The History channel continues to hammer away at historical programming for people it evidently doesn’t think have the patience to watch actual documentaries on the subject. Enter “The World Wars,” a three-part, six-hour undertaking that proves fitfully interesting despite its offputting narrative approach. Focusing on a 30-year period, the project tracks world leaders from their formative experiences during World War I to the pivotal roles they played in prosecuting World War II, using actors, reenactments and interviews — some of which can only be called high-profile pandering — to illustrate events. If Dr. Frankenstein stitched together a docudrama, it would look something like this.
Producer Stephen David employed a similar hybrid format on “The Men Who Built America,” although World War II feels different. This is a period with so much real documentary evidence and so many dramatic adaptations that the tweener treatment seems particularly awkward and unnecessary.
In essence, “World Wars” uses two actors (younger and older) to play Hitler, Mussolini, FDR, Patton, Churchill, MacArthur and so on, chronicling how the brutality of World War I — and the distasteful terms of the Treaty of Versailles that brought it to an end — bled into World War II. Jeremy Renner’s narration is augmented not only by genuine historians but by political luminaries (many with military backgrounds) such as Sen. John McCain, Gen. Colin Powell and British Prime Minister John Major.
Obviously, the goal is to make history come alive, but many of the re-creations play like something out of a Sergio Leone Western. What nearly salvages the project are the stray tidbits sprinkled throughout, from Hitler’s near-death experiences during World War I (and the inevitable “What if?” questions those invite) to Gen. Patton’s use of cars to assault Pancho Villa’s forces in Mexico before the U.S. entered World War I.
History, of course, has strayed pretty far from the confines of its old brand, and come away with ostentatious successes to show for it. Still, the stretch encompassed by “The World Wars” would be more compelling if presented as either fish or fowl — a big scripted miniseries on the order of “Hatfields & McCoys,” or a true documentary. (Ken Burns, after all, managed to wring 15 remarkable hours out of World War II alone for PBS, and it’s not like that lacked commercial appeal.)
As is, “The World Wars” might do reasonably well, positioned as it is in a spot where “Hatfields” shot up the Nielsen charts two years ago. Creatively speaking, however, even if History wins with “Wars,” it’s already lost the battle.