The issues America is wrestling with today, from immigration to civil liberties, were also on the minds of a divided and suspicious nation a century ago, on the eve of America’s entrance into World War I.
In an interview with realscreen, Mark Samels, executive producer of the new PBS docuseries The Great War, says he hopes the series will help make the time period more relevant to modern-day audiences. He also hopes that by showing viewers how America was shaped by the decision to enter into WWI, it will inspire them to examine their roles in the world today.
“Today when we try to wrestle with our role in the world, there is this tension between, ‘Are we the world’s policeman or are we the nation builders of the world? Or are some of these conflicts not really our concern?’ This was at the center of the debate in World War I,” says Samels.
PBS’s American Experience new (3×60) series, The Great War produced by Insignia Films, scopes out the American landscape beyond just the telling of the political and military history of the war.
It explores the unprecedented government crackdown on dissent, the use of propaganda to sell the war to a wary public, the role of women in the antiwar/suffrage movement and the treatment of African Americans and other minorities both at home and abroad.
“It’s a sprawling story that takes place over years and involves different layers: political, military, economic, cultural and social,” Samels says.
Since the scope of the war is so vast, Samels says producers decided to use a variety of characters to tell the story of America’s involvement and relationship with the global event.
Famous players represented in the series include president Woodrow Wilson and suffragette Jane Addams. But there was also space for ordinary people, like fighter ace Eddie Rickenbacker and the women who took up the cause as nurses, to have their stories brought to light.
Latino and African-American voices are also present in the story. These communities saw the war as a way to improve their status and standing in America in an era of the height of Jim Crow laws. Samels said it was a racially charged time, and for minorities, they war represented the chance to serve with valor in the hopes they would gain new-found respect on home soil.
“It pulled us into these characters through letters and diaries which haven’t really come to live in film before. I think we created a cast that really represents how an event like this impacts everyone.”
The archivist for the series, Lizzy McGlynn procured material from over 150 institutions and combed through close to 2,700 reels of footage from the National Archives to bring this story to the screen. Once the material was found, it was restored and worked with to create an intimate story that would resonate with viewers.
“What was fortunate for us, was the war coincided with the dawn of motion pictures. It was the first war to be recorded by film cameras,” he said.
Samels said the problems plaguing his country today — the divisions and suspicions and perceived threat of immigration — is an old story for the nation.
“We have dealt with it with varying degrees of success in the past. We have struggled with it but came through it,” he said.
Photos courtesy of National Archives.
- The Great War premieres April 10, through April 12, 9:00-11:00 p.m. ET/PT on PBS
- Check out an exclusive clip below