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PBS Home Video presents
Secrets of the Dead: Dogfight Over Guadalcanal (2006)

"You had to get in really close in those days... like a knife fight. So you had to have the target fill the windscreen. And then pull the trigger."
- Ralph Wetterhahn

Review By: Ross Johnson   
Published: August 30, 2007

Stars: Liev Schreiber
Director: Michael Barnes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 00h:59m:00s
Release Date: May 22, 2007
UPC: 841887052245
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

Just over 65 years ago, two men carried out one of the most famous dogfights of World War II during the Battle of Guadalcanal, a critical turning point in the Pacific War. James "Pug" Southerland and Saburo Sakai duked it out for control of what would later be called Henderson field on the island of Guadalcanal, a critical piece of Pacific real estate for both the Japanese and the Allied forces. In Japanese hands, an airstrip on the island would pose a threat to shipping lanes and extend the range of land and sea forces. An early amphibious attack on the island by American Marines in August, 1942 overwhelmed and surprised the Japanese, but Japanese bombers and Zero fighters were on the way, so the true battle hadn't even begun. Sakai, a pilot of samurai ancestry who had been honored by Emperor Hirohito himself for his extraordinary flying abilities was among pilots assigned to escort the bombers. Southerland, a similarly talented and decorated pilot, commanded a group of 68 Wildcats fending them off.

As the title of this film in the Secrets of the Dead series suggests, the two found themselves in a dramatic and justly famous dogfight over and around the island in which each displayed remarkable skill and derring-do. The dogfight was thoroughly documented by both men, particularly by the victor Sakai, who went on to renounce violence and worked to reconcile the opposing sides in his later years. In spite of that, there has been continued ambiguity over a crucial moment in the fight: there was a moment when Southerland had Sakai in his gun sights, with every opportunity to destroy the pilot's more agile but poorly armored Japanese Zero. He didn't fire, and though the reasons why he lost the chance for victory are unclear, powerful clues have recently been uncovered in the jungles of Guadalcanal. Incidentally, though it's not easy to root for the Japanese here, it's not hard to see Sakai's victory as something of a happy ending. Southerland's heavily armored Wildcat allowed him time to escape via parachute. The Zero, we learn, was designed for speed with almost no regard for pilot safety. Had Southerland prevailed, his counterpart would have surely perished.

Dogfight Over Guadalcanal attempts to cover a lot of ground (some of it controversial) in just under an hour, and mostly succeeds, though I'd love it if it had taken a bit more time. The film is divided up roughly into three segments: the first provides background into the conflict and major players featuring contemporaneous footage, stills, and interviews with historians and retired soldiers. The second describes and recreates the dogfight with a fair amount of detail, while the final third introduces crash site investigator Colonel Ralph Wetterhahn, who travels to Guadalcanal to examine the recently-discovered wreckage of Pug Southerland's Wildcat, having been largely concealed by mudslides deep within the jungle. It all moves along briskly, and the production values are quite good. We visit Southerland's Wildcat wreckage, and see the inside of a surviving Zero. The graphics and digital recreation of the dogfight are clear and easy to understand. It all moves rather quickly, but still provides a thorough background for those of us not versed in the intricacies of WWII combat aviation, and does so in an entertaining fashion.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Though the image is a bit soft in a few spots, overall it's quite nice, with no obvious transfer issues.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes
Dolby Digital

Audio Transfer Review: The Dolby 2.0 track is fine, although doesn't provide much oomph for the combat recreations. No real complaints, but a bit more dynacism would have been appreciated considering the subject matter.

Audio Transfer Grade: B-


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 9 cues and remote access
Packaging: Keep Case
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extras Review: The only extra, if you would call it that, is a weblink to the show's website on PBS.org. It's only worth mentioning for the further background and documentation provided on the website.

Extras Grade: C


Final Comments

Though brisk, this documentary about one of the most famous dogfights in aviation history is both entertaining and provides a thorough introduction to the lives and careers of Saburo Sakai and "Pug" Southerland. Those interested in World War II or cambat aviation in general should be pleased.


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