Back in the mid-1970s, the BBC launched a dramatic, 13-part series called Fall of Eagles, about the last decades of the 19th century and the lead-up to World War One. It also chronicled the end of the royal dynasties in the aftermath of the war. It was a brilliant series, sweeping in its broad brush across the royalty and politics of Russia, Austria, Germany, and England. France got a mere cameo role because France was not ruled by any of the dynasties which form the central cast in the series.
Viewers got from the series an image of the complex network of connections and ties – often familial, as the royal houses were linked by blood and marriage – between these nations, of the rapidly changing political landscapes in each, and the inexorable end of an era, a time in which nations would erupt to alter radically and forever. The Titanic is the perfect metaphor for this time, as the royal houses, blind to the ferment of change happening under their feet, approached the iceberg, unwilling or unable to change course.
It remains one of my favourite historical dramas, albeit somewhat dated by today’s production standards. Patrick Stewart, by the way, was terrific as Lenin.
Last year, the BBC released 37 Days, a three-part mini-series about the final 37 days before WWI (June 28 to August 4). It is mostly about English and German politics, with a tip of the hat to France and a very minor role for Russia and Austria. It was part of the BBC’s several pieces produced last year to highlight the 100th anniversary of the war’s start.
Part one is the first month of that period, starting with the shooting of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Part two is about the week before war broke out, and part three is the final weekend. Despite the shortening time for each part, there is no real sense of urgency or tension as war approaches, especially among the English politicians. There’s more tension between members of the cabinet, some of whom resigned because of military agreements to support war. But we never get to see other political perspectives such as the growing socialist movement that opposed war in all of the European countries.
While of technical excellence, it doesn’t have the same dramatic punch of Fall of Eagles. It is more of a talking head drama: politicians in meetings, politicians in offices, politicians pointing at maps. A bit dry and fusty most of the time.
And there’s an assumption viewers already know who they all are and what roles they played. There’s no sidebar information, and little to identify any of them, no background to explain who they are and how they got there. What they all do is also a bit murky, especially for international audiences who might not appreciate British parliamentary structure.
Even Winston Churchill – arguably the only one of the lot truly recognizable by the masses today – is introduced rather indirectly at a dinner engagement. His position as First Lord of the Admiralty – in which he significantly affected the government’s position on military agreements and its outlook on war – is so understated as to be a mere suggestion.
One sees a lot of the Kaiser, in part because he interfered directly in German politics and the military on a daily basis, I actually looked forward to seeing him because he’s entertaining and bombastic: one of the few characters in the show who isn’t a dry, starched-collar bureaucrat or politician. Only from him do we get a real sense of the inevitable conflict.
But the other royalty in the game is really given insignificant roles. George V and Emperor Franz Josef barely get onstage, while the feckless Czar Nicholas is reduced to a grunting caricature. Of France we see only the ambassador. The ill-fated archduke whose assassination tripped the wire, barely gets his face into the camera before he’s shot. Characters like Rasputin and Foch, who also played roles in the lead-up to war, are simply absent (however, Mrs. Asquith is there, and one of the more interesting characters).
Who we see most of are two fictional clerks, one in the British foreign office, the other in the German. These two narrate a good portion of the shows, so we get at least some context for all the meetings and discussions. But as clerks, they don’t always appear where they might be most useful in narrating the story: in the palaces and in the closed-door cabinet meetings. Why couldn’t we have done away with the fictional clerks and had one simple narrator to guide us through the paperwork?
Despite a “stellar cast” as reviewers are wont to say, and the adherence to a factual historical line, albeit narrowly drawn between Britain and Germany, it’s about procedure and diplomacy rather than war: talking. Not the most exciting stuff if you’re expecting a costume drama set against the ticking clock of impending war. You won’t get the range of characters and events we saw in Fall of Eagles.
And one can’t help get the feeling that the diplomats were not playing their best game; there’s a lot of fumbling, guessing, and, in one scene where an interrupted telephone call causes a major diplomatic incident, bumbling.
The only soldiers you see – aside from the Prussian guards around the palace – are a few German infantry in a semi-comic moment when they “accidentally” invaded Belgium before they were supposed to.
As a purveyor of politics and history, I modestly enjoyed the series: it’s crisp, well-acted and beautifully staged. But for most folk, it’s watching paint dry. Susan couldn’t stay awake for it, while I managed to get through all three parts in one sitting. Still, it’s not likely one I’ll watch again, but I will still watch Fall of Eagles.
Was WWI inevitable? All of my reading suggests yes*, but the BBC has a panel of historians, most of whom say no, it wasn’t. But I remain unconvinced. The series doesn’t really answer that question, but it hints broadly that, regardless of the diplomatic efforts behind the scenes, German military and the Kaiser wanted it too badly to be stopped.
* After watching 37 Days, I started to re-read Barbara Tuchman’s superb book, The Guns of August. It details and documents a lot of the reasons I think war was inevitable.