Tag Archives: The History Channel

Why the dramatic license in ‘Sons of Liberty’ is a problem

Most people realize, when they’re watching a dramatic work based on some historical event, that they’re not getting a history lesson.  And by this point, I think it’s dawned on most viewers of The History Channel that their chances of seeing historically edifying programming on that network are comparable to their chances of seeing a beluga whale while vacationing in Montana.  Why, then, is the total disregard for accuracy in Sons of Liberty such a big deal?

It’s a big deal because a heck of a lot of people who watched Sons of Liberty while under the impression that they were having an educational experience.  This is not my assumption.  This is a fact.  I know this is the case because I was scrolling along on Twitter while I watched the miniseries, looking at tweets with the #SonsOfLiberty hashtag.  I saw a lot of tweets decrying the show’s misrepresentations, but I saw as many if not more tweets from people who were totally psyched about how much they were “learning,” about how they wished schools would screen the whole thing for students, about how they were getting more information out of the miniseries than they ever did in their history classes, and so on.

Actually, when I first wrote this post, I’d embedded a few dozen of these tweets to prove how pervasive this sense of the series as an educational experience really was.  Since it occurred to me that your average Twitter user probably doesn’t want some blogger to cite him as an example of somebody who mistakes entertainment for edification, however, I decided to leave them out.  So if you want to get a sense of what I’m talking about, just search Twitter for #SonsOfLiberty and the word “learning” or “school” and you’ll find plenty of examples.

It’s worth taking another look at the disclaimer on the series website:

SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary. The goal of our miniseries is to capture the spirit of the time, convey the personalities of the main characters, and focus on real events that have shaped our past. For historical information about the Sons of Liberty and the dawning of the American Revolution, please read the Historian’s View section on history.com/sons.

I’m glad for the statement the series is “historical fiction,” but the rest of the disclaimer’s language obscures more than it clarifies.  The series doesn’t “capture the spirit of the time” when it fundamentally misrepresents the nature of British authority in the period leading up to the war.  It doesn’t “convey the personalities of the main characters” when it depicts Hancock as a reluctant dweeb, Gage as a sadistic tyrant, and Sam Adams as a brooding young heartthrob.  And it certainly doesn’t “focus on real events that have shaped our past” when the sequences portraying these iconic events—the destruction of Hutchinson’s house, the Boston Tea Party, Revere’s ride, the firefight at Concord, and the Battle of Bunker Hill—bear little relation to what actually happened.

In fact, of all the iconic “high points” that figure in the series, I can’t think of a single one depicted accurately enough to be suitable for use even as a visual aid in a classroom.  Some historical films take liberties with chronology and characters, but at least have the virtue of providing a compelling and reasonably useful enactment of particular events.  I’m thinking of the siege of Ft. William Henry in Last of the Mohicans, the O.K. Corral shootout in Kasdan’s Wyatt Earp, and the final attack sequence in Glory.  But what point would there be in showing your students Sons of Liberty‘s take on Lexington Green when the whole thing seemingly takes place in a field in the middle of nowhere, with British officers torturing and executing wounded minutemen?  Or screening Paul Revere’s capture when he takes on a whole group of redcoats who have him at gunpoint, like Chuck Norris in a tricorn hat?  Or the Boston Tea Party scene, with Whigs decked out in Lord-of-the-Rings-style orc war paint?

If anything, the short notices aired during commercial breaks, in which The History Channel reminded viewers to log on to the show’s website for the facts behind the story, might have made the whole thing worse.  Viewers who visited the site might have gotten some useful information, but for the many who didn’t, the mini-commercials for the website only lent the whole thing an air of credibility it didn’t have.  Hey, if there’s a companion website with commentary from historical pundits, the show must be pretty legit, right?

Perhaps the liberties taken with the material wouldn’t trouble me so much if the show ran with a disclaimer at the top of every hour, reminding viewers that what they were seeing was fictionalized and only loosely based on real events and people.

In any case, the fact that so many Twitter users took the show as a learning experience indicates that The History Channel still carries an air of authority and authenticity, whether the network’s brass want it or not.  Since that’s the case, they really need to approach their (increasingly rare) historical programming more seriously.  If you want to be nothing but another TV network, fine.  But don’t pretend to be anything else.

4 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

‘Sons of Liberty’: Not much of the Sons, but plenty of liberties

Here’s how The History Channel describes their new miniseries: “SONS OF LIBERTY is a dramatic interpretation of events that sparked a revolution. It is historical fiction, not a documentary.”  That’s quite an understatement.  It’s like calling Godzilla a reptile of above-average stature.

I knew I was in for a doozy from the very start of last night’s first installment, when Samuel Adams escaped from a party of redcoats by bounding parkour-style across Boston’s rooftops.  No wonder they made him twenty years younger and thirty pounds lighter than his historical counterpart.  Can’t have the main character keeling over from cardiac arrest during a big chase sequence.  Hey, if video games have taught us anything, it’s that the eighteenth century was all about aerial stunts.

The History Channel claims that one of the show’s aims is to “convey the personalities of the main characters.”  If that’s true, they might want to head back to the drawing board.  The two main protagonists, Sam Adams and John Hancock, share little in common with the historical figures other than their names.

J.L. Bell has weighed in on the problems with Adams’ depiction at his blog.  As for Hancock, the miniseries portrays him as a dandy who’s quite uncomfortable walking into a tavern full of toughs.  The real Hancock was indeed a stupendously wealthy man, certainly no stranger to fine clothes, lavish parties, and good wine.  But he was also a man who, when informed that British regulars were en route to Lexington, brandished his gun and sword and swore up and down that he “would never turn my back on these troops.”  It took the entreaties of Sam Adams and Paul Revere to convince him to escape.

It was instructive—and a little depressing—to follow the Twitter hashtag #SonsOfLiberty during the premiere.  Most of the tweets I saw were pretty positive about the show.  There were plenty of remarks about how modern politicians could learn a thing or two by watching real ‘Murican patriots on TV.  I found these sentiments highly ironic, since the larger political issues surrounding the onset of the Revolution were actually absent from the first episode.

Instead, the miniseries emphasizes the personal aspects of the Whigs’ involvement.  Adams and Hancock aren’t motivated by abstract notions of rights and liberties.  They’ve got a beef with Hutchinson (promoted to governor in the first episode) over his meddling in their financial activities.  When the mob attacks Hutchinson’s house, they do so because he’s persecuting Adams, not because of the Stamp Act.  The premiere basically has the whole Revolution boiling down to a bunch of personal grudges.  Personal conflicts certainly played a role in the Revolution, but the show de-emphasizes principles to such an extent that I can’t fathom why so many back-to-the-founding folks tweeted enthusiastically about it.

Many tweets ran something like this: “Psyched about #SonsOfLiberty bc I’m such a total history nerd LOL!!!1!11!”  I hate to break it to you, kiddo, but if you were a “total history nerd,” you wouldn’t be so psyched about two hours of pure fiction.  You’d be reading Pauline Maier.

You could fill pages on the show’s historical discrepancies, both major and minor.  The chronology is hopelessly mangled.  John Adams’ house looks nothing like the real thing, nor does it bear any resemblance to any intact eighteenth-century home I’ve ever seen.  There’s far too much facial hair for the late 1700s.  Gen. Gage was already in America during the events depicted in the series.  You get the idea.  For a detailed breakdown, check out Thomas Verenna’s episode-by-episode critique.

I think the only thing the first installment really got right was the sense of tension and volatility in Revolutionary-era Boston, a place where the streets roiled with passion and violence, where officials were sitting on top of a volcano that could erupt in revolt at any minute.

If I disliked the first episode so much, I’ll be skipping the other two, right?  Yeah, I would…except I’ve always wanted to see Lexington and Concord on film.  It’s the prospect of a few well-executed battle sequences that will bring me back to the TV, in spite of my better judgment.  No doubt I’ll be disappointed, but not as disappointed as all those gals who watched the premiere will be when they do a Google Image search for Samuel Adams.

“Lllllllladies.” Wikimedia Commons

4 Comments

Filed under American Revolution, History and Memory

An American Revolution miniseries is coming

Titled Sons of Liberty, it’s about the movers and shakers of the colonial protest movement and will evidently cover the period from about 1773 to 1776.  The executive producer has done some documentary miniseries for The History Channel, but I assume this will be a dramatic work along the lines of Hatfields & McCoys.

Focusing on the Adamses and other well-known Whigs will mean inevitable comparisons with HBO’s John Adams miniseries, and HBO set the bar very high indeed.  We’ll see how SoL measures up.

I’m looking forward to seeing what they do with the subject matter, but as I said back in April, what I’d really love to see is a Southern Campaign miniseries.

1 Comment

Filed under American Revolution

It’s getting harder and harder

…to distinguish between satirical news stories about The History Channel and actual news stories about The History Channel.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

I showed up late to the feud

I didn’t watch The History Channel‘s Hatfields & McCoys miniseries when it premiered a few months ago, mostly because the notion of a fictionalized account of the Hatfield-McCoy feud from The History Channel filled me with the same foreboding I had when I found out that the Rock was going to star in a remake of Walking Tall.  But when an encore presentation aired last week, I ended up watching the whole thing, and it’s actually not half bad.

In terms of pure entertainment, Part Two is by far the best segment, and the scene in which the Hatfields execute three of Randolph McCoy’s sons packs quite a wallop.  (IRL this incident took place on August 9. 1882.)  To me, the standout performances are Kevin Costner’s “Devil” Anse Hatfield, Tom Berenger’s Jim Vance (Tom Berenger’s good in everything), Powers Boothe’s Wall Hatfield (ditto), Jena Malone’s Nancy McCoy, Lindsay Pulsipher’s Roseanna McCoy, and Noel Fisher’s Ellison Mounts.

Modern scholarship indicates that the changes taking place in postwar Appalachia led to the resentments that erupted in the feud.  The problem wasn’t so much the existence a traditional and primitive society untouched by modernization, but rather the reverse.  My biggest fear—and the main reason I steered clear of the miniseries when it premiered—was that we’d get six hours of the same old superficial, simplistic, and stereotypical depictions of nineteenth-century mountaineers as backward, violent, lawless, clannish, and ignorant.  Indeed, the feud itself helped generate and perpetuate these very notions.  For the most part, though, I was pretty pleasantly surprised.  The third part actually touches on the media’s role in popularizing the stereotype of a violent mountain culture in a scene featuring Bill Paxton’s Randolph McCoy.  While the embittered patriarch holds a sort of press conference at a relative’s home, a New York reporter and a photographer urge him to hold a bystander’s firearm while posing for the camera.

A few minor criticisms: I know it’s cheaper to film in Romania, but Eastern European mountains aren’t quite the same as Eastern Kentucky ones, so the scenic shots undermined the illusion a little.  Seeing men’s ponytails in a late nineteenth-century setting was also a little odd.  Finally, Appalachian accents continue to be hit-or-miss when it comes to Hollywood; some actors just can’t swing it.

Despite all the snark I’ve directed against The History Channel in the past, I’ll give them props for Hatfields & McCoys.  Ultimately, what impressed me the most about the miniseries was its success in depicting the feud as a wrenching ordeal in which flesh-and-blood human beings got caught up in extraordinary, terrible circumstances.  There’s something to be said for that.  Over the years, cartoons, TV shows, and other media have used the feud scenario as a comic, almost buffoonish affair, but whatever else it was, the Hatfield-McCoy conflict was a tragedy involving real people, and the filmmakers didn’t lose sight of that.  One could certainly do worse.

1 Comment

Filed under Appalachian History

Peddling crap and frivolity pays big dividends for History Channel

You know that old saying about how nobody ever went broke by underestimating the public’s intelligence?

Last year, the History channel had a growth spurt, gaining hundreds of thousands of viewers while most of its competitors struggled to grow at all. This year, even more remarkably, the channel did it again.

That makes the network’s executives a subject of both envy and sympathy in the television business. They swiftly took History from top 20 status on cable to top five, a feat rarely if ever accomplished — and now they have to keep it there.…

Its biggest show for the last two years has been “Pawn Stars,” about a family that buys and sells watches, necklaces and artifacts. Just last week, History scheduled a spinoff, “Cajun Pawn Stars.” But the channel is also considering shows that may seem suited for TNT or even ESPN, like a “Hatfields and McCoys” mini-series and a jousting competition. The goal, it seems, is to steal market share from the other big boys.

History has been able to declare its “best year ever” for five years in a row because it took what could be seen as a radical turn away from its brand nearly five years ago.

For that, we can thank Nancy Dubuc, The History Channel‘s general manager.  As you might recall, she’s the same person who had the grapes to refer to shows like Ice Road Truckers and Pawn Stars as “vérité documentaries on people doing history today.”  There’s a sense in which that’s true, but it’s the same sense in which Uwe Boll is a bold iconoclast on the cutting edge of modern cinema.

“We started to show that History was a great alternative to sports in attracting upscale men,” said [Dubuc’s] boss and mentor, Abbe Raven, the chief executive of A + E Networks. As advertising buyers spent more on History, “we took those revenues and invested them in programming to build the future.”

All this time, “upscale men” have been the ones watching shows like Swamp People.  I can see them now, all those upwardly mobile professionals coming home after a long day in their corner offices, a copy of the Wall Street Journal or The New Yorker in hand, sitting back to enjoy a good cigar and a snifter of brandy while watching this:

So what can we look forward to in the future?

Another producer, Craig Piligian, who makes “Top Shot” and “Big Shrimpin’ ” for History, has another show on the way called “Full Metal Jousting,” a production that harks back to the Renaissance, or at least Renaissance fairs. Mr. Piligian said his pitch was as follows: “Guys about 6-foot-2 wearing 180 pounds of armor on them, running at each other on 2,000-pound horses at 35 miles per hour and hitting each other with a pole that doesn’t break.”

“They like that it’s loud, it’s promotable, and it’s different,” he said.

Note to self: Come up with “loud, promotable, and different” idea for TV show, pitch it to The History Channel, bask in riches and glory.

Next year they’re rolling out (I’m not making this up) a mini-series about the Hatfields and the McCoys.  If they can handle this difficult aspect of Appalachian history with the same sophistication and sensitivity so characteristic of Swamp People and Only in America with Larry the Cable Guy, then we’re in for a real treat.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

“A historian and keen observer of human nature”

Here’s one of the differences between Ken Burns and the folks running The History Channel.

Ken Burns turned acclaimed authors like Shelby Foote into TV celebrities.  The History Channel works backward, turning TV celebrities into acclaimed authors.

Lest you think the lead character from Pawn Stars is bereft of wisdom that merits preservation for the ages, heed the promotional copy of his new book’s dust jacket:

Rick isn’t only a businessman; he’s also a historian and keen observer of human nature. For instance, did you know that pimps wear lots of jewelry for a reason? It’s because if they’re arrested, jewelry doesn’t get confiscated like cash does, and ready money will be available for bail. Or that WWII bomber jackets and Zippo lighters can sell for a freakishly high price in Japan? Have you ever heard that the makers of Ormolu clocks, which Rick sells for as much as $15,000 apiece, frequently died before forty thanks to the mercury in the paint?

The late Shelby Foote may have been quite the wordsmith, my friends, but I’ll wager a shiny nickel that he didn’t know why pimps wear so much bling.

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

An attempt to be constructive

Over at Interpreting the Civil War, John Rudy argued that some of us history bloggers were too hard on the makers of The History Channel‘s Gettysburg special, and urged us to remember that Civil War specialists and hardcore enthusiasts were not the show’s intended audience.  He raises some good points.

I do, however, want to clarify one matter.  When I criticized the show’s “gritty and modern” style, I was referring to the fact that it made Gettysburg seem like a twentieth- or twenty-first-century battle, not to the fact that it depicted the ugliness of combat.  What I meant was that the cinematography and the restricted focus on small groups of men moving in fairly loose formations seemed more appropriate for a modern war film than a Civil War film. Looking back at my post now, I can see that I didn’t express this very well.

In fact, I think that depicting the ugly side of combat was one of the things the show got right.  I’m all for putting the horrors of war front and center,  Indeed the last museum exhibit that I scripted back when I did that sort of thing was devoted entirely to graphic photos of dead Civil War soldiers.  I just didn’t think the Black Hawk Down-esque “combat photography” style was the best approach for a documentary on the nineteenth century.  It just looked…off, somehow.

While I disagree with some of John’s specific points, his broader point is valid.  Popular documentaries must cast their nets wide when it comes to audience.  This doesn’t lessen the need for scrupulous accuracy—if anything, I think it magnifies it—but it does mean that filmmakers don’t cater exclusively to us history aficionados.

Like all public historians, history filmmakers have a daunting task before them.  As we’ve started working on the historical travel TV segments that I posted about back in April, I’ve learned how difficult even the simple logistics of production can be.  I still stand by my numerous and frequent criticisms of The History Channel, even though they’ve been among my most snark-ridden posts.  But in recognition of the fact that it’s a lot easier for me to lob those shots over a keyboard than it is to actually produce programming, I offer here some suggestions for The History Channel.

You can think historically while thinking broadly at the same time.  One of the biggest turning points in the study of history has been the explosion of brand new fields of studying the past.  Anything is fair game these days—the history of childbearing, the changing relationships between people and the environment, the history of commemoration, the history of food.  You can be as creative in framing your shows as historians are in framing their subject matter.  Indeed, the network has done this in the past, with specials on the history of everything from comic books to sexuality.  I would urge the network to think historically and creatively at the same time.

Don’t be afraid to think big in terms of scope.  Some of the network’s best offerings have been those occasions when they’ve bitten off a bug chunk of history to tackle.  Their miniseries on life in the Third Reich was as fine as some of the best documentary material being produced for television, and the recent miniseries on the American Revolution was also quite good.

You can be historically relevant while still indulging your current programming style.  If we must have reality shows, why not try to make them a little more historical in content?  How about a series chronicling the struggles faced by the staff of some historic house museum, instead of a family-run pawn shop?  Or a series that follows a few reenactors around as they practice their hobby?  Why not chronicle the lives of battlefield park rangers instead of taxidermists?  Are taxidermists really that much more interesting than public historians?

In the name of all that is good and decent, cut the flying saucers loose.  Give up on the aliens, conspiracies, and cryptozoology.  It’s bad enough to be irrelevant; it’s much worse to be counter-productive by providing a platform for outright claptrap.  If I want to watch something that will make my brain cells shrivel up like raisins, I can always flip over to E! or Bravo.

Use the unique tools at your disposal in ways that cater to their unique strengths. Here’s an example.  The History Channel loves its computer generated maps and imagery.  Okay, fine.  How about a show or a one-shot special that looks at historic or well-known places and then uses CG to depict how these places have changed over time?  A televised version of landscape archaeology in cities, around landmarks, or at historic sites would fit the medium to the content, instead of employing bells and whistles just for the sake of doing so.

Choose your talking heads wisely.  The celebrity interview segments in America: The Story of Us added absolutely nothing to that program, besides (I assume) some hefty appearance fees.  In this age of Google and Linkedin, it’s not that hard to find qualified commentators.

Use your ability to draw an audience for the greater good.  The “Save Our History” effort is praiseworthy, and could be expanded beyond the occasional special.  There are more than enough endangered sites out there to make for a regular series.

Of course, I doubt that anyone who’s in a position to re-direct the network is reading this, and I doubt even more that they’d care if they did read it.  In terms of raw numbers, business is evidently booming at The History Channel.  I think the shift in the network’s program indicates how little the folks running it are concerned with the opinions of history buffs.

4 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

Gettysburg goes Black Hawk Down

I see I’m not the only one who was less than impressed with The History Channel’s Gettysburg documentary.  Check out the reactions from Eric Wittenberg and Kevin Levin, and then read the comments at Brooks Simpson’s blog.

I wasn’t really sure what the producers were trying to accomplish here.  The promotional material seemed to indicate that the program would give us some type of insight into the common soldier’s experience of the battle in order to demonstrate that Civil War combat wasn’t a romantic or glorious affair.  That’s not a bad idea for a documentary, and indeed the program did zero in on a few individuals and followed them through the course of some of the action.  But those individuals included high-ranking officers like William Barksdale and Dan Sickles, which effectively turned these sequences into conventional battle narrative.  At the same time, many important aspects of the battle just got skipped over entirely.  The program was therefore neither fish nor fowl—not comprehensive enough to be a good overview of the general flow of the battle as a whole, but not focused enough to provide a good discussion of what was going on among the rank and file.

As a stylistic matter, the gritty, modern war approach to filming the reenacted sequences just didn’t work for me.  With all the handheld shots, dramatic slow-motion, and running through the streets and over terrain hither and yon, I felt like I was watching Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan.  The combination of nineteenth-century gear and modern-day combat camera work was a little too jarring.  Furthermore, it didn’t seem that the high-speed zooming along the pathways of bullets and through the CG maps really added anything to the explanation of what was happening.

As a final note, while I’m no expert in the kind of minute details that make up a good reenacting impression, it appeared to me that an unhealthy amount of farbiness managed to make it in onto the screen.  What was with all the long-haired Confederates?

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War

The History Channel and the Scott brothers are taking on Gettysburg

Somebody associated with The History Channel has asked me to inform you of an upcoming program which premieres at the end of this month.  Since it’s a show about honest-to-goodness history, I think it deserves your attention:

Gettysburg is a 2-hour HISTORY special that kicks off a week of History programming commemorating the 150’th anniversary of the Civil War.

Executive produced by Ridley and Tony Scott, this special strips away the romanticized veneer of the Civil War. It presents the pivotal battle of Gettysburg in a new light: as a visceral, terrifying and deeply personal experience, fought by men with everything on the line. Compelling CGI  and powerful action footage place viewers in the midst of the fighting, delivering both an emotional cinematic experience and an information packed look at the turning points, strategic decisions, technology and little known facts surrounding the greatest engagement ever fought on American soil.

The special begins in the high stakes summer of 1863, as the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia crosses into Pennsylvania. Trailed by the Union’s Army of the Potomac, Lee’s 75,000 strong army heads towards Harrisburg, converging instead near a quiet farm town, Gettysburg.  Known then only as a crossroads where ten roads running in all directions converge like a wagon wheel, this small town would become site of an epic battle between North and South.  For three days, each side fought there for their vision of what America should be.

In collaboration with highly esteemed Civil War historians, HISTORY combed through hundreds of individual accounts of the battle to find the unique voices of struggle, defeat and triumph that tell the larger story of a bitterly conflicted nation.

The Scott brothers are both exceptional filmmakers, and this looks like it’s going to be a high-end production.  Have a peek.

Gettysburg premieres May 30 at 9:00 EST.  It should be well worth watching, so check it out.

They also offered me some t-shirts, notebooks, and messenger bags to either keep or pass along to you guys as reader giveaways, but I did the virtuous thing and said no.  Given all the snark-ridden vitriol I’ve written here about The History Channel, it just didn’t seem right to take their stuff.  I do have some scruples.

Leave a comment

Filed under Civil War