Saturday, June 16, 2012
Canadians And The War Of 1812
Americans are really not.
The war that began 200 years ago on Monday is big news in Canada. Americans would rather forget the whole episode except for the composition of the Star Spangled Banner and the Battle of New Orleans.
In the U.S. Congress cost conscious Republicans declined to create a national bicentennial commission. By contrast in Ottawa Stephen Harper's government is ploughing $28 million into planned celebrations.
That ambivalence between two nations was accurately captured in last season's brilliant two-hour documentary The War Of 1812 which premiered on PBS stations including Buffalo's WNED-TV.
Now it's Canadian TV's turn to retort with the equally compelling two-hour effort titled Explosion 1812.
The PBS epic was a massive effort that carefully balanced the accounts --after all it was made to appeal to viewers on both sides of the border.
This Canadian documentary is more in-you-face. It seizes on one important battle --the battle for Fort York and builds its compelling narrative around that key event.
One of the key courses I took at the University of Toronto was on Upper Canada headed by master historian J.M.S. Careless. We certainly discussed the war but it didn't seem as important to Careless as the Rebellion of 1837.
I'm thinking his interpretation might have changed had he been alive to view Explosion 1812.
Narrated by historian David Snow, and creatively using historical re-enactments, eyewitness accounts (including one by a small boy) and brilliant new archeological digs led by Dr. Ron Williamson, this war suddenly springs alive.
It's as if we were right there the night the huge armaments depot was deliberately blown up causing great loss of life on the American side --American general Zebulon Pike's chest was crushed by falling rocks and debris from the armory.
The U.S. invaders had wrongly assumed they were coasting their way to a great victory.
The surprise explosion killed or maimed 250 American troops who retaliated by looting and stealing from the local York villagers many of whom were "late Loyalists" who had only recently arrived from the United States.
That senseless act turned many townsfolk against the Americans and showed them that they, in fact, had a separate identity --as Canadians.
Archeologist Williamson gets the best line when he explains "There's that moment in life when the place you were born is no longer your home --the place you've chosen to live as an adult becomes your home."
Since I live in Toronto I was drawn to the visually stunning look at the excavation of the ruins of parts of Fort York which have disappeared including the lieutenant governor's quarters, the so-called Canadian "White House" colonnaded just like its Washington counterpart.
Archaeologists are trying to determine exactly where the gigantic ammunition depot was located. It was very near the lake which has retreated over many decades. And the presence of the Gardiner Expressway cannot have helped in locating exactly where the gigantic rater lay.
What caused the explosion is another riddle? British soldiers detonated the ammo as they were retreating. Americans suspected it was a deliberate act of murder.
When the depot went up in flames it held 30,000 pounds of black powder, 10,000 cannon balls and 30,000 cartridges and the resulting fireball explosion could be heard right across Lake Ontario at Ft. Niagara.
It's exciting to see explosive experts attempt to recreate the effects of that explosion to determine how U.S. soldiers at 200-300 yards could have been more affected than British troops who were closer in range.
But many Americans were mowed down by the impact of the blast which blew out ear drums and caused many U.S. soldiers to topple over and die in great agony --the blast also loosed a shower of sharp debris that rained down and caused many more deaths.
Explosion 1812, executive produced by Elliott Halpern (Vimy Underground) for yap films, tells its story in powerful, bold strokes helped by clever CGI effects. In one great recreated scene Americans flee a burning Washington at night and we can see a vivid recreation of the White House being burned.
Mick Grogan wrote, directed and produced it and Derek Rogers is responsible for the splendid photography.
Over the years Tom Gould produced a fine 1812 documentary for CTV and the McKenna brothers made one for CBC --both were ignored by U.S. TV.
But Explosion 1812 is so definitive it should be seen by Canadians and Americans alike.
EXPLOSION 1812 PREMIERES ON HISTORY TELEVISION SUN. JUNE 17 AT 9 P.M. ; REPEATED MOND. JUNE 18 AT 8 P.M.
MY RATING: ***1/2.