Friday, January 8, 2016

A review of “The War of 1812” (PBS program)



This war would be unthinkable today ...

It's hard to imagine today that there could have been a war between America, Britain, and Canada - and in those rare times when we do imagine such a war, the war that Americans usually think of is the American War of Independence (or the "American Revolution," as we in America usually call it). Most Americans have some vague recollection from their middle school history class that there was a war in 1812, but they couldn't give you much information at all about where it was fought, or who it was fought against. Even the "when" of the war is somewhat unknown, since the term "War of 1812" is actually something of a misnomer - "The War That Began in 1812" would be a more accurate term, since the war actually lasted until the year 1815 - something that is not communicated by the phrase "War of 1812," which makes it sound like it lasted only a single year (when in fact, it lasted for nearly three).


The death of British General Sir Isaac Brock at the Battle of Queenston Heights - Canada, 1812



How the war is perceived today in America and Britain

Most Americans barely know it existed, and the few that do usually just think of it as "the war between the Revolution and the Civil War" - which is technically not true, since there was one other war (a war with Mexico) that was in this time frame; but the War of 1812 is still nonetheless in this period. For the British, 1812 is the year that Napoleon invaded Moscow, and the war in North America was something of a sideshow to the war with Napoleon in Europe (which was far more important to them). The war could even be regarded as the Napoleonic Wars spilling over into North America across the Atlantic Ocean, with the war's relation to European affairs being much greater than is apparent to many Americans.


Chesapeake-Leopard affair, 1807 - a confrontation on the high seas that helped to bring on the war

How the war is perceived today in Canada

Of the combatant nations involved here, the one that remembers this war best is Canada; since the Canadians regard this war in much the same way that we regard our Revolution - as a war that helped to establish them as an independent nation. (Canada's first steps towards becoming an independent nation were actually much later than that, with the events of their Confederation being in 1867; but the war where they felt most threatened by their southern neighbor was the War of 1812; and they regard the war's outcome as a "day of deliverance" of sorts, where they escaped the hand of the hated Americans.) No less stalwart a Canadian source than "Canada: A People's History" noted that the Americans went to war over British actions on the high seas, with their drafting American sailors into the Royal Navy under the policy called "impressment" - a violation of American sovereignty, and an act of war. Given that these provocations were more the acts of London than of any city in British Canada, it's easy for Canadians to regard the war as something that was unprovoked (from their point of view), and I'm sure many would have wished that our retaliation be more directly focused against the British, instead of against its nearby Canadian colonies. This is something that was not realistically possible for the Americans, since the British Isles were all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, and we had our hands full just trying to invade their colonies in nearby Canada (then a province of the British Empire). Nonetheless, I'm sure the Americans, too, would have preferred that their retaliation be focused against London, and longed for a geographic situation that would have made such a strike possible.


Tecumseh, a famous combatant in this war (as he is believed to have looked)

This documentary interviews historians from all three countries, plus the Indian tribes

But lest this PBS documentary be accused of American bias (a natural assumption, given that it comes from an American network), one might note here that they interview many British and Canadian historians as well as American ones; and even interview descendants of the Indian tribes involved in this war - since this war was as much an Indian war as it was a "white man's war," and often had cataclysmic effects for the Native Americans involved in them. All sides are put on the record, which gives this documentary a two-sided nature that is usually helpful in depicting a war, and helps to understand the motivations of those involved better.


My biggest complaint about this documentary is that it's too short

So with some historical background established, I will now venture some comments about this documentary, and its depiction of this interesting period. The documentary is only two hours long, which is not much for a three-year war - particularly given that PBS devoted much more time to a number of other American wars - four hours on the French and Indian War, four hours on the war with Mexico, six hours on the American Revolution, and 11 on the Civil War - not to mention 15 hours on World War II in the Ken Burns documentary on this subject. Next to all these towering documentaries, the mere two hours given here has often seemed somewhat short; although it's certainly better than nothing, and it's more than the History Channel devoted to this subject - since the DVD set billing itself as "The History Channel Presents the War of 1812" is actually more a collection of separate episodes from separate series, only one of which attempts anything like an overview of the entire War of 1812. (The other episodes focus on things like "The Star-Spangled Banner" - which was inspired by a battle in this war, but it is not the most militarily important thing about it, to say the least.) Although the combined length of the History Channel programs is greater than two hours, their attempt to give an overview of the war is only a single hour; and the PBS documentary is still the best at giving an in-depth summary of the war.


Actual photograph of General Andrew Jackson from later in life (after photography had been invented)

The film's limited budget doesn't allow for the greatest visuals ...

The style they use is mostly a Ken Burns style, although one whose effect is limited by the absence of any photographs from this time. (A few of the soldiers - like General Andrew Jackson - later survived into the photography age, but there are no photographs that were taken during the war, since the technology had not been invented yet.) They use some animations that are loosely based on eyewitness drawings from this time - which is not my favorite way to depict these times; but given that they're among the few who've attempted to do so, I won't venture too many critical remarks in this regard, since that might discourage them from making something else about this topic. They do use some re-enactments (although sparingly), which are sufficiently well-done to give you a feel for the visual aspects of the time. The problem is that the low budget for this series definitely limits what they can do in this regard, and they're not as good as the re-enactments for PBS's French and Indian War documentary - which are almost on a par with Hollywood movies. (They're good enough to get the job done, though, so I won't complain too much.)


Burning of Washington DC by the British, 1814 (the most militarily significant event of this war)

What each combatant nation remembers most about this war

Of special note to Americans is the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner," which was originally entitled "The Defense of Fort McHenry" (inspired by this now-famous portion of the Battle of Baltimore), and the capture of Washington by the British (which is the only time since the American Revolution that our capital city was taken by a foreign power). Of special note to Canadians are battles like Queenston Heights and Crysler's Farm, which are still a part of the Canadian lore to this day. And of special note to Native Americans is the famous warrior Tecumseh, who fought in the War of 1812 on the Canadian side - ironic, since he is now lionized by many Americans, who would never think to connect him with a former wartime enemy. There's something for all of the participants in this documentary, and we could probably argue for years to come about which side the film's bias is to be found on - something which may well attest to how neutral the documentary has managed to be.


Conclusion: This is still the best documentary ever made about this war

Most of the flaws in this program would probably stem from the low budget that they have to work with, since this is probably the reason that they only made their film two hours long to begin with. Nonetheless, it is probably the best documentary that has ever been made about this war, and it may yet remain so for years to come. It's not the definitive program on this war, but it's the closest that yet exists for it; and if you want to learn about the War of 1812, you could do far worse than to watch this program. It is highly recommended for people interested in this subject (or the Napoleonic Wars in general), and you could learn a lot from this about the history of North America, and perhaps even the world at large.

DVD at Amazon

If you liked this post, you might also like:

Napoleon miniseries

Dolley Madison movie

Andrew Jackson movie

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



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