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Books and Culture

Ryan L. Cole
The Revisionists’ Red Glare
PBS misses a chance to improve our understanding of the War of 1812.
7 October 2011

When they remember it at all, most Americans associate the War of 1812 with the writing of the “Star Spangled Banner,” inspired by the siege of Fort McHenry; with General Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans; and with the burning of Washington (and the White House) by the British. But according to The War of 1812, a documentary debuting October 10 on PBS, we’ve all been taken in by centuries’ worth of politically motivated, nationalist myths. Just in time for the war’s upcoming bicentennial, the film, which constantly employs the words “story,” “legend,” and “truth,” promises to set the record straight. All it accomplishes, however, is unintentionally to remind viewers of the limited value of politically motivated revisionism and the mustiness of modern historical documentaries.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting among other organizations, the film is the work of Emmy-nominated documentarians Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey. Despite that pedigree, The War of 1812 offers nothing particularly innovative or original. Rather, it recycles many of the tired techniques that dominate the historical-documentary genre and strikes all the appropriate politically correct notes along the way.

Here we see gauzy—though often gory—reenactments, with soldiers marching to and fro, their muskets firing and cannons blasting, interspersed with dramatic recitals of contemporary letters and diary entries. And what documentary would be complete without somber commentary from an assortment of experts? In this case, an onslaught might be the appropriate term: over the film’s two long hours, more than two dozen talking heads—park rangers, professors, authors, activists, re-enactors, lecturers, consultants, and other assorted American, English, Canadian, and Indian experts—weigh in on the war. The filmmakers are obviously proud of this diversity of opinion, but all the dissertating and lecturing ultimately prevents a unified narrative from taking hold.

Presiding over the affair is Joe Mantegna, a fine actor but perhaps not the best choice here, given that his narration calls to mind his popular characters Fat Tony from The Simpsons and Joey Zasa from The Godfather: Part Three—not the ideal figures to evoke early nineteenth-century North America.

Worse is the film’s central conceit: what little we know about the War of 1812 is wrong. Of course, the assertion that we (or the other countries involved, for that matter) might misunderstand the war is perfectly legitimate. But the attempts at enlightenment usually amount to one-sided, “gotcha” nitpicking. For example, Commander James Lawrence may have exhorted “don’t give up the ship,” but his men did just that. William Henry Powell may have painted a standing Oliver Hazard Perry in his famous “Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie,” but the Commodore was, in reality, hunkered down during the scene depicted. Francis Scott Key may have composed our national anthem, but the tune was, in fact, based on a popular English drinking song. Meanwhile, General William Henry Harrison, victor of the Battles of Tippecanoe and the Thames, is presented as a hot-headed weasel; General William Hull, who surrendered Fort Detroit, a spittle-covered coward; President James Madison, an outmaneuvered nebbish. The war’s non-American participants, curiously, don’t receive such scrutiny. British Major General Isaac Brock, for instance, aside from being a brave warrior, is breathlessly described as a handsome hero, dashing dancer, and an admirer of fine food and wine to boot. George Prevost, governor of British North America, is recalled as sensible and capable.

These characterizations all have foundations in history and considerable support among historians. And the Americans and their leaders did indeed bumble through parts of the war. But they also had their share of courageous victories. So it seems inconsistent for a film that so loudly claims to cut through all the self-interested spin to paint flattering portraits of some figures and simplistically critical ones of others.

Needless to say, as with most contemporary assessments of U.S. history, we get the usual list of atrocities and injustices. Dissent was suppressed. The Burning of York was, we’re told, “a milestone in the growing history of brutality.” American soldiers, we’re reminded, massacred and mutilated their Indian counterparts, who of course returned the favor, but had “perfectly logical reasons” for doing so. The film also joyfully points out that the British, who would not abolish slavery in all outposts of their empire until 1837, happily let freed slaves serve on their side to show that America, with its professed dedication to freedom, was “really a hypocrite.”

After two hours of this, one gets the distinct impression that the producers themselves, like the nefarious historical forces they seek to expose, have an agenda. The nadir comes toward the film’s conclusion, when Andrew Jackson mercifully rolls into New Orleans to end the war—well, not exactly, as the film chastens us to remember. The Treaty of Ghent, signed before that battle, actually concluded the hostilities (but Jackson, his men, and their British adversaries didn’t know it yet). In any case, our misunderstanding of the conflict apparently owes much to Johnny Horton’s “The Battle of New Orleans,” which topped the pop charts in 1959. And what crime did the Honky Tonk Man commit? His song, actually composed by Jimmy Driftwood, claimed the Brits ran through the briers and the brambles. They did not! The film hurls more allegations of inaccuracy at Horton, but the other lyrics in question don’t actually appear in his recording, and may be the result of the film’s scribes confusing “The Battle of New Orleans” with “The Hunters of Kentucky,” a popular song about the same subject from the 1820s.

The larger point, which the attempt to scandalize Horton’s song so nicely summarizes, is that the film’s professed mission of exposing inconvenient truths is tripped up by a condescending approach and never accomplished. The film offers little that would substantially change our views about this war or cause us to see the events of the next two centuries in a different light. The war did indeed help shape the destinies of all the nations involved, and Mantegna and the film’s chorus of commentators rightly remind us how little we know about the conflict. Unlike our Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, or Vietnam, the War of 1812 currently holds no immediately identifiable cultural significance to most Americans. But even fighting the British to a stalemate gave America—a young, insecure country—a powerful shot of national self-identity and purpose. That is the war’s legacy and the cumulative outcome of the events the film alleges we misunderstand. No amount of revisionism should obscure that.

Unfortunately, if The War of 1812 is any indication of how the upcoming bicentennial will go, we’re in store for a tedious and unenlightening commemoration.

Ryan L. Cole writes on politics and culture from Indianapolis.

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