Once more, Baltimore beats back the Brits

`First Invasion' hails city's role in 1812 war

TVPreview

September 08, 2004|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

A cameo role for Baltimore's mayor. The city at, perhaps, its finest hour. Images that evoke the dreadful and familiar. These elements all play a role in First Invasion: The War of 1812, the tale of how Baltimore stood its ground during one of the nation's darkest hours.

Directed by Gary L. Foreman, the film premieres tonight with a screening at the Senator Theatre and makes its television debut Sunday on the History Channel.

As TV history goes, the two-hour program is not in a league with Ken Burns' PBS' hit series The Civil War; Foreman simply doesn't marry image, music and expert analysis with the depth and lyricism of Burns. But First Invasion is nevertheless an engaging and ultimately illuminating film not only about the War of 1812, but also the remarkable part played by Fort McHenry, the Maryland militia and Baltimore in stopping a British war machine on a rampage. If you are looking for feel-good local history, First Invasion: The War of 1812 is definitely the documentary for you.

Foreman begins by connecting directly with our collective unconscious - the film's first few moments are filled with the sound of explosions and the date "September 11" on the screen. Memories of 9/11 are immediately evoked, but then the date morphs to Sept. 11, 1814, the day that British battleships approached Fort McHenry and a cannon shot of warning was fired to the residents of Baltimore.

"To those who could hear it [the explosion], the sound means death," the narrator says. "America is on the brink of annihilation. An invading army is on the doorstep of one of its largest cities. Its capital has been ravaged. Its defenses shattered. Only one thing stands between the enemy forces and the nation's destruction: The will of 15,000 men and women determined to defeat America's first invasion."

Setting the viewer up to see the War of 1812 through the lens of 9/11 is a decision one could argue about all day. Any comparison between a Colonial power like 19th-century Britain and a 21st-century terrorist operation like al-Qaida is such a stretch that one runs the risk of putting the entire film in a false historical context. But, if one is trying to reach a mass audience, evoking the familiar to make a point holds a certain logic. And there is the synchronicity of those dates.

From those opening moments, First Invasion smoothly goes on to clearly state its thesis and map the terrain it will cover during the next two hours. "The War of 1812 was a strange and at times illogical affair," the narrator says.

"It's reasoning was muddled. It's execution mismanaged. It was named for one year, but took nearly three to fight. ... Despite these dubious distinctions, the war played a crucial role in establishing America's direction and identity. The second war for independence inspired the national anthem and allowed the founding fathers to make way for a new generation of common men of uncommon courage who would lead the nation to its manifest destiny."

The film is filled with battlefield re-enactments, and they are generally impressive productions, almost giving the First Invasion the look of a feature film. But the balance between the words of the historical experts and images of re-enactment is weighted too heavily in favor of the latter. There is too much sound and fury, and not enough distilled insight or perspective.

Viewers are offered a range of historians and experts. The best is Scott Sheads, a ranger at Fort McHenry and author of The Rockets' Red Glare: The Maritime Defense of Baltimore in 1814 (Tidewater Press, 1986). Sheads speaks with such passion about the stand taken at Fort McHenry that his voice occasionally quivers.

The worst is Libby Haight O'Connell, the History Channel's historian in residence, who sounds as if she is addressing a class of first-graders. She characterizes President James Madison as "kind of nerdy," but the many images of Madison, played by Mark D. Hutter in the re-enactments, simply don't match her words. It's another case of trying too hard to make history fit a contemporary, prime-time sensibility.

One of the most interesting commentators is Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley, whom the History Channel describes as an "avid historian." His enthusiasm is infectious; his eyes light up and his voice rises as he describes how the residents of Baltimore and Maryland responded to the huge disparity in sea power between Britain and the United States.

"The Americans are never going to be able to create anything to compete with the size of the British navy, so what do we do?" O'Malley asks rhetorically. "We do have sailors. We do have merchants. We do have entrepreneurial, successful business people. So, Congress encourages privateers, people who go out privately and raid British shipping to kind of level the field."

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