“Do not try to cross the U.S./Canada border with a big bucket labelled ‘mass-casualty blood,’ ” warns two-time Oscar nominee Lawrence Hott, director of a new documentary, The War of 1812.
Last summer, Canada Customs officials stopped Hott at the border near Buffalo as he was en route to Hamilton’s Westfield Heritage Village to oversee the recreation of some War of 1812 battles for his ambitious film marking the bicentennial next year of that peculiar conflict. In the car, courtesy of a Hollywood supplier, was a vat of powdered artificial blood that Hott’s makeup artist had reminded him to bring from his home in western Massachusetts.
“So the customs agents come out and they ask you, ‘What are you doing and can we take a look?’ ” Hott recalled. “And then they see this stuff labelled ‘mass-casualty blood.’ ” Asked to explain, Hott promptly replied: “We’re going to a shoot,” and just as promptly realized this was a poor choice of words. Eventually, the agents relaxed, but “the look on one guy’s face was like, ‘Next time use different language.’ ”
Hott’s doc, airing Monday on PBS, deals with the ultimate “misunderstanding” between border mates, one played out with muskets, bayonets, cannon and sword. To this day, Canada and the United States have different takes on what went down. Canadians tend to think of it as the war in which we and our British masters kicked American butt – at the Battle of the Chateauguay in 1813 in Quebec, for instance, and at Queenston Heights, Ont., near Niagara Falls. It’s the war of “plucky” Laura Secord, “brave” Isaac Brock and the “noble” Tecumseh.
Americans, by contrast, don’t think very much about the War of 1812. Indeed, when Hott and his wife Diane Garey started preparing their PBS documentary, its working title was The Forgotten War. “Americans know the expressions, the tropes, the clichés that come out of it,” Hott observed. “ ‘Don’t give up the ship’ and ‘We have met the enemy and they are ours,’ Francis Scott Key writing the lyrics of The Star-Spangled Banner, the Johnny Horton hit The Battle of New Orleans.... But they have no idea what it’s about. And if they do have an idea,” he said with a laugh, “it’s usually wrong. They think it entailed some heroic second War of Independence against the Evil Empire of Great Britain. Or a kind of existential battle for the [United States’] very survival.” (A recent Ottawa study found Canadian respondents woefully ignorant as well; only 14 per cent of those interviewed by the Department of Canadian Heritage were able to identify the three countries involved – Great Britain, the United States and Canada.)
Many of the misconceptions on both sides are corrected in the two hours of The War of 1812. Mixing re-enactments and narration with animation, illustration and commentary from more than 20 experts, Hott’s $1-million doc is a lively, scrupulously balanced account of a war that was at once small (casualties totalled about 45,000 in close to three years of fighting) and wide-ranging (hundreds of battles took place on land and sea, from Quebec to Louisiana, the Canary Islands to Brazil). It was also inconclusive (neither side delivered a knockout punch) yet terribly important.
It was particularly important for the native people of North America. While the war produced no clear winners, as Hott noted, the native peoples were “the one clear loser.” Most sided with the British and the Canadian colonists throughout the war, believing they afforded the best bulwark against rampant American expansionism on native land. However, when the charismatic Shawnee chief Tecumseh was mortally wounded at the Battle of the Thames in Ontario in 1813, it signalled “the death knell for Indian sovereignty,” Hott said. It was Tecumseh who’d envisioned a British-backed native confederacy occupying vast swaths of what is now Illinois, Michigan, Indiana and Minnesota. The loss of his leadership combined with the stalemate that concluded the war meant the natives lost their last realistic “chance to regain their land, regain their power.”
The idea for The War of 1812 goes back almost eight years to when Hott, a lawyer by training who’d gotten the documentary bug in the late 1970s from his friend and mentor, the legendary U.S. doc maker Ken Burns, was preparing a film on Niagara Falls with his wife for WNED, the Buffalo-based PBS station. WNED asked if the couple would be interested in preparing a film for the War of 1812 bicentennial. They knew it would take between five and eight years to do such a major production, with most of that time devoted to assembling the funding: “But even when we had the money, it still took us three years.”
PBS undoubtedly will rebroadcast the program next year. In the meantime, CBC-TV has confirmed it has its own two-hour 1812 documentary planned for a fall, 2012, air date.
The War of 1812 airs on many PBS stations on Monday at 9 p.m. ET.
War of 1812 timeline
June, 1812 The United States declares war on Great Britain, irked by Britain’s economic blockade of ports controlled by the French in continental Europe. Britain has been at war with Napoleon since 1803.
July-August ,1812 The U.S., realizing it can only wage war on Britain by taking the fight to its only colony in North America, undertakes a three-prong invasion of Upper and Lower Canada. All assaults end in failure.
The British regard American belligerence as an irritating sideshow to its main task, defeating Napoleon. Though vastly outnumbered, they’re nonetheless determined to keep “the Canadas” geographically intact using a combination of British regulars, Canadian militia and native warriors. British commander Sir Isaac Brock is killed while repelling an invasion force at Queenston Heights.
September, 1813 U.S. Commodore Oliver H. Perry wins the Battle of Lake Erie, putting six British ships out of action. Sends note to commanding general: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”
August, 1814 British troops torch the White House and other buildings in Washington, claiming the action as revenge for the American burning of Fort York (now Toronto) 15 months earlier.
September, 1814 Fort McHenry in Baltimore harbour withstands British rocket and cannon attack, prompting American lawyer Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner, the lyrics later set to the melody of a drinking song.
December, 1814 Britain and U.S. sign the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium on Christmas Eve, formally ending the war.
January, 1815 Since news travels slowly in the early 19th century, 14,000 British regulars fight Andrew Jackson’s ragtag army at New Orleans – an unnecessary battle as the war, unbeknownst to the combatants, is over. One hundred and 44 years later, Johnny Horton scores a No. 1 hit with the historically inaccurate Battle of New Orleans.