Sunday, June 01, 2014

Bad History on Bad Television (A Rant)

By now, I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the History Channel, glorious franchise of alien and templar fiction, junk collectors, and CGI Romans. But when I saw they were airing something called The World Wars, talking about the world wars, as one long war - well, what could I do? When I turned it on, they were talking about Churchill, who seemed about to invade Turkey - it looked worth a shot. Though not at the moment - I think the Red Sox were in the process of winning a game at the time, a great novelty, so I flipped away - but not before recording the thing to watch later. By the time I came back, though, I had come across a reference to it in the world, from no less that Charles Pierce - his remarks were acerbic and on point - but not enough to dissuade me from watching. Just enough to make me watch it to find out what it got wrong as much as any inherent interest. And when I started watching it - well - it didnt take long to turn into straight up hate-watching: ladies and gentlemen, this is just about as bad a history documentary as you are likely to see. Outside of vanity projects (check out Nietzsche and the Nazis sometime - if you want to know less about the rise of Nazism than you do now) or overt propaganda, this is about as bad as it gets. ("Better than The Eternal Jew!" - now there's a tag line to be proud of.)

The World Wars is comprehensively bad. Aesthetically, it is a mess. It's done as voiceover over mainly re-enactments, with some archival footage for variety, and the occasional talking head. The re-enacments are very lame: actors playing famous people strike characteristic poses (Churchill sips scotch and smokes cigars! Hitler stares maniacally at the camera! Patton rides on the back of a tank! Neville Chamberlain twitches! Tojo smokes a cigarette over a map!), and sometimes make speeches or have symbolic conversations; battlefield recreations; part 2 offers lots of aerial shots of planes and stuff on the ground. This stuff is bad, but I suppose I can't single it out - it's what passes for historical documentaries on much of TV these days, not just the History Channel. Still - this is 20th century history, and using cheesy recreations in place of the infinite supply of archival material seems odd; and when they cut to actual footage of the wars, it is very jarring - how much better looking the real stuff is, how much more dynamic, detailed, rich it is. It's not as if they use archival material all that well - but when they do, the film looks a lot less stupid. Because the recreations sure look stupid. I know this sort of thing is probably only interesting to military history nerds, but still - couldn't they have found someone to coach the actors in how to pretend to shoot a rifle? Poor old Churchill is shown in a trench banging away at the Hun, but when he shoots the thing, he's holding the rifle 3 or 4 inches away from his shoulder! what the hell? The nerd in me kept getting smacked in the nose by things like that - the cleanest WWI sets ever; Mussolini shooting the three stupidest soldiers in human history; some kind of post-war tank used to represent the Germans' invasion of France; German soldiers with panzerfausts in France, 1940; Japanese naval casualties at Midway called "soldiers;" British soldiers (helmets, anyway) in the Battle of the Bulge; even the archival footage had what looked like a B-17 bombing London in the blitz. I'm usually relatively forgiving of this kind of thing when it turns up in a historical movie - but in a documentary, when you have the option of showing actual footage - your recreations had better get it right. And top all of this off with the endless repetition of the thing - it's 6 hours long, but there feels like about an hour's worth of material - shots, sequences, narration, are repeated over and over again - they must assume no one is actually going to watch this thing from beginning to end, and design it so you can start anywhere. Felt that way, anyway...

Okay... for all that, it might be all right if the rest of it worked. But alas. Start with the organizing principal of the show - it is all organized around a handful of Great Men. Now - Great Man history itself is a tired old thing - but it works well enough for introductory history. I don't stray too far away in my Civil War posts, after all - it's an easy way to organize material. And might have worked here, if they had done it better. But they managed to make a mess of this too. First, it's really Great Men of WWII, right from the start - they ignore the Great Men of WWI in favor of the likes of Hitler and Patton and Mussolini. That might have worked if they focused on how the Great War shaped these men - they do that with Hitler (who's the star of the piece after all), since they can't really pretend a German corporal altered the course of history. But McArthur and Patton, especially, are pumped up well beyond their actual contributions. All while leaving everyone else out - all the people who did matter int he first world war - Pershing and Ludendorf and Douglas Haig are nowhere to be seen. This is the core of why this is so bad: they have chosen a number of men to follow, but then, instead of following them, while keeping an eye on the context, they have treated the men they are following as if they are the only ones who matter. And even more - they don't even bother to name anyone else. It's rather shocking to get through a show about WWI without hearing the names Franz Ferdinand or Kaiser Wilhelm or Gavrilo Principe or Tsar Nicholas II or David Lloyd George or Pershing or Haig or Ferdinand Foch, or, indeed, anyone French. In WWII, at least the people they name are important - but it is something, and not something good, to never hear the names Eisenhower, Montgomery, Nimitz, Hirohito, or any Frenchmen, or even any of the other famous Nazis! Hitler has Germany to himself, not having to share with the usual suspects, Goering and Goebbels and Himmler and Hess. Between these two bad habits - treating their named characters as if they were the only people who mattered, and ignoring everyone else - it becomes a very bad bit of history. But they are quite consistent about it - they treat McArthur and Patton as if their efforts broke the stalemate in France in 1918; they treat them as if they were the only Americans to matter in WWII; they treat all the relationships and decisions in the war (on all sides) as if they involved only their dozen or so named people. So Roosevelt decides whether to discipline Patton for slapping a soldier, not Ike; Roosevelt brings Patton back to active duty for the Battle of the Bulge (definitely more on that later), not Ike; Hitler invades France because Churchill becomes prime minister - etc.

The worst of it is probably in Russia. The revolution is all Lenin and Stalin (and the Germans, who apparently planned and funded the whole thing). They even stage it like that - Lenin comes back to Russia, gets off a train, and meets Stalin in a vast empty train station. Gone the masses, gone the Revolution itself, just Lenin and Stalin, giving Stalin far more of a role than he had in fact. It's a perfectly Stalinist move - dropping everyone except the Great Leaders. The show tops it in part two though - there, they surpass Stalin himself, and erase Lenin from history... But we're getting to that.

All of this is small potatoes next to what they do to history itself. They don't do much of anything right, historically. They can't even tell a story - it's very hard to piece together a good chronology out of it all. They hop around in time (all through the show), never quite stitching anything together. It's even harder to put together a narrative (to work out the causes and effects.) And if you know the history - oh: it gets painful. They sometimes stab at explaining events - but they make such a hash of the chronology, the narrative makes no sense. They tell things out of order, they conflate historical events (as if they are adapting someone's biography, and conflating characters for efficiency sake - I suppose that might explain Ike's disappearance, for instance.) This is carelessness - but it verges on outright deception - and a few times, goes well beyond that. Saying Patton conquered Italy in 6 weeks - or that he was held out of combat from August 1943 until the Battle of the Bulge - those aren't just errors. Those are flat lies.

I was thinking about that: if this were a paper, a student project, turned in to a class - you would have to give it a straight F, for the history alone. They get some things so shockingly wrong it's almost impossible to explain. The claims about Patton and Italy - it might just be an editing error - he was instrumental in conquering Sicily in 6 weeks, sure - not Italy. Maybe they meant that - but think what it means that a mistake like that would get into the final script of a show like this. If it's an accident - how does that happen? It's too big an accident - it's a lie.

It's not the only one. The moment that knocked me over when I started watching it came in the first episode - after building up to Gallipoli and its aftermath, they turned to Russia - and Lenin, Germany's secret weapon. Now - that's a bit of a stretch, though the Germans certainly hoped he'd do what he did. But the kick comes in what the show claims he went to Russia to do - it says, he went to overthrow the Tsar. And later - they say he did overthrow the Tsar. But Lenin didn't overthrow the Tsar - the Tsar was out before Lenin started back; the Revolution was well under way. And he didn't overthrow the Tsar in October 1917 - he overthrew Karensky's provisional government. How do you get a thing like that wrong? you can look it up on Wikipedia, and get it right. Why would they put that in the show? I might understand if this were part of their Great Man of History approach -but they don't bother to name Nicholas II; he's not part of the story. So... why not get it right? Of course, they make it worse in part two - there, Stalin seizes control of Russia and establishes Communism - Lenin has been written out of the story; written out after he was the star of part 1!

That's one, and not the last. Let's see - according to this show, the Night of the Long Knives is when Hitler wiped out his political enemies and seized total control of the state. They've basically conflated the knight of the long knives with the Reichstag fire. Or - they reverse the order of the Battle of Britain and the Blitz - putting the Blitz first. I don't know why, though I suppose the gist of the reason is to make Hitler look worse than he really was (kind of pointless really). This kind of thing is endemic - they can't get the chronology straight in the best of times - it's almost hopeless trying to list all the places they screw things up. Hitler's rise to power; the events after the Munich accords that led to the war; US/Japanese relations in the Pacific - all are incoherent. They almost get WWII right - though they skip long stretches of it (nothing seems to have happened in the Pacific from Midway to the invasion of the Philippines; Russians jump straight from Stalingrad to Berlin; etc.) They mess up a couple pieces pretty badly, though - they have us invading Italy, then Mussolini is overthrown - and that is the end of the fight in Italy. Which would come as news to my uncle who got shot in the Liri Valley 70 years ago last month. They credit this victory to Patton - who was gone before the Invasion of the Italian Peninsular took place. And add that he then was out of combat until the Battle of the Bulge, where he was called on (by Roosevelt, of course) to save the Allies from defeat - almost every word of which is nonsense. Patton led the Third Army through France. Ike called on Montgomery to save the day after the Battle of the Bulge - and Patton to take charge of the southern half of the battlefield. And - etc. What can I say?

It's not just the facts they get wrong - they get larger issues wrong too. Like completely ignoring the importance Hitler always put on attacking the USSR - making it seem like his invasion of the USSR was a terrible and inexplicable betrayal of his great friend Stalin. Or screwing up all the reasons the western powers fought in 1939; or the progress of trouble in the Pacific; or the reasons for the battle of Stalingrad; and on and on. And if we go into the sins of omission - this post will go on forever. (It's getting there already.) But - all the details from the wars are gone. The Pacific campaign in WWII is gone. (Guadalcanal and Tarawa and Iwo Jima and Okinawa, all gone.) The North African campaign is gone. Most of the Italian campaign is gone. Everything after Stalingrad and between D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge are all gone. Other than Pearl Harbor and Midway, and the Lusitania, back in WWI, the naval wars are gone. The air wars are gone, other than the Blitz, the Battle of Britain (in the wrong order) and the 2 a-bombs. France is gone, from both wars - no Frenchmen are named in either war (though apparently DeGaulle gets a moment in the international edition of the stupid thing.) Someone does mention that 100,000 of them died in the 6 weeks of 1940, which might be the only mention of anyone's casualties, other than the 100 million total...

And non-military? Let's go back to the end of WWI - they use archives and show a bunch of newspaper headlines about the Armistice. One of the newspapers has a story about a camp set up to house flu victims - the only mention of the epidemic of 1918, that killed more people than the war. BUt then again - they mention the Final Solution, death camps and so on - but not Kristallnacht, or any of Hitler's racial laws - do they use the word "holocaust"? It's horrible.

And I did say comprehensively bad - I haven't mentioned the commentators yet, have I? They have their usual run of professional historians, biographers of famous men and the like - but they've supplemented the experts with a perfect rogue's gallery of 21st century failures. Maybe the likes of John Major and Leon Panetta are harmless enough - but who in god's green earth thought it would be a good idea to let Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld and Colin Powell out of their cages? Not to mention John McCain and weeping Joe Lieberman, who turns up at the end to talk about the holocaust. Stanley McChrystal, I suppose, might have some qualification for his speaking parts - though it's tempting to think his main qualification is that like Douglas McArthur, he knows what it means to forget that in the USA the military is most definitely subservient to the civilian government. But how can you get around Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell? Unless it's someone's idea of a joke - to bring in lying fools to lend their voices to a show that butchers history. They are what Pierce is exercised about up there - Crooks & Liars too, though they don't seem to notice how bad the history is. (And to show this is not just a partisan rant - here's NewsBusters taking a shot at the thing.) I can't quite say the show is committed to the kind of right-wing politics the commentators would indicate - most of the politics are as incoherent as the rest of it... though the show it pretty explicit in its pro-army bias. (I'd say pro-military, but the navy and air force, most of the time, are completely invisible.) In part 2, they play scene after scene contrasting Hitler's greatest military the world had ever seen, to crazy Brits and Americans building dams and power plants and houses, and keeping Oklahoma from flying into the Atlantic, instead of giving Churchill and McArthur all the tanks they want. And of course bringing on the Bush boys to nod soberly and talk about the importance of a strong military... After 3 or 4 of those scenes the thought must enter someone's head that for all Germany's militarism - who won the war?

Okay: I am done. Almost. There is one more thing I have to say about the commentators - I suspect very strongly that more than one of them - historians as much as politicians, maybe more so - were scripted by the show's writers. Because the commentators repeat the same kinds of things the show does - the same personalization of the war; especially around Patton. Real historians would talk about Eisenhower's appointments of Patton - real historians, if they were talking about D-Day would mention Ike somewhere. Sure, maybe they cut it out - but there are lots of places where they talk about things that clearly involve someone other than FDR and Patton, FDR and Churchill, Hitler and Stalin - and they use the same phrasing the show does, make the same interpretive mistakes the show makes. I don't know why they are doing - but the talking heads are certainly not providing expertise. I may be too harsh in this - more than once, I could tell the except was talking about something completely different than the show made it seem like they were talking about. One guy talks about the Russian Winter - how the German march on Moscow was stopped (in 1941) by the cold, the Siberian reinforcements who came up, and their own lack of preparation - but the show edits this bit into its own discussion of Stalingrad. Another case of conflation. But I don't think there's much doubt - a lot of those historians were just reading lines...

All right - that is all. I could run up another 2500 words I fear, but I won't. Not now anyway. I am almost calm again! it is almost out of my system! though since this thing will be replayed every week for the next 20 years - I am sure it will annoy me again before too long...

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