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Friday, September 13, 2013

The Men Who Built America Blu-ray Review

Reviewed by Sean Ferguson
John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan rose from obscurity and in the process built modern America.  Their names hang on street signs, are etched into buildings and are a part of the fabric of history.  These men created the American Dream and were the engine of capitalism as they transformed everything they touched in building the oil, rail, steel, shipping, automobile and finance industries.  Their paths crossed repeatedly as they elected presidents, set economic policies and influenced major events of the 50 most formative years this country has ever known.  From the Civil War to the Great Depression and World War I, they led the way.  Using state of the art computer generated imagery that incorporates 12 million historical negatives, many made available for the first time by the Library of Congress, this series will bring back to life the world they knew and the one they created.  The event series will show how these men took a failed experiment in democracy and created the greatest superpower the world has ever seen.  We see how their historic achievements came to create the America of today.

Film (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

John D. Rockefeller, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Andrew Carnegie, Henry Ford and J.P. Morgan all represent the good and bad aspects of the American Dream.  All of them were self-built magnates that started with nothing and through hard work, cutthroat business tactics, good luck, and some shrewd investments they built their own empire.  It was these very men who thrived during what has been called the golden age of capitalism, but they are also the reason that a game called Monopoly exists.  Their strangleholds in their respective industries put a stranglehold on the nation while at the same time advancing it far beyond any other country through their relentless ambition.
This series is a something of a hybrid from the History Channel as it is partly a look back into historical events and the people that lived through them like usual, but they’ve also interspersed some talking points from people such as Donald Trump, Mark Cuban, Donny Deutch, among others who talk about business in general but occasionally talk about their historical pioneers.  Combined with the de rigueur re-enactments starring some very well cast actors as the various business tycoons, this new format seems more accessible and more entertaining, which will be sure to gain a wider audience.
It all starts off focusing on Cornelius Vanderbilt who was the first person to really monopolize his industry.  He started off running steamships until he realized that railroads were the future of transportation and started to build a new empire.  When he didn’t get his way, he ordered that the trains couldn’t cross his bridge and essentially held the rest of the industry hostage and it worked because at the time there weren’t many other routes for trains to divert to.  When Vanderbilt realized that he needed a lot of oil, he made a deal with a young John D. Rockefeller who negotiated a deal that allowed his oil to be transported on Vanderbilt’s trains cheaply which enriched both of them quite a bit.
Rockefeller’s Standard Oil dominated the market once he made society fearful of the dangers of not using his Standard Oil which he claimed was safer.  His ruthless tactics would position his company with control of 90% of the market.  By buying out his competitors or threatening to run them into bankruptcy after which he could buy up their assets cheaply.  After recouping the results from his shady dealings, Rockefeller would even eventually abandon his exclusive deal with Vanderbilt once he had enough power to not need him or his railroads any further.
Instead, he built his own pipelines so he would never be beholden to any railroad or any other form of transportation to deliver his oil anywhere in the country.  Even when kerosene was on the brink of becoming obsolete thanks to Thomas Edison’s efforts to bring electricity to homes, Rockefeller survived even that when he discovered that one of the byproducts called gasoline that had been labeled as waste for years could fuel a combustion engine which made him even more insanely rich.  Even though the U.S.  Government finally broke up his monopoly, when adjusted for inflation; Rockefeller still ended up being the world’s richest person of all time.
His main rival was Andrew Carnegie who was determined to thwart Rockefeller any way possible to pay him back for how Rockefeller had destroyed his mentor.  It was the beginning of a lifelong rivalry between the two men that only stopped with the death of Carnegie in 1919.  Having started off in the railroad business, Carnegie soon entered the steel industry and made it more efficient and profitable.  Once steel was incorporated in the building of bridges and skyscrapers, Carnegie’s business venture took off.  He was so successful and profitable, that his company attracted the attention of J.P. Morgan who told him that the wanted to buy the entire company from Carnegie.  Carnegie decided that he was ready to retire and asked for $480 million (almost 13 and half billion in today’s dollars) and went on to become one of the world’s most generous philanthropists.
For Morgan, this opportunity allowed him to create an integrated steel industry where he could control the prices, output, and future due to his complete monopoly of the industry once he combined all of his business ventures into one – U.S. Steel.  Morgan had already bankrolled Thomas Edison’s research in to electricity and eventually bought his company out from under him and renamed it General Electric (GE) which is still going strong today.  His other company J.P. Morgan & Company would later become the modern day JPMorgan Chase.  His financial expertise even put him in the unheard of position of steering the U.S. government though several financial crises including the Panic of 1907.  Thanks to  Morgan, even the Panama Canal was built largely thanks to his largesse.   An interesting bit of trivia, Morgan was supposed to be on the maiden voyage of the Titanic as he was one of the owners of the line, but he changed his plans at the last minute to remain in France.
Henry Ford invented his first gasoline powered vehicle, the Quadricycle in his shed while working as an engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company.  In 1903, he started his own company, the Ford Motor Company and within five years he built the revolutionary Model T car.  Like the other titans of industry, Ford revolutionized his industry by creating an assembly line to quickly manufacture his vehicles which also brought the costs down for him and his customers.  His business philosophy became known as “Fordism” where he advocated high wages for skilled workers to operate his mass production of cars.  His philosophies have been copied from other companies and even by Adolf Hitler, who greatly admired Ford and even based the design of the Volkswagen (the people’s car) on the Model T.  Ford wanted his company to enjoy a global market share and he not only created the idea of franchises, but he also had no problem building a factory in any country that had diplomatic relations with America.
All of these men changed America and advanced our industry and technology more in fifty years than ever before even though that progress was achieved through cutthroat business tactics. Their greed and lust for power was balanced by their philanthropic efforts later in their life and their charity is still evident today.  Their names can be found on libraries, street signs, and concert halls across America.  One of the most interesting facts I learned from this program was how much these men interacted with each other and occasionally came together to fight a common enemy when they weren’t trying to crush each other.  The History Channel has done a great job recreating the atmosphere from the past and the actors they chose do a great job playing these industry leaders.  This series is broken into the following four feature length parts:
  • “A New War Begins” – Cornelius Vanderbilt grows from a steamboat entrepreneur to the head of a railroad empire, and gets into a heated rivalry with Jim Fisk and Jay Gould; the up and coming John D. Rockefeller founds Standard Oil and starts to expand his wealth by diverting his business from the railroads to a new innovation, oil pipelines.
  • “Bloody Battles” – Andrew Carnegie builds an empire around steel, but finds himself struggling to save face after the ruthless tactics of his business partner, Henry Frick, result in both the Johnstown Flood as well as the bloody 1892 strike at the Homestead Steel Works.
  • “Changing the Game” – J.P. Morgan proceeds to banish the dark with the direct current electric light of Thomas Edison, but the two soon face serious competition from the alternating current of George Westinghouse and Nikola Tesla. As the 19th century comes to a close, the titans of industry must try to work together to stop a new threat in budding politician William Jennings Bryan, who threatens to dissolve monopolies in America.
  • “When One Ends, Another Begins” – Rockefeller, Carnegie and Morgan team up to help elect William McKinley to the U.S. presidency by paying for his 1896 campaign, to avoid a possible attack on monopolies. However, fate intervenes when McKinley is suddenly assassinated, and vice president Theodore Roosevelt assumes the presidency and promptly begins dissolving monopolies and trusts in America. Meanwhile, Morgan buys out Carnegie Steel to make Carnegie the richest man in the world, and Henry Ford designs an affordable automobile with his Model T and starts his own business, Ford Motor Company, which sets a new business model for companies to follow.

Video (4 1/2 out of 5 stars) 

This 1080p (1.78:1) transfer looks very good and you can tell that it was primarily shot on digital video since the presentation looks very sharp and clean.  The modern day interviews look especially good with lots of fine detail and vivd colors.  The historical re-enactment segments also look very good but the use of CGI does bring the quality down somewhat as those elements don’t look as sharp in detail.  Since this mini-series has been spread across three BD-50 discs, there’s no issues of compression to be found.  Black levels are solid and even the lowlit interior scenes look good.  This is a very nice mini-series from the History Channel.

Audio (4 out of 5 stars) 

The Men Who Built America’s DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is also quite good for a historical show.  The dialogue from the cast is clear and concise as is the narration by Campbell Scott.  I was a little surprised to hear how involved this mix was which is a far cry from the usual look back in history.  The music and the action cues call attention to what’s happening on screen.  There’s also quite a lot of bass in this mix especially during scenes like the Johnestown Flood.  While this is primarily a front channel presentation, the rear channels do occasionally get some action as well.  Listening to this mix, you might think you are watching a movie instead of a historical program but that’s ok in my book. If you want to make sure your home theater setup is working as intended, Lionsgate has also included an extra that allows you to do a sound check which is nice.

Extras (2 out of 5 stars) 

For a program like this, I would have loved to get even more historical background and facts on the people being covered.  Some commentaries and behind the scenes looks would be nice too, but instead we get some extra footage concerning each person covered that was most likely cut due to time constraints.  While I enjoyed this extra information, I wish they had included more than this.  All of these extra bits are in high defintion and run several minutes each and are spread across the three discs.
Extra footage concerning:
  • Andrew Carnegie
  • Rich To Richer
  • The American Dream
  • Monopoly
  • Competitive Nature
  • The Everyman
  • The Rise Of Cornelius Vanderbilt
  • Traits Of A Titan

Summary (4 out of 5 stars) 

I love history and I really enjoyed this program.  It was entertaining and I learned some new things and added some extra details to some of what I did already know.  These men are fascinating in their own right and what they accomplished and what they advanced can’t be entirely dismissed by the methods that they used to to achieve those goals.  My only real complaint about this mini-series is the fact that they keep repeating the same information between segments as if we are watching this on television and have forgotten what just happened during commercials.  This is a pet peeve of mine that frequently annoys me when I review these television shows.  If you are putting this on Blu-ray we don’t need a recap of what we just saw a few seconds ago!  Edit it out!  On the positive side, this Blu-ray offers some great video and audio quality and the extras are a little sparse but the information offered is interesting.  If you’d like to learn more about these titans of industry and what they did to revolutionize many aspects of modern society, then you should pick this up as I highly recommend it!
Order your copy today!

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