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Hillary Atkin

‘The Great War’: Producer, Writer and Director Stephen Ives on the Moment When America Came of Age

Apr 5, 2017

Thousands upon thousands of women carrying protest signs march down Fifth Avenue in New York City. No, it’s not a scene from the nationwide protests that took place the day after the Trump inauguration in January.

This women’s march is from more than 100 years ago — Aug. 29, 1914, to be exact — when protesters took to the streets to advocate for a peaceful end to World War I, which had erupted that summer in Europe, sparked by the assassination of Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and exploding into a continent-wide catastrophe.

The peace protest is just one of the many riveting scenes in the six-hour documentary series “The Great War,” set to air over three nights to mark the 100th anniversary of the United States’ entry into the conflict, April 6, 1917, after years of isolationism.

The world — and warfare — would never be the same.

Most Americans had wanted to stay out of the war, including President Woodrow Wilson, but once the declaration was issued, they went into it with a passionate intensity. Dissent and protest were stifled.

In an age before radio or television, and before film had sound, “The Great War,” under the banner of PBS’s flagship history series “American Experience,” tells the complicated history of the era through the diverse voices of draft resisters, suffragists, journalists, nurses, aviators and the American forces who came to be known as “doughboys.”

If it sounds like a Ken Burns-type of project, it’s because series producer Stephen Ives worked with Burns on groundbreaking documentaries including “The Civil War” and “Baseball.”

(Ives wrote the first two episodes and directed episode one while series producer Amanda Pollak directed episode two. Series writer Rob Rapley directed the third episode, and the entire project was executive produced by Mark Samels, who oversees all of the “American Experience” films for PBS.)

Ives sat down for an extensive discussion about “The Great War,” which may leave some viewers surprised that many of the issues from a century ago including immigration, civil rights, women’s rights, freedom of speech and freedom of the press still resonate strongly today.

Here is an edited version of our conversation.

TVWeek: This is such a comprehensive documentary in all of its facets. Much of the battlefield footage is incredibly graphic. Tell us about your research and acquisition process of some of the incredible rare, archival footage and adding audio and sound effects to it.

Stephen Ives: From an archival perspective the Great War was significant because this really was the dawn of the moving image and so we had as astonishing amount of film footage to sift through. In the end we pulled material from 140 archives in 11 different countries, not counting the U.S. Some of the highest-quality material came from the British Imperial War Museum, the French Ministry of Defense, and the Bundesarchiv in Germany. Our own Signal Corps collection at the National Archives was also an amazing resource. There is a tendency to see the Great War as lost in some distant historical age that is remote and inaccessible, and so we invested a tremendous amount of time and effort in cleaning up this material — removing scratches, fixing the aspect ratio, adjusting the frame rates — so that the images felt as natural and immediate as we could make them.

TVWeek: As much as this is a chronicle of war, it is also a character study of Woodrow Wilson. What are the most surprising and interesting things you learned about the man who led the United States into World War I?

Ives: You are right, in many ways this was “Woodrow Wilson’s War.” He is such a complicated and ultimately tragic figure. He has such gifts — of intelligence, and uncompromising morality, and oratory — but also profound weaknesses: ego, an unshakable belief in his own rectitude and infallibility, and a kind of religious inflexibility about the rightness of his cause. When he walked into the House chamber on April 2nd, 1917, he probably could have taken America in either direction, and yet he chose war. Few presidents have wielded that much power and influence at such a moment, and few bore the responsibility with greater pain and seriousness than Wilson did. In the end, his is a tragic story, not only because his own bitterness at the end prevented him from achieving his dream of a League of Nations, but also because his zealous commitment to the war blinded him to the severe undermining of civil liberties that occurred on the home front. He really was guilty of fighting a war for democracy abroad while abandoning it at home.

TVWeek: What is your take on how the media of the time — newspapers — portrayed the move from isolationism into war footing?

Ives: Before America entered the war, the press reflected the intense debate that was raging about our neutrality. There were papers from German-American areas who were loudly proclaiming that our policy was biased against the allies. After April 6th, the Committee on Public Information basically co-opted the press, not with formal censorship, but by an avalanche of “news,” none of it technically fake, but all of it heavily skewed to reflect only the Wilson administration’s point of view. And since the transatlantic cables to Europe were cut at the outset of the war, and the only remaining cable came through Britain, there was a built-in bias in all of the information that flowed across the Atlantic.

TVWeek: Many people criticize that much of what we know of history is mainly that of old white dudes of European ancestry, but this documentary makes certain to include women, African Americans, American Indians and Hispanics as it tells the story of the conflict. Tell us about your efforts to uncover their stories, including those of the Harlem Hellfighters.

Ives: The draft swept up millions of young men, from all over the country, many of whom had never been outside of their own county, let alone their state, and threw them together in this vast, improvisatory, polyglot American army. People of every kind of ethnicity were swept up by this and thrown together, except, of course, African Americans, who were rigidly segregated. I wanted to make sure that some of these groups and their stories were told, because it is a reflection of the teeming diversity of turn-of-the-century America. We dug into obscure archives and came across letters and unpublished sources and pieced together the portrait of America at war. The Harlem Hellfighters were a story that had received some more attention, but I think we were able to do a more complete portrait of their experience than has ever been done.

TVWeek: The documentary uncovers many social justice issues that still resonate today but many people will likely be surprised to learn of the deadly race riots that shook the country after the war was over. How did you feel looking back through the lens of history and how these events laid the groundwork for the civil rights era?

Ives: The violence of the Red Summer of 1919 is truly shocking, and it testifies to the fact that this was a truly vicious moment in race relations in America. Lynching of blacks was at its height in the years leading up to the war, and Jim Crow was rigidly in place throughout the South. Woodrow Wilson even went so far as to re-introduce segregation into civil service jobs in Washington, D.C. So the backlash against African-American troops coming home from the war was intense, and it reflected a deep-seated, and not completely unfounded, fear on the part of whites that these black men had discovered a new consciousness by virtue of their experience. In particular, the way in which troops like the New York 15th regiment were treated when they were assigned to the French Army. I think the violence of that summer only redoubled the resolve in many returning veterans’ minds that the old order had to give way, and I think in that new determination can be seen the seeds of the activism that will lead to the civil rights movement decades later.

TVWeek: The stories of the larger-than-life personalities including Eddie Rickenbacker and Gen. Pershing were fascinating and the letters from the nurse describing conditions for the maimed and injured were so moving. What was your concept in bringing these people to life in the film?

Ives: We wanted to make sure that some of the big-name characters, people like Rickenbacker and Pershing, were given their due, and they are fascinating and larger-than-life figures for a reason. But we also wanted to make sure the people like the volunteer nurse Mary Borden, or the writer Edith Wharton, or the volunteer in the trenches Eugene Bullard, were allowed to tell the story of the war in their own words. In some cases, they were writing for friends or family members, but in others, they were actively using the lens of their experience as a form of advocacy, doing everything they could to explain the realities of war, or urge their country to take part in the struggle. That was a critical perspective I wanted to make sure we embraced and made an important part of our narrative.

TVWeek: After delving so deeply into this war, how do you feel it changed America and what lessons can be learned from it?

Ives: I think this war fundamentally changed the kind of nation that we are. In many ways we are living in the world that the Great War created. The Civil War was an episode of adolescent madness in this country, but this moment is when America really came of age. This is the moment that we chose to commit ourselves to a great role in the world, and we have never stepped back from that commitment. The war transformed America, in terms of its military, the size and scope of its government, and the breadth and power of its economy. It introduced propaganda into our politics, and unprecedented social control into our body politic. Women and African Americans demanded, and sometimes achieved, new rights and opportunities while being met with reflexive oppression and violence. After the war, Americans turned inward and tried to go back to a more isolated existence, but the genie was out of the bottle, and the United States, for better or for worse, was a great power with great responsibilities that could no longer be ignored.

TVWeek: What do you hope viewers take away from the program?

Ives: I hope Americans who see this program will remember the great strength of our democracy, and the bravery and sacrifice of a generation who fought for some of Wilson’s noble ideals, but also see the story as a cautionary tale, about how fragile a democracy can be, and how easy it is to fan the flames of paranoia and distrust and fear when a nation faces adversity. Wilson articulated a series of goals that he felt reflected the greatness of America, leading the world to a better future. I think to the degree that we still believe in those ideals, we have a ways to go in actually achieving them, but their staying power, as a reflection of who we want to be, is still a powerful thing to remember.

(“The Great War” airs on three consecutive nights beginning Monday, April 10, on PBS. Check local listings.)

One Comment

  1. The thoroughness of the suppression of civil liberties in the U.S., especially free speech, and the
    draconian means used to foster support for the war effort was a real shocker. It appeared similar to that used by the Nazis within Germany during WWII, although thank heavens minus the widespread Gestapo murders of perceived subversives. The Red Summer of 1919 was also awful but, alas, more understandable because it was an extension of the toxic, lynch mob Jim Crowism that existed before the war. But it reminded us of the deep roots that today’s “white nationalism” has in parts of our country. Yes, “the genie was out of the bottle” at war’s end but the USG, unlike Wall Street financiers, went to great lengths to try to avoid future involvement in world leadership with the Neutrality Acts. Had it not been for FDR’s genius in overcoming the lack of preparedness and understandable strong isolationist sentiment the USG might not have been able to prevent the defeat of the UK and then take on the Axis Powers in time to prevent their victory.

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