Intriguing history documentary series. Athena has released Battlefield Detectives, a 3-disc, 9-episode boxed set representing the first season of the 2003 British doc show that was regularly seen on The History Channel. Episodes included here are Who Got Lucky at Hastings?, Agincourt's Dark Secrets, What Sank the Armada?, Trafalgar's Fatal Flaw, Massacre at Waterloo, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Custer's Last Stand, The Gallipoli Disaster, and Vietnam's Bloody Secret. Battlefield Detectives, with the aid of 3D animation and filmed recreations, takes us out of the stuffy lecture halls and classrooms and goes back to the source of these momentous skirmishes―the actual battlefields―where experts in fields as diverse as medieval firearms, meteorologists, engineers and genealogists postulate new theories about how and why these battles turned out the way they did. Some small extras help with these good-looking transfers.
Considering strictly the form of Battlefield Detectives, it doesn't differ significantly at all from other so-called "new form" TV historical documentaries we've come to know over the last 15 or 20 years. Not at all dissimilar to something like The World at War, where narration and newsreel footage dominates along with interspersed "talking heads," Battlefield Detectives obviously can't rely on real footage for discussions of centuries' old battles. However, it does maintain the dry-toned narrator and the frequent cut-aways to scholars and experts discussing their findings as with older documentary forms, while jazzing up the proceedings with more location shooting, sequences showing the forensic sciences being utilized, and of course, the filmed recreations of the battles that have become de rigueur with these docs (frankly, I'd rather have more discussion than the deliberately grainy, skimpy, too-closely-filmed―for budgetary reasons, no doubt―recreations that merely serve as filler here).
Or perhaps more challenges to these sometimes controversial conclusions would be in order. Most of the time, I found these new theories and ideas in Battlefield Detectives quite interesting and challenging, most particularly when they clashed with my own half-remembered facts on subjects I hadn't studied since college (and I was no expert then, either). If I remembered anything from the Battle of Hastings, it's the Bayeux Tapestry, the inexplicable foundering of Harold's boats on the treacherous Irish coast, and Harold's gory, memorable death via arrow to the eye. InWho Got Lucky at Hastings?, a meteorologist makes a good case for the weather and the tides battering Harold to the Irish coast, and there's some enticing speculation on whether or not Harold actually took that arrow to the face. Anything I remember about the Battle of Agincourt has been tainted by Laurence Olivier's Henry V, so it was fascinating to hear about how the celebrated long bow may not have played that significant of a role in the actual battle, and how the battlefield's mud created a deadly suction effect on the smooth French armor of the opposing army (this particular section was quite suspenseful...for a discussion of mud). And who knew that Tennyson got it wrong and that 450 soldiers actually did survive the celebrated "charge of the Light Brigade" that supposedly killed all 600 (some sequences are quite amusing, too, such as the modern experts who can't figure out how to correctly fire a cannon in the Armada episode)?
However, other revelations are a little harder to accept. Nothing of any substance came from the psychologists' and psychiatrists' discussion of the possible mental health of Marshal Ney at Waterloo. Perhaps all of the story behind the discovery of that so-called "battle plan" found scribbled on the back of one of Nelson's papers at the National Maritime Museum at Greenland wasn't put forth here in the doc...because isn't there an awful lot of "reading into" going on with that scribble, assigning motivation and state of mind to Nelson's actions at Trafalgar for a scribble that quite frankly could have been done by anyone in the subsequent decades? And where is the supporting evidence to back up the blanket assertion by a historian with the Crimean War Research group that British soldiers couldn't stand the same kind of conditions their Turkish allies did on Redoubt Number One during the Crimean War? Maybe that's true...but I'd like to hear why such a statement is true.
Indeed, as Battlefield Detectives tackles subjects closer to home, it seems the strict forensics of the earlier episodes fall more by the wayside as conjecture (and perhaps bias or agenda?) creep steadily in. I found the theories on the placement of the cartridge shells fascinating in the Custer episode, but assertions such as the remaining soldiers "bunched together in panic" before the final onslaught of the Native American warriors is suspicious, particularly when s.o.p. for military maneuvers at the time (at least as I understood them) was soldiers, when faced with dwindling numbers, bunched together for concentration of firepower and for maximizing their field of fire. Was there panic among Custer's soldiers as they faced their final moments? Almost certainly. But this episode rejects all other conclusions in the face of alternate, plausible explanations. It's also curious that in the previous episode (Light Brigade), we're told the historical record was at least fudged―as often happens by the victors―yet in the Custer episode, we're told to trust implicitly the accounts of the Native Americans who won the battle...even when those accounts are known to contradict each other or come from unreliable witnesses (I also found it interesting to see a Native American oral historian use the term "we" when describing the Indians winning their strategic battle over Custer...and then switch to "they" when describing the nauseating mutilations those same Indians performed on the fallen soldiers' corpses).
The Vietnam episode is even more suspect, with almost nothing "new" in the way of theories postulated as to why Vietnam came out the perceived winners of the war, but quite a few questionable assertions, such as Walter Cronkite's biased report on the Tet Offensive turning the tide of American opinion (with no one questioning the media's role in propagating and reinforcing, day after day, this overwhelmingly pessimistic view of the war's operations―an important point since Cronkite has since openly admitted his bias, and since lack of political will with the American public was critical at a time when we were actually routing the Vietnamese right to the peace talk tables). In the last moments of the episode, the narrator calmly states that after the Americans left, the country was reunited under Communist rule...while the director shows a kid flying a kite―a deliberate directorial choice and a rather grotesque commentary that seems quite out of place in this otherwise intelligent documentary series. Those aren't small carps in those questionable-but-still-fascinating episodes, and they should be noted. Still, Battlefield Detectives at least makes you think, questioning your long-held beliefs (or half-remembered half-truths) of these historic battles.
Here are the 9 episodes of the 3-disc collection, Battlefield Detectives, as described on their slimcases:
Episode 1: Who Got Lucky at Hastings?
Episode 2: Agincourt's Dark Secrets
Episode 3: What Sank the Armada?
Episode 4: Trafalgar's Fatal Flaw
Episode 5: Massacre at Waterloo
Episode 6: The Charge of the Light Brigade
Episode 7: Custer's Last Stand
Episode 8: The Gallipoli Disaster
Episode 9: Vietnam's Bloody Secret
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.