You don't have to be a fan of history to like Niall Ferguson's The War Of The World which premiered last night on PBS. It's a stunning feast for the eyes, dynamic and fast-paced. It's themes, though controversial in some quarters, are hardly earth-shattering, but that doesn't matter. It is breathless television.
Ferguson's book of the same name, was fascinating reading and even though it was substantial I flew through it. In it he argues that the unprecedented violence of the twentieth century was not based on nations or good versus evil or even, economics, but was instead in almost all cases about race, ethnicity and empire. He postulates that what we view as two seperate World Wars and and the Cold War were actually one long war that resulted in a collapse of Western hegemony and a corresponding rise Eastern power. It's an interesting theory and one I happen to support. Nonetheless, even if flawed, it's pretty heady stuff; not the kind of thing that you, expect to make for riveting television.
Best intentions aside, PBS can come across as a bit stodgy at times; not so War Of The World. It's pacing and imaginative visuals hold your attention. Images lay over images or are projected on to one another to allow one idea to flow to the next. They are arresting and frequently serve as counterpoint to the narrative. And oh, that narrative... Who would have imagined that Ferguson would be so dynamic, witty, and natural in front of the camera. If the images keep you watching it is Ferguson and his Scottish brogue that gives the whole its weight.
Parts II & III air over the next two weeks and I can't really wait. This is history with intelligence and aesthetics at the forefront and I haven't been this locked down to the box in a long, long time.
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