Production Tale: Re-enacting the destiny of a continent

It was the war fought to determine the future of a continent, whose lines of engagement stretched thousands of kilometers from the Great Lakes to the city of New Orleans. A brutal clash between the most powerful nation at the time...
February 1, 1998

It was the war fought to determine the future of a continent, whose lines of engagement stretched thousands of kilometers from the Great Lakes to the city of New Orleans. A brutal clash between the most powerful nation at the time and the revolutionary expansionist American nation, the War of 1812 led to the singular occupation and burning of Washington in 1814 and the annihilation of British forces in the Battle of New Orleans.

West Point-trained historian John Eisenhower has called the War of 1812 ‘the first American Vietnam,’ a blunt if revisionist assessment of the u.s.’ failure to capture the Canadas: the former colonial territories which some 50 years later became the country of Canada.

Written and directed by acclaimed documentarian Brian McKenna, The War of 1812 is the subject of a new four-hour series dramatizing the experience of American, British, Canadian and Indian combatants and military personalities: British general Isaac Brock, the great Shawnee warrior chief Tecumseh and American general Winfield Scott. As well, the series documents the ‘rocket’s red glare’ of the Battle of Baltimore, which inspired Francis Scott Key to write ‘The Star Spangled Banner’.

As the pre-film war clearly precluded archival sources, the director found it necessary to create an almost entirely original canvas for a documentary story produced for international tv. Stunning cartography and paintings done by officers in the field and shortly after the war are used, as is the technique of people speaking to the camera using dialogue culled from letters, diaries and journals.

The dramatic elements include the interplay of a dinner party attended by Brock and Tecumseh and the participation of hundreds of volunteers who re-enact battle, glory and death in close-up action amid the smoke, fire and drums of the most decisive confrontations.

Documentary sources include evocative footage of battle-scene landscapes and fully restored fortresses, among them Fort Niagara and Fort Mackinac, as well as recent archaeolgical battlefield discoveries and, rather amazingly, Internet-sourced footage of the 1905 funeral in New York of the war’s last surviving participant.

Talks with pbs, Channel 4

Slated to finish filming this spring, the cdn$2.3 million series has been presold to TVOntario and History Television in Canada, and active sales negotiations are underway in the u.s. with pbs, and Channel 4 in the u.k. Arnie Gelbart of Montreal’s Galafilm and Andrea Nemtin of Toronto-based PTV Productions are the producers.

Gelbart credits tvo, the lead broadcaster, with bringing in pbs: ‘Because pbs wants to do network-to-network deals with [tvo], they’ve taken this on as a matter of good faith and as one of the projects.’

The War of 1812 is being originated on digital-widescreen videotape, and is McKenna’s first such experience on a major documentary production. After an eye-opening test, the director is conclusive: ‘I was astonished by the quality and decided finally that it was time to make the switch.’

Narrative for the series is being written by journalist Terence McKenna and the director. The cinematographer is Stefan Nitoslawski; Ken MacNeil is editing and Andrea Nemtin is the production supervisor. Donald Graves, author of a number of definitive books on the war and a recent retiree from the Department of National Defence’s Directorate of History, is the series’ leading consultant.

The war officially ended with the 1815 Treaty of Ghent and Britain’s betrayal of its Red Nation allies who had been motivated by a promise of their own Ohio Valley country. According to historical record, the participation of the Shawnee and many other tribes which supported the under-manned British sealed the fate of invaders.

In telling this largely unknown, but significant chapter of North American history, McKenna (The Valour and The Horror, The Trudeau Memoirs) says it is essential all four seasons are fully depicted: ‘The dramatic landscape of North America – the rivers, the primeval forests, the dawn on Georgian Bay – all of this played a part.

About The Author
Barry Walsh is editor and content director for realscreen, and has served as editor of the publication since 2009. With a career in entertainment media that spans two decades, prior to realscreen, he held the associate editor post for now defunct sister publication Boards, which focused on the advertising and commercial production industries. Before Boards, he served as editor of Canadian Music Network, a weekly music industry trade, and as music editor for As content director, he also oversees the development of content for the brand's market-leading events, the Realscreen Summit and Realscreen West, as well as new content initiatives.