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Ed Driscoll

World War II Clearly Needed Better Writers

July 23rd, 2013 - 11:56 am

Victor Davis Hanson’s latest article on “Lying in the Age of Obama” mentioned the hippie-era Stephen Ambrose and his appearance on the World at War TV series of the 1970s, and linked to a post I wrote in 2010 with some screen caps of Ambrose  on the show, complete with his very ’70s-style early prototype mullet. Since it was a pretty funny post (I can’t take credit; it was the blogger I linked to who had some very wry observations on World War II), I thought I’d reprint it here:

The Volokh Conspiracy links to this entry on Live Journal from “Squid314″ who writes, “As I mentioned in my last entry, I’ve been watching Babylon 5 lately. It’s not a perfect show, but it has one big advantage: it’s consistent and believable.”

The show I’ve been watching recently is the old Thames chestnut from the mid-1970s, The World at War, currently distributed on DVD by A&E, which owns the History Channel. While the production design and costuming is pretty believable — at least for its time — the writing back in the mid-1970s really left something to be desired. Squid has a good sense of what the problem was:

Let’s start with the bad guys. Battalions of stormtroopers dressed in all black, check. Secret police, check. Determination to brutally kill everyone who doesn’t look like them, check. Leader with a tiny villain mustache and a tendency to go into apopleptic rage when he doesn’t get his way, check. All this from a country that was ordinary, believable, and dare I say it sometimes even sympathetic in previous seasons.

I wouldn’t even mind the lack of originality if they weren’t so heavy-handed about it. Apparently we’re supposed to believe that in the middle of the war the Germans attacked their allies the Russians, starting an unwinnable conflict on two fronts, just to show how sneaky and untrustworthy they could be? And that they diverted all their resources to use in making ever bigger and scarier death camps, even in the middle of a huge war? Real people just aren’t that evil. And that’s not even counting the part where as soon as the plot requires it, they instantly forget about all the racism nonsense and become best buddies with the definitely non-Aryan Japanese.

Not that the good guys are much better. Their leader, Churchill, appeared in a grand total of one episode before, where he was a bumbling general who suffered an embarrassing defeat to the Ottomans of all people in the Battle of Gallipoli. Now, all of a sudden, he’s not only Prime Minister, he’s not only a brilliant military commander, he’s not only the greatest orator of the twentieth century who can convince the British to keep going against all odds, he’s also a natural wit who is able to pull out hilarious one-liners practically on demand. I know he’s supposed to be the hero, but it’s not realistic unless you keep the guy at least vaguely human.

So it’s pretty standard “shining amazing good guys who can do no wrong” versus “evil legions of darkness bent on torture and genocide” stuff, totally ignoring the nuances and realities of politics. The actual strategy of the war is barely any better. Just to give one example, in the Battle of the Bulge, a vastly larger force of Germans surround a small Allied battalion and demand they surrender or be killed. The Allied general sends back a single-word reply: “Nuts!”. The Germans attack, and, miraculously, the tiny Allied force holds them off long enough for reinforcements to arrive and turn the tide of battle. Whoever wrote this episode obviously had never been within a thousand miles of an actual military.

Part of the problem is that in the 1970s, television writers were a crazed, psychedelic lot, a bunch of stoner sixties retreads more into scoring controlled substances than scripting controlled plotting.

Take this rock star wannabe who appeared in several segments of the World at War, and his seriously seventies mullet:

Don’t recognize him? I only knew who he was because his voice preceded his image, but I did a double take when he finally appeared:

Yes, it’s Stephen Ambrose in the early 1970s, back when he was in his mid-thirties, decades before the plagiarism scandals, and prior to that, his more sober C-SPAN and PBS-friendly look:

So yes kids, World War II was pretty cliched, but back in the 1970s, when it came time to watch TV, it was either that or Maude and Adam-12. We made do, somehow.

Update (7/23/13): On the other hand, plagiarism charges aside, at least the latter-era Ambrose taught history sans Black Armband, a skill that’s increasingly rare these days in academia.

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I'm not sure what your point is here. This simple-minded version of WWII had appeared in the textbooks I read in the 1960s. Sure it leaves out a lot of stuff, but for the lofo it starts out by telling what's important. I guess. So it's the "Sugar and spice and everything nice, that's what little girls are made of" version of sex education, moved over to history. The reality is more complex and maybe not quite so pretty, but there's a place and time, and we seem to be doing so much worse at the story telling these days it's enough to make one nostalgic for the 1970s.
1 year ago
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Yeah, maybe if we replace "Churchill" with "Obama", everybody will believe the story.
1 year ago
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