Professional historians are primed for revisionary narratives, for putting all the latest methodologies to work telling new stories about the forgotten events of the past. The arbitrary arrival of a bicentenary is enough to spur such scholarly reassessments, as shown by the steady flow of recent and forthcoming publications about the War of 1812, some written by contributors to this forum. PBS's absorbing new documentary about the war suggests that it's more challenging to convince a general audience of this war's importance. A general audience needs a hook. Some wars come ready built, like the Revolution, the Civil War, and World War II: these are household wars. Surely for PBS's target publics—history buffs, primary and secondary school educators, "viewers like you"—the importance of the War of 1812 is far from self-evident. How to sustain interest? Play "The Star-Spangled Banner" for two hours? Have an actress dressed as Dolley Madison run out of a burning White House with that famous portrait of George Washington?
This documentary takes a gamble by making the war primarily about mistakes and myths, and about the historical distortions nations endorse in an effort to create a usable past. It is a welcome gamble and the film succeeds admirably. A close look at The War of 1812 suggests that it makes available for a general audience the kind of self-consciousness and international perspective that professional historians routinely claim. The documentary is an exciting affair set to an affecting musical score, told through dramatic reenactments, and filled with realistic battle scenes and lots of musket fire. But most of the film focuses on the travesties of the war, its dramatic failures, its meaningless violence, and its negative outcomes, especially for Native Americans. No nation wins this war; ideology does. The film provides detailed accounts of military campaigns and naval battles, the biographies and blunders of American and British officers, and fascinating excerpts from the journals of two ordinary soldiers, Shadrach Byfield on the British side and William Atherton on the American. The close attention to military history is a requirement for this genre, and the experiences of Byfield and Atherton, whose stories intertwine remarkably, are riveting. But the film ultimately argues that the real story of the War of 1812 is not about war, as the narrator concludes:
In the end, what lived on was a story about history—how its glories are enshrined in the heart of a nation, how its failures are forgotten, how its inconvenient truths are twisted to suit or ignored forever.
The film's producers are banking on the public's dim knowledge of the war in order to make a point about historiography. Indeed, most viewers will bring few passionate emotions or prior judgments to the screen. This enables the process of history-telling to come to the foreground as a phenomenon in itself. As the narrator elsewhere puts it, the war and its legacy stage "the triumph of myth over reality."...