While the War of 1812 might be known as "America's Forgotten War" elsewhere, that's definitely not the case in Baltimore and Maryland. Our obsession with all things 1812 is one of the regional characteristics so pronounced that it is lampooned in "The Second City Does Baltimore" satire now running at Center Stage.
And Monday night, area viewers will have the chance to feed that appetite with two hours of a carefully researched documentary about the war from the husband-and-wife team of Lawrence Hott and Diane Garey.
"The War of 1812," which was produced in association with Washington's WETA, will air at 9 p.m. Monday on Maryland Public Television and other PBS stations nationwide. Its premiere is one of the first major events celebrating the bicentennial of the conflict among British, American, Canadian and Native American combatants.
But as nice as it is to have a large, hungry, Mid-Atlantic audience for the subject, that doesn't make the task of bringing to life on television a sprawling conflict that happened two centuries any easier, says co-producer and director Hott.
And it's even tougher when you have a budget of less than $1 million for two hours and you are forced to compete with prime-time football and new fall shows for the attention of the media-saturated American TV audience of today. The average cost of an hour of prime-time network television is about $3.5 million.
"There were two big challenges," Hott says. "How do you present the perspectives of the four combatants, and then, what do you show? We're filmmakers, and we want visual variety in the film. And we want verisimilitude. It's a documentary, so it should be true to reality."
But he and Garey were extremely limited in what visuals were available. When Ken Burns made "The Civil War," for example, at least he had photographs with which to work.
"This is 27 years before the invention of photography, 81 years before the invention of motion pictures," says Hott, who was once part of Burns' Florentine Films production company and is still in partnership with it. "And so, we decided we had to rely on re-enactments. But re-enactments are frequently cringe-worthy. They can be embarrassing,"
Hoping to avoid that, he and Garey made an early decision to spend whatever they had on getting the re-enactments right.
"We actually moved great portions of the budget that we were going to use for things like aerials and travel to doing re-enactments, because we wanted that to show up on the screen," Hott says.
"We basically went Hollywood without a Hollywood budget," the Emmy and Peabody Award winner explains. "We couldn't afford to show heads being blown up and bullets ripping through bodies. But what we could afford is smoke and muskets and musket fire and shooting in the evening — even after dark. In fact, some of my favorite shots in the film are of the tough, dirty-looking faces of the men, which we basically did by shining flashlights in their faces."
Hott and Garey use re-enactors as well I have ever seen them used. And I would urge anyone who categorically rejects re-enactments, a hotly contested issue for folks who take their history seriously, to check out the deft use of them in "The War of 1812." Hott has thought long and hard about the matter.
"I want to tell you a revelation I had about this," says Hott, who has been making documentaries since leaving the practice of law to join Florentine Films in 1978. "I've used a lot of photographs and motion pictures in the 33 years I've been doing this. I've looked at every archive that's ever been made. And, you know, there's a famous film expression that says, 'Every cut is a lie.' But also, every archive is a lie."
The "every cut" expression is a reminder to those who accept the images onscreen as reality or truth that directors and editors are constantly making decisions about what part of a scene gets filmed and shown — and what gets left out or cut. In other words, they are continually intruding on the reality that finally finds it way onto the screen.
Hott, who has produced 24 films for broadcast on PBS, believes the gap between the reality of the War of 1812 and what can be found in archives is even greater.
"None of the images about the War of 1812 are contemporaneous," he says. "Nobody was sitting out on the battlefield drawing images while the battle was happening. In fact, most of the images you see in the film that are paintings or engravings were made 80 or 90 years later."
And even if there had been photographs of the warfare, how much could those be trusted in rendering an accurate representation of the war in a documentary made today, he asks rhetorically.
"Just imagine that there was a photograph that was taken at a battlefield or someone did a contemporaneous drawing," he adds. "OK, what does the filmmaker of today do? The filmmaker homes in on a part of it. You know, you pan across something or you concentrate on one part of it or something."
In other words, the two-time Academy Award nominee says, you're choosing your frame.
"So, why are such images any more valid than a re-enactment that has been researched to within a hair's breadth of accuracy?" Hott concludes.
Hott knows that if there are inaccuracies in his and Garey's take on the "The War of 1812" that viewers in Baltimore and Maryland will likely be among the first to notice, given the way the war lives on here.
"Every expert in the country thinks his or her part of the country had the most important role in the war," Hott says, rattling off four other regions that make the same kind of claims historians in these parts do.
But, he allows, Baltimore's claim may be "more equal" because of the suffering and heroism here.
"The Battle of Baltimore really was important, because 15,000 militia and soldiers massed at North Point to back up Fort McHenry — and no other city did that," he says.
Furthermore, he says, "The fort withstood a 48-hour bombardment, and the city made a sacrifice by sinking its ships in the harbor to prevent the British from getting any closer. Plus, two heroic teenage snipers killed [British army] General [Robert] Ross, and then lost their life as a result. And the death of General Ross was humiliating and defeating to the British."
Finally, there was the suffering that Maryland residents endured.
"Maryland suffered more than most with [British Adm. George] Cockburn burning towns up and down the Chesapeake for more than year." Hott says.
"So, given the suffering and the heroic victory, yes, Baltimore and Maryland might edge out some of the other areas — just by a nose."
"The War of 1812" airs at 9 p.m. Monday on MPT, Channels 22 and 67, and other PBS stations.