The story of The Great War is one that has been told and retold, from every imaginable vantage point, with enough volumes written on the subject to fill libraries—a fact that might leave some with the belief that there is little more to say. As PBS’ six-hour series so powerfully reveals, this is simply not so.
Honing in on a number of the war’s lesser-known, heroic figures, in addition to the names that litter textbooks, The Great War examines a critical turning point in American history over 100 years ago which set the stage for today’s America, in all its advancements and continued challenges.
Below, executive producer Mark Samels—the mind behind American Experience, PBS’ Emmy-winning flagship history series—discusses the ramifications of the conflict ironically dubbed The War to End All Wars, and the process of working with archival footage to create a more modern, immediate and palpable experience of a historical moment.
As the executive producer of American Experience, what is your thought process in developing films, and what made you want to take on World War I in a documentary series?
I think one of the hallmarks of our series, as we approach our 30th anniversary next year, is the ability to take on subjects that are not as well-known as they should be. At the top of the list of candidates for that is the First World War, which I knew relatively little about three years ago. I think I knew what most people knew: soldiers coming out of the trenches, and a little bit of confusion of how long we were over there fighting, how many Americans were killed, and what it all added up to.
The more I looked into it, the more I realized that it was not only interesting as a narrative, but it was absolutely momentous in terms of shaping the country that we live in today, which is a country that’s engaged in the world. This is the moment when we became engaged in the world, after years of debate and discussion about whether that was a good idea or not.
That was the impetus for it, and that’s why we chose to do it at scale—you know, the six hours. We don’t have soldiers going overseas to France until the middle of the second show—it was very much about the time and the role of this event, from the discussion and debates beginning in 1914, all the way through the peace treaties of 1919.
It’s interesting to watch footage from that era because while camera technology was clearly available, it wasn’t until Vietnam that the American public gained a more immediate visual connection to war, through the medium of television.
The interesting thing about the First World War is that it’s 100 years ago, and yet it’s really the first war that took place within the era of motion pictures. A lot of those motion pictures are remarkable for the fact that they occurred—certainly, under the circumstances that there were cameramen out there during this absolute brutal warfare—and they also feel kind of distant, because of the technology of the time.
They’re often shot at a distance, they’re shot in wide-angle because they didn’t have lenses that were fast enough to record close-ups. It’s documented, but it’s documented in a very non-modern way. It’s out there at a remove.
Can you explain the process of combing through what must have been an immense amount of archival footage in putting together this series?
We went to 150 sources of archival material, in the U.S. and around the world, over the course of two years, and scoured these archives for material. There was even more than we even dreamed there was, but we also had to make it work for a contemporary audience.
We did that by spending a lot of time and resources on doing two things. One was cleaning up the ravages of time—cleaning up scratches and dirt [on the film], and restoring it to how it would have looked then—and the other was selectively reframing, and using technology to crawl into the image, and bring it closer to us, so that we could bring the phenomenon closer to the audience.
I think that’s why it feels like you’re seeing this war in motion pictures for the first time.
Among the series’ many aspects is a fascinating study of President Woodrow Wilson, whose actions often contradicted his ideals.
Absolutely, I think you nailed it with the word “contradictions.” One of the great things narratively about this story is that you have this central character who is just a crosscurrent of positives and negatives. He is the one who is trying to imagine how this atrocity and this bloodbath can be turned into something that’ll bring nations closer together, and he really did believe that this could be a war to end all great wars.
He was incredibly smart— a college professor, Ph.D., wonderful speaker, beautiful writer. His speeches from the time are just so extraordinary, and he was so articulate and so thoughtful. Yet, like we all [are], he was shaped by his upbringing and his time.
A southerner who had grown up in the aftermath of the Civil War and Reconstruction, he was incredibly on the wrong side of racial relations. He reinstituted segregation, and he was also was very stubborn. His inability to compromise over the Versailles Treaty and the League of Nations at the end of Episode 3 is so tragic, and even his supporters say it’s just so hard to understand why he couldn’t give a little to get the League of Nations passed by Congress.
[American biographer] Scott Berg, I think, is in turmoil over Wilson’s intransigence, and how he lost everything he’d worked for. He’s a remarkable, almost Shakespearean character—and then, of course, in the midst of this, he loses his wife, and he falls madly in love, so he’s distracted by his passions, as well. [Laughs] He’s an amazing character at the center.
The Great War dives deep, going beyond the major players to tell the stories of lesser-known figures caught up in the war—pilots, soldiers, and nurses, among others. How did you come upon these characters, whose experiences flesh out our understanding of the war?
That was exactly what we set out to do at the beginning. In addition to some of the major figures of the time—[General] John Pershing, Jane Addams—we talked about the need for characters that we hadn’t heard about who represented the full spectrum of people that got pulled into this.
Events like this, there are relatively few of them in history, but they form a vortex and pull people in from all different walks of life, and different perspectives, and push them together into something that they would have never been a part of together before. We wanted to represent that.
It’s the African-American from the Deep South who volunteers and becomes part of the French Foreign Legion. How does that even happen? We have Mary Borden—an American living a comfortable life in London, with children—who decides that she has to get to the front and set up an ambulance corps, a hospital, and she’s there on the front lines of the war from near the beginning.
Over and over again, if you dig—and we dug for more than a year, looking for characters—you find how the war touched so many people’s lives, at home and abroad.
That’s the thing I feel best about the series, the time that we put into unearthing those stories, and connecting them, and showing that this is not a military story, this was not a political story—this was an everything story, and it touched every person.
In your view, why is this series such a pertinent and powerful watch at this point in history? It seems to set up, intentionally or otherwise, certain parallels to the world we live in now, and the current presidential administration.
The revelation of this story, for all of us on the production team, is basically confirming the idea that there is relatively little new under the sun.
One of the dominant tensions in American society from 1914 to 1919 was the tension between national security and civil liberties. We were refashioning ourselves as a player on the world stage, we were worried about this all-of-a-sudden polyglot society we’re in. We had this period of mass immigration, highly suspicious of what were called “hyphenated Americans,” really worried that the fabric of loyal Americans coming out of the 19th century was now starting to fray with all this diversity.
Who could we trust? “Who was really an American?” became one of the biggest questions that people asked. This is another part of Woodrow Wilson’s head-banging complexity—this idealist was willing to set fire to the Bill of Rights and pass this Sedition Act because he just could not stand any criticism of the war effort.
He thought that it was such a huge risk that the country was taking, entering this bloodbath, that everyone had to be on the same side, and damn it if they weren’t—we’re going to throw them in prison.
The reverberations of that tension are in the newspapers every day today—every day. Immigration, civil liberties, America’s role in the world, the status of women, the status of minorities, our foreign policy and how it affects our domestic policy. It really crystalized a hundred years ago, and we’re still living with the ramifications of that.
It’s playing out differently. I tend to subscribe more to Mark Twain’s view of history, which is, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes a lot.” I think that’s what this whole story’s about, and why it’s worth seeing.
We made a lot of really good choices as a nation in this time period, we made some bad choices, but knowing that we’ve gone through these questions before, and that we’ve struggled with them, and dealt with them, and haven’t always arrived at a great place with them, but oftentimes have…
Listen, we went over there and had just completely exhausted forces in our allies, France and Britain. We turned the tide and brought this war to an end. That was a huge achievement, but we failed to really bring the peace back, and we started ripping apart the treaty as soon as it got back here. We’re still dealing with the consequences of that.
While Woodrow Wilson and Donald Trump are quite different characters, there are, arguably, similarities to tease out, in terms of the policies you’ve mentioned and the atmosphere of paranoia they have both devised, cultivating suspicion of immigrants and setting citizens against their neighbors.
I’m a little hesitant to dive into the [current] President. [Laughs] I think folks like Alex Gibney live a lot more in the present than I do, but I can tell you that living in a time when we’re looking for some sort of stability or guidepost, one of the things people have reached out for is to reread Orwell’s 1984. World War I took place in a very Orwellian space, where you had the biggest propaganda campaign ever conducted in American history, and what was true, what wasn’t true, who was an American, who’s not an American—all of those questions are there.
I think they’ve been there from the beginning, in such a diverse, polyglot nation. Paranoia has some easy inroads in, and things can build, so whatever we call the populist moment we’re in right now, and what it feeds on, it’s a very strong current in American life.