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Battlefield Detectives

(ITV Studios; US DVD: 14 Feb 2012)

History holds plenty of mysteries—who was Jack the Ripper? Why was Stonehenge built? Did Lee Harvey Oswald act alone?—but there’s plenty of conventional wisdom out there, as well. Hitler’s big mistake was invading Russia in the fall. Had the US aircraft carriers been docked at Pearl Harbor, Japan would have won the war. The arrival of Cortez was foretold by the Aztec religion, allowing the Spaniard to conquer a civilization despite being outnumbered 300 to one.


Battlefield Detectives is a British TV series that looks at a series of crucial battles and puts the conventional wisdom under the microscope. Did King Harold really lose to William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066 because he took an arrow to the eye? Were the English longbowmen the pivotal reason for the massacre of French knights at Agincourt? Was Nelson’s dual-column charge at Trafalgar really a triumph of brilliant strategic planning? Was ANZAC incompetence responsible for the Turkish victory at Gallipoli? How on earth did the combined might of the US military lose to a hodgepodge of pajama-clad Vietnamese irregulars?


This lively and entertaining series looks at nine different battles and tries to reconstruct what really happened. Ranging from Hastings in 1066 to Vietnam 900 years later, unorthodox methods are used to uncover new information: battlefield archeaologists dig up remains of arrowheads, armor and shell casings; computer topography reveals how terrain has changed over the centuries; computerized weather tracking reveals the mystery of tidal and wind patterns. Management theorists compare leadership styles, while computer-generated models of crowd behavior show the unpredictable nature of large groups of people.


The result of all this is a series that is as thoroughly enjoyable as it is educational. Helpfully, each episode recaps the conventional thinking about the battle under review, bringing viewers who need it (ahem) up to speed on who was fighting whom, and why, and with what kind of weaponry. Reenactments and movie clips add a dash of excitement to the maps, charts and photographs used, but the emphasis remains squarely on the history involved, not the myth-making. (The actor playing Admiral Nelson hams it up just a touch, strolling around with one arm missing and a lopsided smirk pasted forever on his face, but oh well.)


History buffs are apt to learn something new, and for the rest of us, there’s plenty to absorb. Particularly interesting is the episode on Agincourt, which has been seen for centuries as the triumph of the longbow over the mounted knight, and thus the victory of the poorly paid and equipped common man over his social superior. Research demonstrated on the show, however, suggests that the primitive iron arrowheads of the time would have been too soft to break through the superior steel plate available to the wealthy knights, and that other, less glamorous effects—of rainy weather and soggy soil, of narrowing terrain and crowd dynamics—were to blame. If you’ve ever wondered what a crowd disaster at a Stereophonics concert can tell us about an epoch-defining medieval massacre, then this is the show for you.


Other episodes prove equally interesting. The battle of the Little Big Horn, popularly known as Custer’s Last Stand, has long fired American imaginations with its images of brave men fighting a doomed action and nobly dying “with their boots on”. Yet, forensic evidence from the battle site indicates that the heroic last stand never took place—something that Native American oral histories have maintained for years. Elsewhere, the episode on Vietnam focuses on the 1968 Tet offensive and draws the perhaps unsurprising conclusion that psychology, not technology, was the single biggest factor in the American defeat.


Extras are few on these discs, but after sitting through nine episodes and over 400 minutes, most viewers are apt to be satisfied. There are a few biographical profiles focusing on major military figures—text only—and a thin pamphlet detailing related topics (Attaturk, The Art of War, the Crimean War), but this is pretty bare-bones stuff.


Perhaps the biggest criticism of the series is its Anglo-American focus. Custer’s defeat is related almost entirely as a setback for Washington and not as a triumph for the native peoples who successfully united to accomplish the rout; the Vietnam victory is framed largely as a bitter episode of disillusionment for Americans, rather than an entirely justified resistance by an occupied people. The battles in question invariably involve English-speaking forces, and one wonders what the program might have uncovered to throw new light on, say, the battle of Stalingrad, or perhaps Thermpylae, or Napolean’s victory in Egypt, or the Crusader’s victories and losses in the Holy Land. Then again, there are only nine episodes, so perhaps we can hope for a second series.


Despite its quirks, Battlefield Detectives is a program that is valuable both for its innovative use of technology to deepen our understanding of the past, and its clever use of the serial TV format to simultaneously enlighten and entertain. It’s a snappy, well-paced show, and if it suffers from a tendency to reiterate its main points in any given episode, well, such is the nature of television. (Ideas tend to get repeated on either side of commercial breaks.) This is a useful series for anyone with an interest in history or a willingness to have this interest awakened.

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DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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