The guns of November roar Sunday.
"The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century" is as elegant and intoxicating as any documentary to appear on television, and also as ghastly--eight hours of emotional thunderbolts powerful enough to convert possibly the most gung-ho hawk to pacifism.
Granted four consecutive evenings on PBS, this memorial to World War I--and its 9 million dead and millions more physically and emotionally wounded--may wring you like a rag.
Distinguishing "The Great War" are not only its aching sadness, haunting apparitions, stunning looks and spectacular storytelling, but also the transcendence it gives the 1914-18 conflict by explaining its origins and lasting effects.
So lasting, in fact, that deep footprints from "The Great War" can be traced across the century, closing gaps separating generations. As it notes, the harsh peace imposed on defeated Germany by the allies after World War I is what nourished the chaos and widespread discontent that Adolf Hitler exploited in his rise to power. The last days of World War I, notes this documentary, were "the first days of Adolf Hitler's crusade."
It was World War I, also, that saw the century's first recorded genocide, a slaughter of up to a million Armenians by Turks who marched entire families to doom like Jews to gassings, one set of murderers possibly influencing another. "Who remembers the Armenian massacre today?" Hitler is reported to have commented to his inner circle prior to implementing his own "final solution."
It was World War I, too, that toppled Russia's rotted Tsarist monarchy, creating a vacuum ultimately filled by a Soviet regime that would help define global politics through most of the century.
Just as ethnic violence has bloodied the Balkans in the 1990s, so was it Sarajevo, then the center of the region's Slavic resistance to Austrian dominance, where in 1914 the match was struck that lit the bonfire that charred much of Europe eight decades ago. The catalyst was the murder of visiting Austrian heir Archduke Ferdinand and his wife, shots that mobilized opposing cliques of European powers tightly knotted by alliances.
"In a flash, the whole continent was going to be at war," observes Salome Jens, whose ritzy narration superbly complements "The Great War," a KCET-BBC co-production whose executive producer is Blaine Baggett, whose chief consultant is Cambridge historian Jay Winter and whose primary producer is Carl Byker.
This was a war that permeated all strands of society, a fact depicted here through photos, amazing vintage footage, creative new visuals that have cinematic flair, commentary by Winter and other scholars, and memoirs, letters and diaries beautifully voiced by dozens of prominent actors. Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson and Natasha Richardson are just a few of the readers.
It was also a war that straddled eras, with one foot in the 20th century and a couple of toes in the 19th--witness the anomaly of the archaic cavalry uniforms worn by Germany's Kaiser Wilhelm and his generals while riding in automobiles.
You very much have here the sense of regimes acting out of antique honor against their own national interests. And of stout, gaudily medaled, incompetent, strutting old fools with thick white mustaches making awful decisions that sacrifice wave after wave of young men whose idealism would swiftly vanish under "the ghastly glimmering of the guns" described by British soldier-poet Wilfred Owen.
'The Great War" delivers titanic clashes--Germans throwing their Big Bertha super guns, for example, against overmatched Belgium's reputedly impregnable fort at Liege. And suicidal charges against the machine gun, with an Irish gunner recalling his "great sense of power and pleasure" in mowing down advancing Germans.
The body counts throughout are horrifying, one battle killing 40,000 French troops in four days. A massive but under-equipped and ineptly led Russian army is annihilated at Tannenberg in East Prussia. And German casualties are staggering, 400,000 French go down and a small British army is nearly erased in a five-month stretch of trench warfare that ends in stalemate.
There was the occasional lapse in savagery. A "last twitch of the 19th century" is one historian's label for the "sounds of singing [that] drifted across no-man's land" during an unofficial Christmas truce that found German and British troops filling the night with carols from their opposing trenches. In a few instances, tiny groups of enemies used this mini-armistice to meet and chat. "He seemed a very decent fellow," a British officer wrote about a German counterpart. Afterward, the war was on again.