Wednesday, May 13, 2009

History on TV

Randall Stephens

Worth noting are a couple of history documentaries and dramatic features that are airing, or will soon air, on TV. Since John Adams premiered last year on HBO the bar has been set quite high. Corny CGI and bad acting no longer suffice. (I've finally ditched showing the rather primitive Mary Silliman's War in an American history course.) The current crop of history-related TV offerings does not disappoint.

Episodes of the PBS American Experience series on Indian history, We Shall Remain, have been beautifully presented and look well suited for the history classroom. PBS describes the series as a "multi-media project that establishes Native history as an essential part of American history. Five 90-minute documentaries spanning three hundred years tell the story of pivotal moments in U.S. history from the Native American perspective." My favorite episode so far has been Wounded Knee. Questions that this installment raises are particularly interesting and don't lend themselves to easy answers. As a bonus, full episodes can be watched here on the PBS site.

Also currently playing on PBS is WWII: Behind Closed Doors, a three-part docudrama directed by Laurence Rees. According to the PBS site, the "award-winning historian and filmmaker Laurence Rees (Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State, Nazis – A Warning from History) uses documents to tell the story of the backroom deals that cost many lives but were seen as necessary evils to keep the Soviet Union in the war." "At six hours, playing out over three nights," comments a reviewer in the LA Times "'Behind Closed Doors' requires a commitment from viewers, but for anyone interested in the complexities of WWII and, indeed, the moral impossibilities of war itself, it is a commitment worth making." Attention to detail will draw in viewers. The actors are spot on. A portly, jut-jawed Paul Humpoletz plays Churchill to great effect.

There's more Churchill over at HBO. Into the Storm will premier on that channel on May 31, 9pm. The production site indicates that the movie will pick up the "story of Churchill told in HBO's award-winning film, The Gathering Storm." Into the Storm "is set against the backdrop of World War II, and offers an intimate look at the making of a nation's hero, whose prowess as a great wartime leader ultimately undermined his political career and threatened his marriage to his lifelong supporter, Clemmie."

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