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Battlefield Detectives (DVD Review)

11 Feb, 2012 By: John Latchem

Street 2/14/12
$59.99 three-DVD set
Not rated.

In the case of history’s most famous battles, tales of valor or despair that shape our perceptions tend to overlook a variety of factors that may have determined the outcome. But legend usually wins out when such battles are fought prior to an age of technology that can meticulously record every aspect of the event.

The 2003-06 History Channel series “Battlefield Detectives” sought to sort out the fact from the legend by focusing on the one key piece of evidence that remains from every battle: the battlefields themselves. Applying modern science and forensics, and in some cases little more than hindsight, the show aimed to give viewers a better understanding of how and why such conflicts ended as they did.

This DVD set includes the nine episodes from the show’s first season, shedding light on such battles as Agincourt, Hastings, Trafalgar, Gallipoli, Waterloo and more.

Sometimes, the explanations are startlingly simple now, and yet would have been a shock to those at the time. For example, the Spanish Armada attempting to sail home after being routed by a smaller English fleet committed a stunning navigation error that caused its ships to crash into the coast of Ireland. The culprit was the Gulf Stream current, which no one at the time even knew existed.

Even more amazing may be the segment on Custer’s Last Stand, with the Little Big Horn battlefield still littered with bones, used bullets and spent rifle shells 130 years later (one researcher pulls out a finger bone with the wedding ring still on it, a comment on how brutal the attack must have been). We get a nice lesson here about how tactics have to be adjusted to the weapons involved, and how the so-called Last Stand was more likely a group of undisciplined U.S. soldiers fleeing for their lives.

A segment on Vietnam is striking for its revelations about just how much American troops weren’t aware of their surroundings. And even as they won rousing victories, news reports around the world made it seem like a losing cause.

For all its seriousness, the contrast between past and present is not without sources of amusement, as when a historian crawls around the Gallipoli battlefields as families play on the beach in the background.

All in all, this is great stuff for history buffs.

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