Florentine Films documentary examines poorly understood War of 1812
It was a war the United States deliberately entered into, in part because of a belief another nation was stockpiling weapons that could be used against us. Many Americans assumed an easy victory was there for the taking and that the citizens of the enemy country would welcome our troops as liberators. Yet there were some in the U.S. who opposed the war and thought it could lead to economic chaos.
The 2003 invasion of Iraq? No, this was the War of 1812, likely the country’s least-understood conflict, one that’s also been largely forgotten even though it gave us our national anthem.
That’s something Florence filmmakers Larry Hott and Diane Garey are out to rectify with their newest work, a two-hour documentary on the War of 1812. The film provides a comprehensive look at a conflict that raged for over two and a half years across the border of Canada and the northeastern United States, on the Great Lakes, along the eastern U.S. seaboard and in the Atlantic, and even down to the Deep South.
It was a sometimes strange conflict, in which American and British ground and naval forces, Canadian militia and Native Americans were swept up in the fighting. Although U.S. army and militia units lost several battles, the fledgling American navy acquitted itself surprisingly well against Britain’s all-powerful maritime forces. Militarily, the war was inconclusive – yet it decisively shaped the future of both Canada and the U.S.
“The War of 1812”  includes colorful re-enactments of crucial battles and interviews with experts in Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain on the causes and impact of the fighting. Using archival materials and readings from the memoirs of actual combatants as well, Hott and Garey tell a story of incompetent American generals, scorched-earth tactics that targeted citizens along both sides of the national border, and the irrevocable decline of Indian tribes caught up in the battles.
The documentary, made in conjunction with PBS affiliates WNED-TV of Buffalo, N.Y., and Toronto, Canada, and WETA-TV in Washington, D.C., makes its public debut with a free showing Saturday at 7 p.m. at Northampton’s Academy of Music. The film will be introduced by the filmmakers. It airs nationally on PBS channels on Oct. 10 at 9 p.m.
Biggest film yet
Hott and Garey, the husband-and-wife team of Florentine Films/Hott Productions, have turned out numerous acclaimed documentaries on topics as diverse as mental illness, the development of the interstate highway system and the history of Ohio. But “The War of 1812” was a new experience for them, their first effort to chronicle a war and their first large-scale use of re-enactments to tell a story. With a budget of about $2 million, it was also likely their most expensive film, Garey notes, and the effort involved a bigger film crew than usual.
“We had 11 to 12 people this time, like a makeup person and a makeup assistant, a costumer and costume assistant, a gaffer, a photographer, you name it,” Hott said during a recent interview at the couple’s home studio in Florence. “We had special effects, animation, live burning (for battle scenes). We had to go through a fire-permitting process, get insurance for that, rent locations for filming … it was all quite a bit involved.” As in the past, the couple also relied on a core group of local film technicians for post-production work.
The new film traces it origins to 2004, when Garey and Hott were in Buffalo, working with WNED-TV on a documentary about Niagara Falls. Station officials asked them if they’d be interested in collaborating on a project about the War of 1812, and while neither Hott not Garey knew much about the conflict, they liked the idea. They began working full-bore on the project in 2008.
“When we started doing the research for the film, we were fascinated at the contrasts between the way the war had been portrayed historically and what had actually happened,” Garey said. “We’re trying to give a fuller picture.”
For example, the basic story line that emerged after the war was that the U.S. had won. However, Garey and Hott point out that U.S. forces lost most of the land battles. Several attempts to invade Canada from New York State failed dismally, due to inept American generals and poorly disciplined troops. Not until the end of the war, when an army led by future president Andrew Jackson routed the British outside New Orleans in January 1815, did the U.S. win a truly decisive victory.
That battle, which actually took place about a month after a peace treaty had been signed in Europe (word of the agreement would not reach the U.S. until February), became the distinguishing American narrative of the war, the filmmakers say – perhaps to expunge the humiliation of one of the conflict’s more well-known chapters, when British troops occupied Washington in August 1814 and torched the White House and the Capitol building.
As Hott and Garey lay out in the film, the War of 1812 was prompted by growing American anger at Great Britain, which, in the midst of its 15-year battle with Napoleonic France, was restricting U.S. trade with the European continent and impressing sailors from U.S. merchant ships for its own navy. There was also evidence that the British, seeking to preserve an Indian “buffer state” between the U.S. and Canada, were arming Indian tribes in parts of what is now the upper Midwest – land that some Americans, like future president and then-governor of Indiana William Henry Harrison, wanted for the fast-growing Republic.
President James Madison presented a list of grievances against Britain to Congress in June 1812, and both houses, in a fairly close vote – most notably in the Senate – opted to declare war. The divided tally reflected stark divisions across the country. The New England states, which had a good trade relationship with Britain, uniformly opposed the war and at one point considered seceding from the Union.
Some in the U.S. thought Canada would be easy pickings, its citizens eager to shuck off their British rulers to become part of the young American republic. Former President Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, “The acquisition of Canada … as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching.”
That turned out to be manifestly untrue – and very quickly, Hott says, he and Garey realized they’d have to tell this complex story in a different way. Hott ended up getting in touch with Peter Twist, a Canadian military consultant who has worked with Hollywood producers on several historically themed films. The two spent a week driving around southern Ontario and Quebec to scout out historic battlefields and other locations where the re-enactments could be staged. Twist also helped Hott enlist re-enactors for the film.
“He became like a co-director,” Hott said. “His help was crucial. We couldn’t have done the film without him.”
Hott was impressed with the level of detail and serious-minded research the re-enactors brought to the filming. It’s an important point, he says, given that some critics feel such historical re-creations have no place in a “true” documentary.
“We’re doing re-enactments with costume experts who have studied the uniforms right down to the buttons, and with soldiers who worked really hard to figure out what (the fighting) was like,” he said. In his view, those re-enactments are just as valid as, say, a painting of a principal figure from the war that was made 40 years after the conflict; there are virtually no contemporary drawings, paintings or images from the war, he says.
One of those principal figures was Tecumseh, chief of the Shawnees, who formed a confederacy with other Indian tribes to oppose American expansion into what’s now the upper Midwest. Tecumseh fought on the British side during the war and was killed in the Battle of the Thames, in southern Ontario, in October 1813. Yet in one of the war’s ironies, the film notes, Tecumseh later became a hero on both sides of the border. A bust of the warrior stands outside the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Garey says the war’s saddest legacy may be how it affected Native Americans. The war united Canadians in spirit, she notes, and it ultimately forged a stronger union in the U.S. For Britain, preoccupied with defeating Napoleon, the war was never much more than a sideshow. But after 1812, said Garey, “You never see the kind of united Indian front against advancing white settlement that (Tecumseh) tried to pull together. No one really wins the war, but the Indians lose it.”
In the end, the filmmakers say, “The War of 1812” is as much about how history is written or changed to reflect our beliefs and values as it is about the war itself. “It really is a very rich story,” Hott said.