November/December 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 6
A spectacular and painstaking PBS series brings the war to the screen
It’s a good thing for Ben Loeterman and Eric Stange that they didn’t have a passionate interest in the Thirty Years’ War. Loeterman and Stange are the co-writers and two of the six producers for the forthcoming PBS broadcast The War That Made America , and it took them as long to make it as it took the French, British, colonists, and Indians to fight the real thing. “From pre-production to final cut,” says Loeterman, “the planning was as elaborate as that of an actual military campaign. There were times when I felt we were fighting a war.”
If so, the first enemy the filmmakers faced was ignorance. It’s doubtful that many educated Americans could guess what war the production depicts on the basis of the title. “The French and Indian War,” says the historian Fred Anderson, whose short history of the conflict, also titled The War That Made America , has just been published by Viking Books, “is the least known and least understood war in our country’s history. North Americans don’t even agree on the correct title for it; most Canadian historians call it the War of Conquest. Even those who know something about it usually know it through James Fenimore Cooper’s The Last of the Mohicans or the 1992 movie with Daniel Day-Lewis. In that movie you don’t know who’s fighting who or why. All you know is that the French wear blue, the English wear red, and the Indians wear paint.”
The four-hour production, one of the most elaborate dramatized documentaries of this type ever made, serves as a primer for history-minded viewers, one that will place the war in its proper international context. “The Seven Years’ War was part of the first genuine world war,” explains Anderson. “At the time, the struggle between the French and the British in North America seemed like a sideshow in a war that stretched from Europe to India.” No one could know at the time that the “sideshow” would decide the fate of the North American continent and its Indian natives, who collectively constituted the third major player in the struggle.
Anderson says, “A painstaking effort has been made to show the war from the point of view of the natives, who were often forced to play both ends against the middle, knowing in their hearts that ultimately they would probably lose no matter who won.” Numerous Iroquois and Canadian Mohawks were cast, contributing their own ideas on the characterization of their ancestors. In fact, the film was narrated by the Canadian Mohawk actor Graham Greene, best known for his performance in Dances With Wolves .
The Indians weren’t the only ones caught up in circumstances they couldn’t control. Colonials such as George Washington, an ambitious but insecure twenty-one-year-old army courier, were also caught in the clash of empires. Played by Larry Nehring, a classically trained actor and the artistic director for the Cleveland Shakespeare Festival, Washington was frustrated by his inability to rise to a position of prominence in the British army. He was a key figure in the war’s first skirmish in 1754 and led the retreat in the Battle of Monongahela in 1755, in which his commander, the British general Edward Braddock, was killed. It’s possible that had Washington been promoted to the level he believed his talents merited he might have viewed the later conflict between the colonies and the mother country much differently.
Unlike many historically based feature films (such as the first two versions of The Last of the Mohicans , 1932 and 1936 , which were shot in California, and the 1992 version, which was shot in the Mid-Atlantic states), The War That Made America was almost entirely shot on the location of the actual events, in Pennsylvania and upstate New York all the way to the Canadian border. At least one American and one Canadian historian were on set at all times; there was even a military choreographer to supervise the marching and battle scenes. The film’s dialogue and voice-over narration were derived from existing documents, letters, and journals, with the actors sometimes speaking their thoughts directly into the camera, a device that personalizes the characters in a manner uncommon to most documentaries.
The War That Made America is the result of the joint efforts of WQED Multimedia Pittsburgh and the French and Indian War 250 Inc., a partnership of the region’s historic sites, foundations, and educational institutions. This unusual combination of historians, American Indian groups, and historical associations resulted in a film whose size and scope probably would have caused every major Hollywood studio to balk.
Another reason Hollywood would have refrained from making a film on the French and Indian War is the average American’s lack of knowledge about the struggle that set America on the course for manifest destiny. Anderson sees that as a potential plus: “I don’t think many viewers will approach the program with preconceived notions. I think they’ll be fascinated to discover the rich background to a war that has all too often been relegated to a paragraph in most textbooks.”
The War That Made America will air on PBS stations on January 18 and 25 from 9:00 to 11:00 p.m. (check local listings).