Bringing welcome flair to history, PBS’ look at the French and Indian War — a conflict initiated in 1754 via an incident involving then-21-year-old officer George Washington — isn’t as riveting as Michael Mann’s version of “Last of the Mohicans,” but it isn’t dry and boring either. Using reenactments as well as actors reading the words of historical figures, this four-hour production will have a long life in public schools, illuminating a significant period about which most Americans are pretty ignorant.
At the core of this presentation on successive Wednesdays, hosted by Graham Greene, is the premise that by winning the war with France for the Ohio territory, the British “unleashed passions that will lead to it losing America.” The narrative also sheds light on the disparate approaches to warfare of the colonial powers, beginning with the Brits, who, as Bill Cosby once joked, have a propensity for marching in a straight line while being shot at from behind rocks and trees.
Washington’s role in the war is particularly intriguing given that his troops faced multiple setbacks that he internalized when afforded the chance to lead the American forces. And as so many dramatic productions have demonstrated, both the British and French took the Native-Americans for granted, with the French at one point hosting a feast for conquered officers while failing to invite their Indian allies, who helped swing the battle.
Broken into four parts, the program opens with a skirmish resulting in the death of a French envoy, escalating the conflict. Indians, meanwhile, are courted by both sides while rightly fearing they will ultimately lose more of their land.
The second night finds the British beginning to recover after a series of defeats, in part because the French government fails to support the Marquis de Montcalm, who had been kicking British ass across North America. The final hour details how colonials, thinking they were full partners with the British, felt betrayed after the war — a lingering resentment that eventually led to the revolution.
Shooting on location in Pennsylvania, writer-producer-directors Eric Stange and Ben Loeterman (who alternated on the chapters) deliver a handsome production that draws dialogue from journals and first-person accounts to breathe life into the history. Along the way, they capture broken promises that plagued Indians long after the Europeans departed, the difficulties that face occupying forces in strange lands and how Washington gradually learned “to be a leader of men.”
The project also notably toes the fine line of employing reenactments without toppling into melodrama. As a general rule, re-creations work best when dealing with pre-cinematic events, though even then such treatments are often heavy-handed and excessive.
Not so with “The War That Made America,” the kind of material that seldom finds a home on commercial TV — a fact that by itself helps justify PBS’ investment in this nifty trek through U.S. pre-history.