of integrating the key historical events with lesser known events, people and places.  The other thing that makes me roll my eyes in these series are the historical reenactments, as they are only ever done mildly well and are all too fake.  Leaving me wondering what would it take to get a Saving Private Ryan or HBO John Adams like reenactment?  I know, I know; money.  Overall, it was a wonderful documentary that is very inclusive and is not only historically relevant, but entertaining as well.


The technical features on both BBC documentaries are nice, but far from perfect.  The picture on both is presented in an enhanced 16 X 9 widescreen that has solid blacks and colors, but the clarity is often lacking and distracts from the overall presentation.  The sound is nothing epic in a simple Dolby Digital Stereo track that comes from the front with crisp dialogue, but does little to involve the viewer and without surrounds it all falls rather flat.


The extras on History of Scotland include an additional and insightful two-part documentary entitled How the Celts Saved Britain, presented by Dan Snow.  This additional documentary just adds another layer to the entire experience that I found to be not only educational, but fun as well.  Also included as an “extra” is a 24 page booklet containing historical facts and striking images of Scottish Landmarks.


The extras on A History of Britain include Simon Schama’s Promo Message, an interview taken from “The Rest of History,” Television and the Trouble with History, Biography of Simon Schama, Tempus Fugit – Exclusive Behind the Scenes Interview, Original Score and finally Simon Schama’s John Donne Special.  With the exception of Schama’s promo and biography, I found the extras to be just as insightful (though not as entertaining) as the 15 hour documentary set itself.  It is nice to see some love and effort put into extras.


America: The Story of Us is an 1.78 X 1 AVC Encoded 1080p Blu-ray that is a mixed bag in terms of visual presentation.  The newer footage is sharp, crisp and beaming with detail that has exemplary color and blacks.  The older ‘stock footage,’ however, is less detailed and quality wavers from adequate to bad.  The depth and detail of newer interviews is admirable, but on the other hand the old footage is grainy and distracting; hence the ‘mixed bag.’  The audio is an odd at best in its DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio presentation.  Throughout the presentation I was experiencing a hum from the speakers that was more than distracting.  I tried to play the 5.1 track on three different systems; two surround systems maintained that steady buzz, whereas a standard television without surround did not experience this anomaly.  Oddly enough the DTS 2.0 track does NOT have this hum, but is still a poor mix as it is vulnerable to “too much noise,” making it distracting.


The extras on America are weak and only include some 7 segments of additional footage that neither adds not detracts from the feature, hence why it was cut in the first place.


I would recommend all three of these documentaries as they are not only insightful, but rewatchable and fun.



-   Michael P. Dougherty II


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