by Jef Burnham
Now available on DVD from PBS.
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This 4-part PBS documentary series about technological advances in warfare through the ages is extremely fascinating though certainly not without its fair share of problems. Less about war itself than it is invention and innovation, Ground War examines four key areas in which the world’s armies have strove for supremacy on the battlefield. Engineers and strategists, rather than the soldier, are the real stars of Ground War.
“Warrior Weapons” charts the advancements in weaponry and body armor that aid soldiers in the field from spears to assault rifles and the full-body armor of knights to kevlar, while “Battlefield Mobility” takes us through the innovations from horse-drawn chariots to the modern-day tank. “Mobility” is by far the most interesting installment of the series. In it, we discover how severely underestimated the importance of the stirrups is and how each seemingly minor advancement in the construction of tanks leads to surprisingly vast improvements in both offensive and defensive capabilities. The third episode, “Firepower,” hardly requires explanation, and “Command and Control” closes out the series with an exploration of how engineers alter the terrain of the battlefield, whether it be by the strategic placement of a stronghold or the strategic laying of barbed wire.
For the most part, the series is characterized by the typical documentary-style interviews, demonstrations and recreations. However, there are some significant problems in portions of the presentation. Namely, there is an occasional color distortion laid over recreations of ancient battles, which looks less like a stylistic decision than a botched attempt at 3-D; but the biggest offender is a peculiar tendency to project further recreations and vintage war footage on a sheet being blown by a fan. Both effects are slightly nauseating, the latter more than the former, but the wavy sheet projection is far more of a distraction. In fact, I found this presentation of the vintage footage to be almost disrespectful. But regardless of its shortcomings, the information in Ground War is exceedingly enlightening, with each episode building logically upon the last, so much so that even those with little interest in military history will find Ground War engaging.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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