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10 DAYS THAT UNEXPECTEDLY CHANGED AMERICA

Review by Mark Wiechman

Directors: Various
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Full screen Color & B&W
Studio: A&E Home Video
Features: See Review
Length: 460 Minutes three discs
Release Date: June 20, 2006

Films  ***1/2

"Who would harm me?  Who hates me?"

President McKinley, at the World’s Fair, 1901

"It would be Roosevelt's good luck to have someone shoot the president this afternoon."

An anonymous aide to the president, the day McKinley was shot

In 1862, as Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia, 40,000 strong, rode into Maryland to fight McClellan's 60,000 Union troops, he hoped that Maryland would welcome his ragtag soldiers, since Maryland was a slave state.  But they did not.  He assumed that the Union would abandon Harper's Ferry, but they did not. This cut off his supply and communication lines.  Lee's plans fell into the hands of the Union, and McClellan could have carved the Confederates up permanently and ended the war, but he did not.   Union soldiers were ordered to march shoulder to shoulder through a thirty acre corn field knowing that he confederates were on the other side ready to mow them down, and mow them down they did.  Like ocean waves crashing into a cliff, men noisily crashed into metal over and over again in the morning sun.  In only three hours, 9,000 men were killed or wounded.  But they kept coming, and the confederates had to withdraw.  Then on a stretch of sunken road not far away, the confederates waited for the union troops to march down a hill toward them.  And they kept coming, forcing another withdrawal.  Confederate soldiers, many without shoes, were mowed down as they fled, foreshadowing the trench warfare of the First World War.  But this was not far away in Europe, it was not even a few days' journey from our nations' capital. 

And now McClellan could once again end it all, with plenty of reserve troops to force surrender, but he did not.  While he may have been motivated by mercy, he doomed the country to many more years of war, and tens of thousands more dead and wounded.  He completely misunderstood the southern resolve to win.  He knew how to build armies but lacked the will to use them, like a mechanic who won’t drive a fine car he built for fear of getting it dirty. 

After all of this, one more final confrontation would happen, as it so often does in war, on a small, short bridge over a creek.  As night fell, thousands of screams and howls could be heard from soldiers who needed medical attention, primitive as it was in those days.  Surgeons were little more than butchers who were expected to work miracles with little more to work with than whiskey and rags. 

This was Antietam, a battle the likes of which the western hemisphere had never seen before, which shattered forever any assumptions that the war would be over soon.  It ended with a draw, 23,000 dead or wounded, more than nine times the number of men killed in the Normandy invasion.  Matthew Brady's pictures of the battle, published in the newspapers, were worse than any nightmare humanity could imagine.  Five days later, Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which legally did not free anyone, but did make clear that with a northern victory, slavery would end.  Antietam was seen as a repulsion of the southern invasion, which was a victory to the north.  But Lincoln relieved him anyway, paving the way for Grant's eventual true victory.  This program reveals that England was about to intervene and help the south, partly because it needed cotton, but since the North resolved to free the slaves as the British Empire had done, helping the south was impossible. 

This is perhaps the best done of the ten programs, with so many expert historians briskly narrating their sections over historic photos that are incredibly made three-dimensional.  And with so much focus on the way the war began and ended, and Gettysburg of course, it is easy to forget that Antietam was the unexpected turning point of the conflict.  And while the finding of gold in California and Elvis were significant, they do not compare to Matthew Brady's images of brothers laying among the leaves in Maryland. 

In another excellent episode, we learn than Teddy Roosevelt was enjoying a climb out west when he received a message that President McKinley was shot, but was recovering, which he was.  Unfortunately, medicine being primitive in those days, the president was not given intravenous fluids, and he died.  When a second messenger came, Roosevelt’s face fell, because he knew what the message was this time.   McKinley was not killed because of the man he was, but simply because he was the president.  The McKinley special is rather dry as its subject matter, but then this was appropriate because Teddy Roosevelt was such a ball of fire by comparison as the 20th century was so much hotter than the 19th.   Far too much time is spent on the world's fair itself and the assassin as well, although maybe this is apropos because there are already many good programs about TR.  But the point is also made that TR never would have been nominated, let alone elected president, were it not for the unhappy worker who killed McKinley.  TR was a precious gem in the hall of presidents, well-learned, progressive, intelligent, gutsy, in love with the land of America and its people, and didn’t take any nonsense from anyone.  He even insisted on shaking hands with anyone who came to the White House, despite the assassination of his predecessor. 

I enjoyed the episode on Einstein’s Letter to President Roosevelt because while it is well known that Einstein’s theories led to the atomic bomb, it is less well known that his letter on 7/16/39 was the actual impetus for America launching the most significant scientific odyssey of modern times.  This episode also contains actual footage of the iconic figure.  Most of this story has been told before but in movie form, not with actual footage of the scientists.  And fortunately this episode avoids the absurd historic revisionism and apologies for dropping the bomb at all, which ended the war, and avoided thousands of allied casualties.  It does discuss the guilt felt by scientists for the atrocity and the foresight that world war three could come, which is understandable, and different from regretting that it was ever done.  We can be sympathetic to the gentle scientists who knew so little of politics or war.  The same German scientists who were working on such a weapon for Hitler were captured by the Allies, brought to America, and built the Saturn V which took America to the moon.  Sadly, the arms race also resulted.  Einstein regretted ever sending his letter, saying in 1954 that he only did it because he feared that Hitler would do it first.  This is historical fact, and good to learn.  It is refreshing to hear historians telling history. 

As much as I love Elvis of course, I was not sure if Elvis being on the Ed Sullivan show deserved to be here, but it was the tipping point of culture in the 1950’s, and it could be said that the counterculture really started that night.  And of course the Beatles would not have even existed were it not for Elvis.  And in 1956, Elvis kicked ass.  To this day, no one else has really come close.   So much of what would come to be identified with the 60's in terms of sexuality and race relations and the youth movement really caught fire that night.  Most of what is in this episode has been told before, but is told well again.               

Shay's rebellion is also very worthy of inclusion because the farmers who rose up against the judiciary in Massachusetts demanding debt relief led to the total abandonment of the Articles of Confederation and a strong constitution and central government.  I find it very ironic that their Jeffersonian belief that revolting against the results of the revolution led to the more Hamiltonian central government with taxation and pensions that we have today.  Calling it the first Civil War is appropriate, but this episode is marred with crude animation in a 70's style which was rightly abandoned back then and should probably not be watched by epileptics.  The content is first-rate, though, and eventually you get used to the animation style. 

The Scopes trial was the first trial ever broadcast over the radio and was also relayed by telegraph.  A Landing strip was even built, and clips were filmed and shown in theatres across the country.  After the trial, many anti-evolution laws were enacted and textbooks often omitted references to evolution altogether.  This one of the weaker episodes of the series with its sanctimonious implication that the Supreme Court was correct in separating church and state and allowing evolution back into textbooks as if it was accepted fact, which it really is not.  But as any viewer knows, this is an issue which remains sensitive today and is a uniquely American conflict.  While this episode was of good quality it reveals nothing that anyone who took junior high history would not already know. 

I am also unsure of why the Homestead Strike was so significant because while it is important in the history of the labor movement in America, it did not have the long-term impact of the other nine days listed here.   Martin Sheen’s voice is so well known as that of economic Noble-Prize winning President Bartlett on The West Wing that it is hard to separate his narration from that character.  Ironically, slavery was outlawed in the nation but continued in reality the industrial north.  This episode was directed by Rory Kennedy, daughter of Robert Kennedy, so perhaps we should not be surprised by its populist angle.   Eventually the labor movement would catch fire and end many of the abuses so evident in those days, but that is not made very clear in this episode. 

The Gold Rush was significant in that it truly ushered in the settlement of the west and forever altered the landscape of America, and it was the first time the common man could get it for himself and keep it forever.  This had never happened before in history.  With the discovery of gold in a California on January 24, 1848, California became an economic powerhouse almost overnight.  America might not have even become the giant it is today without it.  Other than the civil war, no event was more significant in changing America’s history in the nineteenth century.  The money made from the gold rush also led to the funding of the transcontinental railroad, which was the most significant engineering feat of the time and the first such railroad in the world.  This special goes into that topic, since it is very interesting and did follow directly from the gold rush. 

The first episode is interesting because it is a lesser known event.  The Massacre at Mystic on May 16, 1637 was one of the first all-out genocides in modern history and was carried out by New England settlers in Connecticut against Native Americans.  It was the first all-out assault by settlers on native peoples.  What made it so horrific is that women and children were slaughtered just as men were, which even the most savage warriors rarely did.  While other natives helped the settlers fight the Pequot, they were shocked at the bloodlust the English showed.  The narration avoids the pitfall of condemning the settlers as a whole by pointing out that native Americans warred constantly with each other, and at the same time displays the admirable persistence of the surviving members of the tribe who not only lived on a reservation well in to the twentieth century with no utilities which we all take for granted but eventually were able to build the largest casino in the country, getting even in a way with America.   This episode also features well-done dramatic re-enactments of settlements and the battle itself. 

Being a southerner, and working in an office that is very integrated, I am sensitive to how far racial relations have come also how in many ways some things never change.  It is still hard to believe that during Freedom Summer, on 6/21/64 (often referred to as the “storming of the Bastille” of the Civil Rights movement) two white youths were killed in Mississippi simply because they tried to help blacks register to vote.  This was unexpected, and the world took notice.  Television also prevented the South from hiding from the rest of America what had been going on for almost a century.  This was an excellent inclusion in the series because this particular event is often overlooked in the larger picture of the struggle.  

Other than the Shay’s rebellion, the video quality of all of the specials is excellent, and other than the special on the Homestead Strike, the narration is also excellent.  This is the History Channel’s most ambitious project ever, and accolades are well-deserved.  Most of the information in these specials is not necessarily new or revelatory, but still very well-presented. 

I have always enjoyed programs which showed how little-known events in history which seemed insignificant at the time had such great consequences. They remind me that everything we do everyday has meaning even if we don’t realize it now.  The person who sweeps the floor might determine who rules the world tomorrow.  I would have liked to have seen a few other days such as the fall of the Shah in Iran, which led to the Islamic terrorism of today, and the Tet offensive bears mentioning, but then these did not happen in America, so maybe we need 10 days which unexpectedly changed the world. 

Video ****

No visual flaws or other problems are evident.  Very professional and easy on the eyes with vivid colors throughout.

Audio ****

Only Dolby Stereo but the mixes are uniformly excellent, which is sometimes difficult when so many different narrators are mixed with music, sound effects, and dramatic re-enanctments. 

Features  ***

A documentary which has brief interviews with most of the directors and narrators is brief but interesting.  It opens with the trailer for the whole series itself.  I recommend watching this in its entirety first, which will kindle your interest in each episode and point you to the ones you will enjoy the most.  There are also filmmaker biographies and filmographies. 

Summary:

Not necessarily as ground-breaking or as uniformly excellent as some History Channel productions, but still innovative and full of exciting history (yes, there is such a thing), 10 Days is another addition to the must-see shelf.  Should be required viewing in every classroom.

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