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Baltimore sneak preview of PBS film on War of 1812 tailored to local audience

Random "Jay Walk"ers interviewed by Jay Leno doubtless have forgotten the War of 1812, if indeed they learned about it at all, but Marylanders know all about it, don't we?

Let's see, there's the (original) British Invasion, Fort McHenry, Francis Scott Key and "The Star-Spangled Banner," Defenders Day, the White House in flames …

Alas, that's about as far as most can go, even here near the geographic center of all the action, which extended from Canada to New Orleans. But just as the bicentennial of the conflict approaches, filmmaker Lawrence Hott comes along with his two-hour documentary production of "The War of 1812," to be aired nationwide on PBS Monday, Oct. 10.

Even luckier, Baltimore is one of a few select markets where a personalized preview will be offered. On Monday, Sept. 26, heralded by the Fife and Drum Corps of Fort McHenry, a one-hour version edited for local interest will be screened at Landmark Theatre Harbor East Cinema, along with promos of other period productions from PBS plus Q&A time with "War" producer/director Hott.

While each expert he consulted felt his area was the most important theater of the war (and Hott is not taking sides), one thing that amazed him is how unprepared the United States was to confront Great Britain, even as the fledgling nation declared war. With only 14 frigates (the battleships of the day) and somewhere between 7,000 and 11,000 soldiers, they were about to take on the nation that ruled the waves, upon whose empire the sun never set.

The U.S. generals were old soldiers left over from the revolution or had no experience, Hott says, and available intelligence led them to believe the Canadians would welcome them, that the French would take their side, that the British were hostile to the Indians.

The War of 1812 "is not easy to get a handle on, but is becoming more so as we consider wars of choice, how we formed as a nation, and the situation of Native Americans," Hott concludes.

Local star of his movie is The Pride of Baltimore II herself, appearing as a privateer, a vessel carrying a letter of marque, by which it could capture enemy vessels without being declared pirate, which was a hanging offense, said Pride's captain, Jan Miles.

As they had done during the American Revolution, privateers roamed the seas hunting for British cargo ships to pounce on, and those of the Baltimore or Chesapeake schooner design were so speedy they could outrun British warships trying to stop them. The Pride is a reproduction of a topsail schooner privateer and the only full-size example in existence, but not a replica of any particular one, emphasizes Miles.

Without these truly swift boats, he adds with pride of his own, the Brits wouldn't have had their reason to head up to Baltimore and its "nest of pirates" after setting the White House afire in September 1814, retribution for U.S. troops burning York (later Toronto), Ontario. The British targeted Baltimore shipyards that built the boats, and Fort McHenry was on the way to one in Fell's Point. The rest, as they say, is history.

No girls allowed

In "The War of 1812," The Pride also provided a setting for general nautical scenes, its sails billowing, its crew climbing the rigging, manning the ship's wheel and standing at attention.

But being a star isn't all grog and lemon wedges. Obstacles did emerge during filming in October 2009, reports Jamie Trost, the Pride's other captain.

"Our crew is over half female, but for historical accuracy they wanted to use only men. We were dressed in period costume — not something we usually do — and had to try to climb the rigging and sail without 60 percent of our crew on a windy day."

The same wind also challenged the filmmakers working from the Pride's inflatable rescue boat. The party had to leave the harbor and head out into the rougher Chesapeake Bay, once almost swamping and losing the camera, in order to locate a period-neutral background.

It was a good time nevertheless, at least in Trost's estimation.

"The real joy is the chance to show off The Pride in any way," he said. "It's fun to bring people on board."

Contrary to some popular opinion, the U.S. frigate Constellation, a successor to which is now berthed at the Inner Harbor, had no involvement in this war, having been trapped in Hampton Roads, Va., by the British blockade.

What did Key see?

While in Hott's film the bombardment of Fort McHenry is shown in animation, and the famed flag is not actually there, the national monument's ranger historian Scott Sheads, who appears as one of the movie's expert talking heads, tells us that the red-glaring rockets and the bombs bursting in air were the ultimate weapons of their time.

If Mary Pickersgill's huge flag had actually been flying during the 25-hour bombardment, it would have been in shreds. As it was, a 17-by-25-foot flag was used due to the stormy weather, while the 30-by-42 garrison flag was raised (and seen by Francis Scott Key) only the next morning.

During all the shelling in September 1814, the fort's 60 naval guns fired back and succeeded in doing some damage, though no ships were sunk. Still, not too shabby considering that their range was supposed to be 11⁄2 miles and the Brits were two miles off.

Still, after all is said and done, "If the fort had surrendered, it wouldn't have mattered much," Sheads said. There were still 15,000 U.S. troops waiting in what is now Patterson Park, and the harbor entrance had been blocked by sunken ships.

But what a loss to our national creation mythology!

For more information about the "The War of 1812" see pbs.org/1812.

Oh say, you can see it

The Baltimore screening of the film "The War of 1812" benefits Star-Spangled 200 Inc., the nonprofit fundraising arm of the state's War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission, which awards grants and sponsors events and programs related to the anniversary.

To add to the festivities, Landmark Harbor East Cinema will offer special movie-themed adult beverages, such as the Francis Scott Key ("Old Glory Red, White and Blueberry") and the Cannonball of 1812 ("Packs a Punch!").

Landmark Harbor East Cinema is at 645 S. President St. Tickets are available online at starspangled200.com (scroll to page bottom), and at the box office for $15, or $20 at the door.

Words and music

Director Lawrence Hott and his filmmaking crew couldn't cover it all, even in the full two-hour version of their film. Marylanders should recall (and look up, if they don't) local heroes and highlights such as the Battle of North Point; Mary Pickersgill and the Flag House; Joshua Barney; Bladensburg; the two-day White House, a.k.a. the Madison House, in Brookeville,Montgomery County.

Especially dear to Free State hearts is the story of the national anthem, treated by Marylander Mark Hildebrand in an hour-long film appropriately entitled "Anthem." It's intended for next fall's PBS lineup and previews along with "War."

But dear as it may be, "It's a sad thing that so many Marylanders don't know its history," says Hildebrand: how state native Francis Scott Key wrote a song, not a poem, setting his lyrics to a well-known English drinking tune, as was customary, so folks could easily sing along. It didn't become our national anthem until an effort made in 1918 by Maryland congressman CharlesLinthicum.

To learn more about "Anthem," see mym-media.org.

Everybody wave

The war — dubbed "1812" because that's when it was officially declared — officially lasted from 1812 to 1815 and was viewed by the Brits as a mere sideline to the great Napoleonic Wars, which went on for 20 years.

Events commemorating the War of 1812 will run from 2012 to 2015. To get into the spirit, and keep it up, you can order a 15-star, 15-stripe replica of the Star-Spangled Banner that flew over Fort McHenry in 1814 and inspired Francis Scott Key.

Produced here in the United States and available from the F.W. Haxel Co., the flags come in two versions, printed nylon for $20 and a limited-edition sewn nylon with appliquéd stars for $73.50. Proceeds benefit three nonprofits: The Star-Spangled Banner Flag House, Friends of Fort McHenry and the American Flag Foundation.

To purchase a flag, go to http://www.fwhaxel.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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