We've forgotten how impossible and nearly suicidal the American Colonial revolt against the British crown really was, and television does almost nothing to revive the memory. Movies, plays, even novels have left the War for Independence behind like some ancient skirmish.
The real war was as chock-full of irony, drama, surprise and plot-twists as the Civil War, and as television's first serious attempt to tell the story, the six-part "The Revolutionary War," on the Learning Channel, is solid narrative TV history. If your measuring stick for history-on-the-tube is the work of Ken and Ric Burns, producer-director-co-writer Carol Fleisher's film is pristine but pallid, not quite the visual time machine needed to send you into the period from the mid-1760s to 1781.
If you want a clear, unpretentious, beat-by-beat layout of the war, Fleisher's film is hard to improve upon. With co-writer Paula Deats, she has concentrated the action of the war down to a series of key battles and a cast of colorful personalities. Plot and character drive this "Revolutionary War," all of it graced and fired by Charles Kuralt's rocking-chair-style narration.
The plot begins with a series of irritating taxes imposed on the Colonies by Britain's King George III, desperate to fund the defense of his empire. All taxes but the tea tax are removed, but even that is too much for the feisty New Englanders, who really pick the fight that leads to all-out war.
The untrained American rebels should have been wiped out in weeks by the world's best army, but luck, passion and commander George Washington (who had only led two previous battles) ruined British plans.
It's amazing how many battles--Monmouth, Camden, Kings Mountain, Brandywine--have been erased from the popular memory, for they were as important or more important than the legendary crossing of the Delaware or the battles of Lexington and Bunker Hill. The series' guest historians, such as John Anthony Scott and Robert Wright, take these conflicts off the dry maps of history books and give them the dramatic thrust of a breaking news story.
Nothing propels this drama, though, like the war's characters. Thomas Paine was just off the boat from England when he wrote the revolutionary call, "Common Sense." Washington is described here as lobbying the Continental Congress for the commander's post by showing up in full uniform.
But, amid fascinating side-stories about women working in the soldier camps and black and white rebels fighting side by side, no character stands out more than Benedict Arnold. Arnold's decline from gutsy war hero into profiteering and his vengeful decision to become a British general becomes a bizarre morality play.
Be warned: "The Revolutionary War" is full of battle re-creation scenes, some better staged than others. It pushes the limits of suspension of disbelief, but better this than six hours of talking heads and tracking across 18th-Century paintings.
\o7 * "The Revolutionary War" airs 5-7 p.m. Sunday through Tuesday on the Learning Channel.