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The country was never the same

In compelling fashion, the History Channel analyzes and brings to life 10 major turning points for the U.S.

April 08, 2006|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

In the newspaper trade there's something called a step-back.

That's when the reporter takes time out from reporting what is new to give thought to what is important -- to provide some context, separate the fleeting from the lasting, maybe find a new or deeper way to look at an old event.

The History Channel, in a five-day series that begins Sunday, has done this, as its publicity material says, by "spotlighting 10 historic events that triggered seismic shifts in America's political, cultural or social landscape." The results are marvelous.

"10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America" uses contemporary artwork and news footage, dramatic re-creations and judicious use of scholarly interviews to explain what happened and what effect it had.

With all due respect to the World War II buffs who live for the stories of Nazi perfidy and Allied bravery that are a staple of History Channel fare, "10 Days" is the channel's finest hour, or 10 hours in this particular case.

If teachers are not assigning their students to watch one or more of the episodes, they are missing a bet. The series blows the cover off all those musty American history lectures: History can be more compelling than the day's breaking news if told well, and the History Channel has done it.

The History Channel is good at war and conflict and maybe for that reason starts "10 Days" with the Civil War battle at Antietam (Sept. 17, 1862) and then the fight between English settlers and the Pequot Indians (May 26, 1637).

In successive days come Einstein's letter to FDR about building the A-bomb and McKinley's assassination; Elvis goes on Ed Sullivan and the California Gold Rush; the Scopes "monkey" trial and the Homestead steel strike; and finally, the civil rights movement's Freedom Summer and the Shays' Rebellion pitting farmers vs. businessmen after the American Revolution.

Be warned: The Shays' Rebellion episode is done in animation, and if your capacity for enjoying that art form is limited, your interest in that episode may be similarly reduced.

There are nuggets a plenty throughout "10 Days" -- what fueled the Gold Rush was that, virtually for the first time in history, a gold discovery was on land open to the public and not controlled by some government or potentate; that far from being "invaded" by mass media, Dayton, Tenn., actually contrived the evolution trial as a tourism promotion.

There are other gems: B.B. King's obvious jealousy at Elvis' overnight fame and Martin Sheen's restrained yet passionate narration of the Homestead episode in which unionized workers fought the steel barons (you can guess where Sheen's sympathies lie).

Some of the best parts of "10 Days" are the mini-profiles of people who, although greatly significant, are far from household names.

Quick now, can you name McKinley's assassin? Leon Czolgosz, the self-described anarchist whose crime made Teddy Roosevelt president.

Can you string together two sentences about Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard? He cajoled the pacifist Einstein to convince FDR to build the bomb.

For raw emotional power, the series opener, "Antietam," is hard to beat. Robert E. Lee had pushed to within 75 miles of Washington for a showdown with the Army of the Potomac. A win might have led to permanent secession. More than 23,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded at Antietam, the bloodiest day of fighting in American history.

There was no overwhelming winner, but the battle convinced the British and French to stay home, a move that "10 Days" suggests ensured a Northern victory, albeit after three more years of bloodshed.

Antietam was a mix of intelligence failures, military blunders, and disputes between politicians and generals. Pictures of the battlefield carnage horrified the American public and obscured the reason for the fight.

History is like that. Sometimes in determining where you're going, it helps to know where you've been.


`10 Days That Unexpectedly Changed America'

Where: The History Channel

When: 9 to 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday

Ratings: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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