I can’t think of a better time than the cusp of a Presidential election year to brush up on US history. The History Channel, with its large library of programming, offers a perfect opportunity to begin with its American History Collector’s DVD set.
I confess. I am not a history geek. I have an interest in American history, particularly when it intersects with politics, but my husband is the real history go-to guy in our family. He agreed to subscribe to digital cable only because he could then have access to numerous History Channel channels. In fact, on a typical Sunday afternoon, if the Chicago Bears aren’t playing, chances are pretty good that one or another of those History channels are playing on the upstairs television.
On a more practical level, our high school junior is taking AP (Advanced Placement) US History right now, so the pressure is on to be able to answer any and all obscure questions about American history accurately and spontaneously. You never know when your knowledge of Fort Ticonderoga or the origins of the Gettysburg address might come in very handy during finals week cramming.
More seriously, and in a presidential election year, few things can be more important than understanding the underpinnings of our country, especially as some in our nation seek to re-define what the founding fathers meant, what civil liberties are meant to be, and how the early days of our country frame our present and will frame our future.
How do the presidents of the distant past measure up against the presidents of more recent vintage? On what principles was our country founded? Context in the face of social and political change is always necessary, and in that light, a review of some of the most important historical moments of the United States is a valuable tool for not only the history buff, but the average citizen too. It is only by studying (or remembering) the past that we can learn to make the future better.
American History Collector’s DVD set is really three different DVD box sets: The American Revolution, The Last Days of the Civil War, and The Presidents. I watched them with an eye towards revisiting what I had studied back in school so long ago, but with my mind focused on the importance of understanding our history as context for 21st century America. Although not necessarily as engaging as a “made-for-television” docu-drama, these sets, created by the History Channel in cooperation with Arts and Entertainment Network and the Biography® Channel, comprise an interesting and worthwhile collection from its vast archive of award-winning historical programming.
The American Revolution is a five-DVD set narrated by long-time broadcast journalist Bill Kurtis. Intercut with re-enacted scenes of battles, skirmishes, and meetings are the very words of the revolution’s movers and shakers: revolutionaries, thinkers, radicals, agitators, and money men. They are brought to life by well known actors like William Daniels.
The series does a good job of separating mythology from fact without diminishing the profound impact the American Revolution had, not only on the people who colonized this country, but on the entire world. The final two DVDs of the set are Biography® Channel portraits of four key players in the founding of the country: George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Paul Revere, and Benedict Arnold. Whereas most of us know Benedict Arnold as the very definition of the word “traitor,” this portrait gives the layperson a deeper understanding of the motivations and circumstances that caused Arnold, a hero of the war and Washington’s favorite general, to betray the new nation to the British.
The Last Days of the Civil War examines pivotal events of 1864 and 1865 as the “war between the states” comes to a close. As with the Revolutionary War DVD set, this one also includes a second DVD with Biography® Channel profiles of Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, and Robert E. Lee.
The third set in the History Channel Collection is The Presidents. Narrated by actor Edward Hermann and based on the work of Pulitzer Prize winning author James McPherson, this 2005 History Channel series explores the lives of the 43 US presidents through interviews and rare footage. Over three DVDs, each president is viewed within his historical context, providing a fascinating overview of the nation’s history.
Notable journalists, scholars, and politicians help to provide insight into the personal and political lives of the presidents. These include former President Jimmy Carter, General Wesley Clark, iconic newsmen David Brinkley and Walter Cronkite, presidential scholar Ted Sorenson, and many others.
It is fascinating, for example, to watch the segment on John F. Kennedy and recall the events surrounding the disastrous Bay of Pigs affair–and how Kennedy handled the aftermath of that foreign policy fiasco. In taking full responsibility for the failure of the mission, Kennedy earned the respect of the nation. He was changed by the Bay of Pigs; he understood the importance of learning from it and changing the way he managed his presidency. The credibility earned by the acknowledgment of the failure allowed Kennedy to pursue a far-reaching social agenda fueled by an idealism that was the hallmark of his short presidency. In office for only 1000 days, Kennedy’s impact on our nation, the presidency, and the world live on. He challenged the nation to see beyond the present and into a bright future. The leadership he exhibited during the Cuban missile crisis was stunning and striking when compared with the present administration.
One of the best things about The Presidents is the way in which it explores, in short moments, soundbites, and commentary, the flavor of each presidency–how each president reflected his times and their troubles, and shaped the era in which he served. Extras in The Presidents DVD set include the feature length documentary “All the President’s Wives,” and a timeline of the US presidents.
The set would make a great gift for the history buff in your life—or for your kid (or grandkid) who’s studying for that AP US History exam.