'Great War': PBS' good fight Preview: Miniseries gets into the trenches to put World War I, and its ramifications, into manageable context.

November 09, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

There may be some things wonderful and noble and mythic about war, but you couldn't prove it by World War I.

All of the evils that would eventually culminate in World War II, and many of the ills that continue to affect our world today, found their genesis on the battlefields of Europe between 1914 and 1918.

That's the central theme of "The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century," an eight-part opus from PBS that kicks off tomorrow night.

It's also what makes the series so fascinating and genuinely worth the eight-hour investment of time.

Not that the series, a joint effort between Los Angeles' KCET and the BBC, doesn't have plenty more going for it. It's a wonderful primer on a period of history many of us probably don't know much about. All sorts of familiar names pop up, not only of military leaders and politicians, but of artists (Otto Dix), writers (Siegfried Sassoon, Arthur Conan Doyle) and even film directors (Abel Gance, whose "J'Accuse," was made with the cooperation of the French army -- much to its later regret).

The war also saw the introduction of some major innovations in the way humans do battle: Submarines were used extensively for the first time, as were tanks, airplanes and chemical weapons. And it was the first conflict chronicled extensively by motion picture cameras; the war footage shown here is often breathtaking in both its explicitness and its savagery.

The real value of "The Great War" is that it sees the conflict not so much as a military exercise but as a door -- a door that was closed forever on the power-sated family of rulers who made the war possible, and a door that was flung open on new means of mass killing.

"The Great War" avoids presenting its subject as a litany of battles -- a wise move, since World War I was primarily hundreds of thousands of soldiers digging hundreds of thousands of trenches and trying to outwait the enemy. When battles did erupt -- the Somme, Verdun, Gallipoli -- they were bloody affairs that usually resulted in no more than a few feet of land changing hands. A blow-by-blow account of such battles, dragged out over eight hours, would try the interest of all but the most rabid history buffs. Instead, the series proceeds chronologically, but does so by zeroing in on certain themes.

Like just about anyone who makes a documentary these days, the writers and directors of "The Great War" have taken several pages from the Ken Burns school of documentary filmmaking. Actors read from war journals, letters and other written records. Each episode is broken into bite-size sections, each introduced by a title card. Historians are on hand to lend background and do it well, although the series desperately needs someone with the charisma of Shelby Foote to tie all the loose ends together.

At times, the pacing of "The Great War" may be a bit slow, and sometimes the period writings are not as eloquent as the filmmakers think. But then comes a poem from Siegfried Sassoon, or a nightmarish sketch from Otto Dix or film of shell-shocked British soldiers shaking uncontrollably in a London hospital. At such moments, the power of "The Great War" becomes undeniable.

As does the utter incomprehensibility of war.

Pub Date: 11/09/96

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