The Great War

By Marin, Cheech | Newsweek, November 11, 1996 | Go to article overview
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The Great War


Marin, Cheech, Newsweek


An absorbing PBS documentary chronicles the awful legacy of WWI

WHO HEMEMBERS WORLD WAR I? Old men. Academics. Maybe a lit major devouring Hemingway. Because so few recent movies have grappled with the subject--"All Quiet on the Western Front," "Paths of Glory," "Gallipoli"--the visual imprint of WWI has been overshadowed in our collective memory by World War II, Vietnam and the cold war. And to schoolchildren, the events of 1914-18 must seem like ancient history.

The Great War (PBS, Nov. 11-13) wants to change all that. This literate, absorbing eight-hour documentary--the best of its kind since "The Civil War"--is a chronicle of both that distant era and our own. The full title is "The Great War: And the Shaping of the 20th Century" to remind us that this devastating conflict was not merely a dress rehearsal for the second world war but for the entire modern age.

Grim contemporary resonances abound. First use of chemical weapons. First aerial bombing of civilians. The century's first "ethnic cleansing" (Turkish Armenians were the target). It was also the first war captured on film, which is what gives this series its potent cinematic sweep. The producers-Los Angeles PBS station KCET and the BBC, with England's Imperial War Museum-have selected key scenes from the vast archival stock of "industrial slaughter" on the battlefield, shutting generals and homefront grief. Some footage is awful to watch: soldiers going "over the top" of the trenches and being mowed down by machine-gun fire, shell-shock victims reduced to twitching madmen, other veterans whom the French called "the men with broken faces" being fitted with masks to hide their hideous scars.

Awful but relentlessly compelling. The haunting silent reels are given voice by actress Salome Jens, who narrates the series, along with a cast that includes Jeremy Irons, Natasha Richardson and Martin Landau.

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