Sunday, October 2, 2011
The War Of 1812 Is Must See TV!
"When I started my research on the War of 1812 six years ago I had to cross the border, naturally," remembers American executive producer John Grant.
"And when I told the Canadian border guard my reason for entering Canada he said 'Oh, that's the war where we whipped you guys'.
"But when I returned the American guard merely shrugged and said to proceed. For her it wasn't something she really was aware of."
Grant's long awaited production The War Of 1812 finally appears on PBS stations Monday Oct. 10. He's surely hoping to change the opinions of both guards he met that day.
Becuse this was a most important war for both sides. It changed both sides for good and bad.
For the U.S. it determined that the new republic needed a standing army. The militia that fought these battles under aged and incompetent generals from the Revolutionary days were completely incompetent.
Canadians began to think of themselves as a separate people and not just sparsely inhabitated colonies of Great Britain.
It's strange to think that here is the best TV production about Canada on TV this fall. Because it comes from an American station.
The War Of 1812 is simply enthralling. It's got everything from superbly staged sea battles to bloody conflicts along the Niagara frontier to an unforgettable cast of characters.
Thrill as Laura Secord trudges through the forests to alert British soldiers to an impending attack of American regulars.
Cheer as First Lady Dolly Madison rolls up a portrait of the American Union's first President George Washington and beats a hasty retreat just before the arrival of British soldiers who promptly burn the White House down.
"I've heard there have been other TV films on the war,"Grant allows. "But ours had to reflect sentiment on both sides of the border." What follows is artful threading as myths on both sides get exploded.
There have already been two Canadian versions, one a CBC effort and one a CTV TV movie produced by Tom Gould but both were deemed too pro Canadian to ever make it south of the border.
"We tried for balance,"Grant says "but we definitely are not dull." Buffalo's WNED-TV made the film with PBS backing --there even are some Canadian finances involved.
The war defined the combatants --it was the last time the U.S. was successfully invaded and it was a defining moment for the beleagured colonists of Upper and Lower Canada.
The two hour production looks very luxuriant with elaborately staged battle recreations.
Of course there's no existing battle footage. There even is a complete lack of still photgraphs --it all happened 28 years before the arrival of the first photographers.
The War Of 1812 seems to have a cast of thousands but that's movie making logic . "Make that a cast of dozens," Grant jokes. "Our intrepid production designer Peter Twist was constantly adjusting buttons on the costumes of the volunteers for authenticity's sake. A lot of these scenes are shot in tight close-ups to show the stark fear of the troops. The Americans were rightly petrified of being scalped by England's Indian allies. The British were treated just as roughly."
Night time shooting and plumes of fake smoke disguise the fact there only were 20 soldiers on each side re-enacting a battle scene.
Two period vessels the USS Niagara and The Pride Of Baltimore were hired for the splendid sea battles which were fought at close range. Many sailors on both sides were killed not by cannon balls but exploding shrapnel or gigantic splinters from the timbers.
Grant says "We had the diary reminiscences of two soldiers and use them to personalize the conflict." One was a Kentucky refleman William Atherton who was captured by the British and spent several years in a stinking Montreral prison. The other was British foot soldier Shadrach Byfield. who survived and died decades later in poverty back in Britain.
"The canvas was huge," Grant says. There were pitched battles in the Northwest, the Niagara Corridor, Lakes Ontario, erie and Champlain, and in Chesapeke and New Orleans.
"All the while the English were concentrating on defeating Napoleon. In fact that's where General Brock would have preferred to be. Consequently it was hard locating British experts to talk saout the war although we did find a few."
Experts pop up throughout but these are not the usually boring talking heads. "It's a real diversity of opinion out there."
We get precise character studies of the important subjects.
President Madison is portrayed as a dwarfish individual entirely under the control, of his more forward looking wife Dolly.
General William Hull is shown cowering in a corner rather than leading his troops into battle.
One of the greatest figures is the Indian warrior Tecumseh who accurately forecast the demise of the Indian nation should the Americans win.
We learn that black soldiers fought courageously on both sides. The British used black soldiers to strike fear into the hearts of slave owning Southern whites.
Laura Secord? Her image increased with the passage of time until the Prince of Wales asked to see her when he visited Canada in 1860. She died at 93 a year after Confederation but her fame continued to grow.
If you want to know about military medicine it's all here --surgeons had but a few minutes to amputate limbs crushed by cannon balls or the soldiers would bleed to death.
Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey directed and Ken Chowder wrote it and they're likely to be nominated come Emmy time.
The War Of 1812 has everything --true life adventure, superb winners and tragic losers (like the great warrior Tecumseh), and a story line that explains how Canadians began developing as a separate people.
It's one of the few recent TV programs I watched and thought it should go on and because it's so chock full of information and excitement. And it's all real.
Grant says he's already working on another history documentary that criss crosses the Canada-America border. "It'll be on the Undergground Railroad. Americans know about the U.S. side but we'll also look at the experiences of fleeing ex-slaves once they reached Canada."
THE WAR OF 1812 PREMIERES ON WNED-TV AND OTHER PBS STATIONS ON MOND. OCT. 10 AT 9 P.M.
MY RATING: ****.