Wednesday, May 28, 2014

A review of "The War That Made America: The Story of the French and Indian War"

So I just finished watching a four-hour documentary called "The War That Made America." The title makes you think that it will talk about the American Revolution, a perception that is reinforced by the documentary's beginning the story in 1776. They show George Washington and his troops hearing the brand-new Declaration of Independence in the contested area of Long Island. But the documentary soon flashes back to an earlier part of Washington's life, which is when he was present at the so-called Jumonville incident, the event that began the French and Indian War, twenty years before.

Young George Washington

After depicting this controversial incident, they introduce the topic of their series - not the Revolution, as the title and beginning scene would imply; but the French and Indian War, which began with this incident - a war that ended some ten years before the Revolutionary War began. I was not surprised by this, as I knew the documentary's topic going into it - indeed, this topic was why I sought it out to begin with. But I imagine this might come as a surprise to someone else watching this, who goes into the documentary without knowing its subject. I disagree with the filmmakers about this being the war that made America; because many wars helped make America, none moreso than the Revolution - the one that everyone thinks it is. Nonetheless, despite the inaccuracy of the title, this is a fascinating and generally accurate documentary about the French and Indian War (called the Seven Years' War in Europe and Canada), and is much recommended to those interested in the subject.

Some pros and cons about this documentary: On the con side, it has no interviews with historians, except in special features - something which would have lent some expert opinion to the story. PBS's documentary about the War of 1812, by contrast, interviewed historians on all sides concerned; from the large participants of America, Canada, and Britain to the comparatively small numbers of Native American participants (or rather, their descendants). This one doesn't interview any historians from either side (although I'm sure they consulted with historians extensively), but lacking these interviews is not a fatal weakness; as their masterful storytelling does give coverage to all sides concerned, and their re-enactments are of extremely high quality. It's clear when watching this that they had a pretty good budget for a documentary, and were able to do the re-enactments right; although some cautions are in order about the intensity of the violence, and the film's appropriateness for younger children.

Jumonville Glen, where the war's first shots were fired

The most important strength is the amount of time it spends on the war - some four hours, which is double the amount they spent on the War of 1812. Not as long as their documentaries about the Revolution, the Civil War, or World War II; but the French and Indian War is a comparatively obscure topic, so we history buffs are quite lucky to get four hours. If you really want depth, you're probably better off with a book; but if you're satisfied with a general overview as I am, then you're unlikely to get a better one than this one. This one has the visuals needed to do history onscreen; and political correctness notwithstanding, who better than PBS to do it right.

So if you're an American history buff, this may be a good documentary for you. The rugged frontier of colonial America makes for some exciting adventure stories, and there are few adventures more compelling than the drama of frontier warfare.

DVD at Amazon

Timeline of United States military history:

French and Indian War 1754-1763
American Revolutionary War 1775-1783
War of 1812 (technically 1812-1815)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848
American Civil War 1861-1865
Reconstruction 1865-1877
Spanish-American War 1898
World War One 1917-1918
World War Two 1941-1945
Korean War 1950-1953
Other wars to be covered later

Next USA war: American Revolution →

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