‘Edge of War’ TV Series Departs from Traditional Documentary Style
United States Army General Wesley K. Clark, (Ret.), a former Supreme Allied Commander for NATO, hosts the new series "Edge of War" from the Military Channel.
Television can be a powerful medium for presenting historical stories. The depth of information presented may range from a general overview to a thorough examination of the chosen topic. But whatever their depth, TV documentaries containing factual information and analysis, presented in ways that are dynamic and entertaining, can reach new audiences and hopefully prompt viewers to look further into a particular historical "storyline." The approach taken in the new television series Edge of War, which debuts its first episode on Military Channel on Tuesday, April 3 (check local listings for time), has this potential to engage. It will surprise some viewers—not so much in its historical content as for its provocative visual style.
The idea of the series is to examine various game-changing events that launched selected conflicts and campaigns; hence, the title Edge of War. Subjects that will be covered over the course of the series include the preliminaries to the Nazi invasion of Poland; General Douglas MacArthur’s pivotal Inchon campaign; Fidel Castro’s revolution in Cuba; the Falklands War; the takedown of Panama’s General Manuel Noriega; and the Iran/Iraq War. While the shows’ style has many familiar aspects, Edge of War‘s real departure from nearly all other television documentaries of recent memory is that in each episode an ongoing, staged dramatization illustrates the narrative. Before examining that element further, let’s examine the content of the series.
The series’ host is General Wesley K. Clark, (Ret.), a 38-year U.S. Army veteran with a distinguished career that included serving as Supreme Allied Commander for NATO. General Clark’s presence is more than celebratory—he brings the analysis of a scholarly warrior who spent many tours of command in situations where knowledge of the political situation was vital to military planning. Edge of War, with its emphasis on war in the larger historical perspective, attracted his attention, as he explains in an exclusive interview with ArmchairGeneral.com.
"I’m always interested in taking another look at these critical moments when conflicts first emerge, the political and strategic reasoning behind them, and how that drives the military operations at the outset" Gen. Clark told us, "because so much about what happens depends on how it begins and why."
As mentioned, the first program, "Hitler’s False Flag," focuses on the beginnings of World War II in Europe by examining briefly Adolph Hitler’s rise to power and his penchant for dirty tricks in support of his political interests. In an effort to expand his power base while simultaneously providing Lebensraum (living space) for the German people, Hitler looks to expand the Third Reich into Eastern Europe. The program looks at his negotiations with British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and how Chamberlain’s trust in him breaks down as the German leader makes bold moves into Czechoslovakia in the face of a European community Hitler deems weak. Chamberlain and the rest of Europe know an invasion of Poland is next.
Though Poland’s Commander-in-Chief, Marshal Edward Smigly-Rydz, receives assurances of military support from Great Britain and France, he knows his large but ill-equipped military will be no match for a well-oiled Nazi war machine. Poland, where so much blood has already been shed in centuries of warfare was about to get another dose. That bloody history did not escape the attention of the Nazis, according to General Clark.
The embers of distrust between the two nations were whipped up in the minds of the German people by Nazi rhetoric and ignited into flame by an incident planned by SS security chief Reinhard Heydrich on the eve of Germany’s invasion of her neighbor. In a carefully planned "false flag" operation, SS operatives act as if they were Polish soldiers and citizens. They storm a radio station at Gleiwitz, just inside Germany’s border with Poland, on the night of August 31 and announce in Polish that Germany must be attacked. The SS actors also assault several additional nearby objectives and exchange shots in the air with other SS soldiers. Several concentration camp inmates, dubbed "canned goods’ by the operatives, are killed and left as human evidence of the attack.
None of the European leaders outside Germany are fooled by these theatrics but the incident likely added to the support within Germany for the beginning of a war environment. The next day Hitler launched the massive air and ground blitzkrieg campaign that overran Poland within a month and marked the beginning of World War II as a global conflict.
The second episode of Edge of War explores another key moment, this one during the Korean War, when U.S. commander General Douglas MacArthur sends Navy Lieutenant Eugene Clark on a one-man intelligence-gathering mission behind the front lines in preparation for the massive Inchon amphibious operation.
The four other episodes cover confrontations that arose from Cold War politics and other ideological differences of the late 20th century. From a shaky beginning, Fidel Castro successfully engineered a Communist revolution in Cuba. Fear of Communist influence in Latin America led to the establishment of military dictators in the region, who caused problems on their own. Argentine military leaders tried unsuccessfully to flex their power, only to fail when they crossed no-nonsense Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the United Kingdom, resulting in the brief Falklands War of 1982. In similar fashion, Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega got crosswise with the United States, which sent troops to shut him down. The 1980–1988 conflict in the Persian Gulf between the Islamic nations of Iraq and Iran, explored in the season’s final episode, would have dramatic future implications but was less known to Americans at the time.
"In the West, among the audience that will probably see this [Iran/Iraq War program], there was less buildup for this," explains General Clark. "People didn’t really understand it as well."
While Edge of War, which is produced in Canada, makes use of some established documentary techniques there is clear departure from familiar motifs. Reenactments or dramatizations have been used sparingly in most of the historical documentaries that make the airways, and are usually presented in soft focus, stop-action or some other stylized means. Here, the dramatizations are stark, up front. And there are portrayals of the principals— in the first episode, Hitler, Chamberlain and Smigly-Rydz, among others. It is a little disconcerting to see these portrayals and scenes while the narration explains what is going on. One would expect the actors to be delivering their own lines as in a historical drama. Indeed, these scenes work best when there is some audio from the action underneath. The takeover of the radio station at Gleiwitz is one of the most effective and dramatic scenes in the first program.
By now audiences are used to computer game–style graphics and animation in these programs. Yet, Edge of War does not cut from the same cloth here, either. The maps are dark and brooding, seemingly a chess board with its pieces waiting in place or moving around—perhaps a symbolic presentation of the larger political and military forces making their moves in an oversized game. The battle animation at times mixes with the reenactments and there is the feeling of the crossover style of movies such as Sky Captain or Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor. There are the usual talking heads, and they are very credible, but rather than setting these interviews in non-descript or academic locations, the speaker is shown in the foreground while the dramatizations continue to play out behind him or her.
Whether or not all this is good or bad is for the viewer to decide, but it is certainly different. General Clark—who initially looks a little uncomfortable reading other people’s words from a teleprompter but then gets into a comfortable groove—is enthusiastic about the series, its direction and its creators.
"I loved the writing and the team that was with it because we were able to dynamically work the programs and the script and the interpretations … based on their insights and their knowledge and my own. It was a great working environment."
The second program "MacArthur’s Great Gamble" has a better pace and mixes in more period combat camera photography, and it even mixes in witnesses and participants in the action. In dealing with the seldom-told events of the Korean War—as opposed to the well-trod ground of World War II—the Military Channel series brings rare history to the TV screen for what the creators hope will be a growing audience. In that respect, the gamble of being different may be just the right approach for a new television series as Edge of War brings flash points of historical conflict to an audience that might not otherwise be introduced to them.
About the Author
Jay Wertz is the producer-director-writer of the award-winning 13-part documentary series Smithsonian’s Great Battles of the Civil War for The Learning Channel and Time-Life Video. He authored The Native American Experience and The Civil War Experience 1861-1865 and co-authored Smithsonian’s Great Battles and Battlefields of the Civil War with prominent historian Edwin C. Bearss. His most recent publications are War Stories D-Day: the Campaign Across France and War Stories: The Pacific, Vol. I, Pearl Harbor to Guadalcanal, published by Weider History Publications.