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On the Front With PBS

'The Great War' takes a more nuanced look at World War I, a story not just of combat and politics but of ordinary people who helped shape our century.

November 10, 1996|Judith Michaelson | Judith Michaelson is a Times staff writer

Little rivers of rain and assorted grit lap up against the entrance to Third Street Sound,the sound-mixing studio in Hollywood where KCET-TV Channel 28's Blaine Baggett is overseeing post-production on his new series, "The Great War." The drenching January morning is about as perfect an accompaniment as Los Angeles can provide to what's happening within.

The nine-minute segment that executive producer Baggett, another producer and a studio technician are laboring over is part of the eight-hour, $5-million series about World War I and its aftermath, which can be seen tonight through Wednesday on PBS. The series is a co-production of KCET and the BBC in association with the Imperial War Museum in London.

The timing is fitting. Monday is Veterans Day--what used to be Armistice Day, commemorating Nov. 11, 1918, when guns ceased firing in the international conflict. Armistice lasted but a generation. World War I, which had begun in 1914, segued into World War II, and the series' theme is contained in the full title--"The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century."

Using a metaphor akin to his last PBS series, "The Astronomers" (1991), Baggett likens the First World War to the "big bang [of] the most violent century in recorded history."

Unlike separate CBS and BBC series in the '60s, which dealt with the military and political history of the conflict, "Great War" has a more layered take. It focuses on social and cultural history and on people--artists and poets, many of them soldiers; women whose faces and hands turned so yellow from working in Britain's munitions factories they were called "canaries"; ordinary folk who would do a fictional miniseries proud. The overarching events are also here--the Armenian genocide by Turks, the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, the Russian Revolution.

In the darkened studio, archival footage of battle and of a tank stuck high in midair moves across a 10-foot-by-12-foot screen, mingled with contemporary shots--puddles of yellow mud, of rain hitting dead leaves--as well as paintings and still-photo close-ups of tense, weary faces.

"This is where it's all coming together," Baggett says. (Then KCET's director of public affairs and feature documentaries, he became vice president for program development, scheduling and acquisition in September.) "We've gone from rough cuts where we had put our own voices in it, and we've started to edit. Instead of my voice, it might be Jeremy Irons. The actual scoring of the music is done here. . . . It's now getting very, very close to precisely what you'll see on the air.

"This is the heart of the series. Episode 4. 'Slaughter.' And this is what the war is about--how people are being basically wasted. . . . We're 46 to 47 minutes into it. We've gone through the two big battles. One by the French at Verdun. One by the British--the Somme. [Generals] think they've gotten it right and know how to fight the battles. Instead of new tactics, they go ahead and use old tactics again in the middle of the rain. And half a million people are casualties as a result. At Passchendaele . . . in Belgium."

As tape of "War's" sobering images continues to unwind, narrator Salome Jens points out that 1917 was "the wettest summer and autumn in years. Airplanes could not fly. Tanks could not move. And soldiers--with their hopes for victory--drowned in mud." Her voice is a somber resonant alto.

Then comes historian Jay Winter, co-writer with Baggett of the series and its companion book. Winter, an American who has spent most of his adult life teaching at Cambridge, stares straight into the camera, his understated tone adding poignancy to the words: "Men caught in the mud could be found a day or two later, lower down and with their minds gone."

Baggett and producer-director Isaac Mizrahi had already decided to have the sound of heavy rain placed over Winter's words. The haunting, melodic strains of composer Mason Daring's music, which arrived earlier in the week, are put in as well.

"Nice," Mizrahi says.

An unseen Irons gives voice to Siegfried Sassoon, who hunted foxes before fighting Germans and becoming one of Britain's best-known poets: "Mud and rain and wretchedness and blood, Why should jolly soldier-boys complain? God made these before the roofless Flood--Mud and rain."

Rupert Graves speaks as Paul Nash, an artist who had been sent to the front, painted war's harsh colors and described what he saw: "The rain drives on, the stinking mud becomes more evilly yellow . . . the black dying trees ooze and sweat and the shells never cease."

"Don't you wish we still wrote like that?" Baggett whispers.

As the episode fades, he decides that the music will end a beat or two ahead of the final cut of a cemetery.

"I know you don't like silence," Baggett tells Mizrahi, who laughingly agrees, "but . . ." So silence it is.

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