An ambitious project with an unwieldy title, this 10-part, five-consecutive-night History Channel series showcases different filmmakers tackling signature events whose ramifications echoed through U.S. history. Sunday’s premiere proves a mixed bag, with the Civil War story “Antietam” employing an intriguing medley of still photos (some created for the production) that achieves an almost animated effect, while the more conventional “Massacre at Mystic” employs re-creations and an overbearingly sappy score. The History Channel has often struggled to make history “fun,” but at least here the net has an overarching topic worthy of discussion and debate.
Both of these opening installments focus on battles that highlight how the country’s origins were steeped in blood.
The more compelling, “Antietam,” involves a grueling 1862 Civil War showdown in which Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee pushed into Maryland, triggering a marathon duel with Union forces. Although President Lincoln was angry that his generals didn’t press their advantage, thus allowing the war to continue, the victory dissuaded European powers from supporting the South and emboldened Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation.
As directed by Michael Epstein, this opening hour flashes photos in what amounts to flipbook fashion, creating a sense of movement and pace while capturing the horror of the battle as much through the sharp observations of its academic witnesses as its arresting visual imagery.
By contrast, “Massacre at Mystic” tells what might be a more significant story considerably less well. Director James Moll chronicles the 1637 massacre by colonists of the Pequot Indian tribe as a period of peaceful trade between the groups “went up in smoke,” quite literally, in genocidal killings to grab Native American land over the next 2½ centuries.
“Mystic” begins well enough but falls apart in its second half, delivering what amounts to an extended infomercial for the survival skills of the Pequot, who have prospered by opening a massive casino on reservation land. It’s a somewhat dubious and distracting coda to the more pertinent issues presented during the first half-hour, at times in grisly detail.
Additional installments over subsequent nights will range from President McKinley’s assassination and the Scopes monkey trial to Elvis Presley’s 1956 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Fortunately, the title provides ample license for historians to weigh in on which dates fulfill the overarching title, the equivalent of sports fans assembling their all-time teams.
At the very least, this undertaking seeks to expand TV’s window into U.S. history without cheapening it — a level of care that History Channel hasn’t always exercised, as it has joined other older-skewing cable nets in the quest to become younger and more hip.
As a bonus, this franchise could obviously be replicated if deemed successful, blossoming into an ongoing series of lesser-known historical moments.
So “10 More Days That Unexpectedly Changed America,” anyone? Seems like a no-brainer given that Americans love a good sequel, and History has a way of repeating itself.