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Chris Hicks: Civil War documentary heads up DVD releases

These new-to-DVD television programs are led by a documentary about African-Americans' wartime contributions, Orson Welles doing Shakespeare and one of the greatest sitcom episodes of all time.

"For Love of Liberty: The Story of America's Black Patriots" (Vivendi, 2010, two discs, $19.93). This stirring four-hour history, as the title suggests, covers America's various battles for freedom from the Revolutionary War forward, told from the point of view of black Americans.

The aim is to be eye-opening with regard to black participation in these wars, despite bigotry on every side. And that goal is accomplished quite quickly. Within its opening minutes, you'll be caught up in the power of this story.

There have been so many documentaries and films on similar subjects that you might feel you've seen it all, but there are moments here that will surprise, shock and disappoint, as well as sequences that engender elation. It's an emotional powerhouse that informs as it provides rousing entertainment in the best documentary tradition.

Primarily composed of first-person accounts read by an incredible array of big-name stars — Morgan Freeman, Louis Gossett Jr., Alfre Woodard, Robert Duvall, Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, James Garner … far too many to name here — the film unfolds with paintings, drawings, photos, early motion-picture footage and re-creations. Halle Berry is the host, Avery Brooks narrates and Colin Powell provides an introduction.

Extras: widescreen, two episodes, deleted scenes, archival footage (dating back to 1898), music video

"Orson Welles: King Lear: The Historic Omnibus Production" (E1, 1953, b/w, $29.98). Welles has the title role in this adaptation of Shakespeare's play, his portrayal of the beleaguered king earning a place among the greatest performances of the Bard captured on video.

True, this is an abbreviated version (73 minutes), explained dutifully by host Alistair Cooke, but the primary story is intact and the fact that it was performed live, without interruptions, adds a level of excitement and electricity. Welles dominates the show, and he's magnificent, even when minor flubs occur or other actors aren't quite up to his level.

Despite the primitive trappings and the recording being a kinescope, this show demonstrates that the play's the thing — but it can receive a tremendous boost from a commanding star.

Extras: full frame, vintage featurettes, trailer; 16-page booklet

"The Mary Tyler Moore Show: The Complete Sixth Season" (Fox, 1975-76, three discs, $29.98). This penultimate season of the brilliant '70s sitcom includes the classic episode "Chuckles Bites the Dust," hailed by TV Guide and many critics as one of the funniest TV programs of all time. And it holds up wonderfully.

But there are also many other hysterical episodes, including the continued pursuit of Lou (Edward Asner) by Sue Ann (Betty White) and the marriage of Ted (Ted Knight) and Georgette (Georgia Engel), presided over by a nervous minister in tennis garb (John Ritter).

Extras: full frame, 24 episodes

"Vega$: The First Season, Volume 2" (CBS/Paramount, 1978-79, three discs, $39.99). Robert Urich is Dan Tanna in this filmed-in-Las Vegas detective series, which continues its first season with recurring star Tony Curtis and guests Muhammad Ali, George Takei, Julie Harris, Leslie Nielsen and Kim Cattral, among others.

Extras: full frame, 11 episodes, promos, trailers

"The Patty Duke Show: The Complete Second Season" (Shout! 1964-65, six discs, b/w, $44.99). Teenage Duke returns for a second season of this "Parent Trap"-style sitcom as "identical cousins" who are polar opposites, personality-wise. Guests include Sammy Davis Jr., Sal Mineo, Bobby Vinton, Frank Sinatra Jr. and Robert Goulet.

Extras: full frame, 36 episodes, featurette, promos, trailers

"J.A.G.: The Final Season" (CBS/Paramount, 2004-05, five discs, $64.99). This 10th season of the hit military crime show wraps it up. And the series about attorneys for the Judge Advocate General finally gets serious with the romance between Harm (David James Elliott) and Mac (Catherine Bell).

Extras: widescreen, 22 episodes, trailers

"Army Wives: The Complete Third Season" (ABC, 2009, five discs, $45.99). Bell kept a military association as one of the ensemble cast of this military drama (which also features Kim Delaney). Season 4 begins in April.

Extras: widescreen, 18 episodes, delted scenes, Webisodes, featurettes, bloopers, trailers

"Gary Unmarried: The Complete First Season" (ABC, 2008-09, three discs, $39.99). Comic Jay Mohr stars in this lame sitcom that is louder than it is funny, and his newly single male-chauvinist character makes Jim Belushi on "According to Jim" seem sensitive.

Extras: widescreen, 20 episodes, featurettes, bloopers, trailers

"The Best of Lidia" (PBS, 2009, $24.99). Lidia Matticchio Bastianich, the PBS chef, presents some of her simplest recipes from Italy.

Extras: widescreen, printable recipes

"So You Want to Be President?" (Scholastic, 2000, $14.95). The title story for children ages 5-10, along with "Madam President," "My Senator and me" and "I Could Do That," are read by Stockard Channing and Joan Allen, among others.

Extras: full frame, four stories, featurettes

e-mail: hicks@desnews.com