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Battlefield Britain

1 rating: 4.0
A movie

Over the course of eight in-depth segments, this critically acclaimed PBS series presents a comprehensive examination of almost 2,000 years of British history. Hosts Peter Snow and his son Dan Snow take viewers through the major battles that made Britain … see full wiki

MPAA Rating: Unrated
1 review about Battlefield Britain

Very detailed information, good for Anglophiles and tacticians

  • Nov 11, 2009
Pros: Level of detail, good choices for battles, narrators enthusiasm

Cons: People who don't like military history and British history may be get bored

The Bottom Line: If you like military history and especially British history, this really is a must.  If both of these are not of interest, then best not to invest the time.

Battlefield Britain is an 8 part series examining, in great detail, turning-point battles that either led to significant changes in British culture and battles that maintained, against significant odds, the continuance of British culture.

The review for this series revolves far more around the telling rather than the tale. Still, if the topics chosen bore you, then a plot summary of each should give you enough info to determine if you want to read further.

The episodes are in chronological order from 60AD to 1940AD. Though the conclusion/winner of each battle is either obvious or known before hand depending on your level of British history, I will still leave this out in case someone who doesn’t know these things wants the stories to be as much a mystery as is allowed.

1. Boudicca’s Rebellion. Boudicca was priestess and queen over a loose confederation of “native” Brits. These Brits were subjugated over the Romans who had taken control 20 years earlier.
2. The Battle of Hastings. The last of the Saxon kings (Edward the Confessor) was weakened by losing most central control, with most of the power shifting back to the lesser nobles. William of Normandy (the Conqueror) had a valid claim for the throne and understood Edward’s precarious position. So he launched one of the largest fleets to try to take the throne by force.
3. The Battle for Wales. Just before these fights for Wales, there had been a change in leadership in London. Richard III fought and lost a bloody civil war that eventually put Henry Bollingbrook (Henry IV) on the throne, but his position was always shaky since a re-ignition of the rebellion was likely. That’s what happened in Wales. The mountainous region was technically under English control; however, sensing a weakness, the leaders of Wales joined forces with English lords unwilling to submit to Bollingbrook.
4. The Spanish Armada. Philip II of Spain had married Mary Tudor and became “king.” Mary died and Elizabeth became queen, robbing the Spanish (in Philip’s eyes) of that part of the Spanish empire. Philip put together the largest fleet in history to that point to crush the relatively small British fleet that would open the door for a quick and overwhelming invasion force to take the island back. This battle has serious religious overtones (more on this below)
5. The Battle of Naseby. Charles II was still holding on to the notion of the divine right of kings that said the king was God’s voice on earth for the nation. As such, he wanted to fight foreign wars and other similar relatively thoughtless endeavors. Based on what amounts to the British constitution, the Parliament had the powers/responsibilities to fund or deny funds to the monarch. Charles overruled this, disbanded Parliament and tried to go it alone. Parliament, led by and large, by Oliver Cromwell did not accept this and started a civil war that pitted those believing in absolute monarchy versus those believing in constitutional monarchy. Naseby was decisive but not ultimate.
6. The Battle of the Boyne. This is another battle with serious religious overtones. James Stuart (James II) was openly Catholic in a country that fought more than once to keep Britain beyond the control of the Pope, so the idea to the vast majority of the Brits found the idea of a Catholic king impossible to accept. So a group of nobles found the closest Protestant heir to the throne in Mary, wife of William of Orange an elector in the Dutch government. James was deposed and replaced, bloodlessly, by Mary II and William III as dual monarchs. James was exiled to France. He wanted the throne back; however he knew attacking the British from the Channel was hopeless, so he and his French allies decided to go to Ireland to try to invade from that direction.
7. Colloden. This is the Scottish version of the Boyne. Charles (bonny Prince Charley) was grandson to James II. He believed himself to be the true monarch of Britain and decided to launch his own rebellion that would put a Stuart back on the throne. He opted to use the English hating and talented and vicious fighters from the highlands of Scotland to flesh out the small army he brought with him.
8. The Battle of Britain. In 1940, Germany sought to crush the smallish Royal Air Force and bomb the homeland enough either to invade it or at least force a peace that would eliminate Britain as an enemy. It is the only battle that took place entirely from the air.

Historian Peter Snow and his son Dan use a host of methods to explain the history, context, and specifics of the battle in each episode. Peter uses an animated map showing how the armies lined up and tactics. He also sets up the political, military, and cultural reasons defining each battle. The named battle in about half of the episodes was typically decisive, but not the only, so Peter gives quick histories of the events and battles that preceded and followed the main fight.

Dan has the supremely fun job of explaining weapons of the time that would be used at each battle: the war chariot for the Boudicca rebellion, the quick and agile British ships used in the fight against the Spanish, a spitfire used during the Battle of Britain for example. So where dad did the abstract explanations, son got to do, or had to do all of the tangible activities.

Along with Peter’s animated maps, there were a few other aspects used to make the tactical, political, and cultural pieces easier to follow. Each episode had Lord of the Rings-lite animations for complex battle sequences. Also, each episode used actors portraying roles of soldiers and sailors contemporaneous to each fight—these actors were by and large evenly divided between each side of the skirmish.

Both Snows were enthusiastic and that was contagious. I was never bored, but there were a couple of elements that were distracting or confusing.

The use of actors to improvise what it would be like in battle was somewhat childish. As a concept, I think it plays out fairly well, but in practice, these improvised narratives interrupted the flow of the story as a whole. Along with this interruption was the quality of the delivery. Each actor seemed like they came off the set of a testimonial commercial for a new headache tablet. I got the feeling this trope was intended for a less mature audience as a way of adding something “human” to the story; however, it didn’t work.

The tactical information was almost too detailed. This is kind of like battlefield detective stuff. It required, even with the special effects, large amounts of attention to keep it straight. For those versed in tactics and strategy, the explanations would cause little problems, but for the tactical illiterate, it was a slog (not a bad one, but a slog nonetheless).

Somehow, each hour-long episode seemed to last twice that. As I said, I wasn’t bored, but the only conclusion I could come to for this phenomenon was that so much information was presented in 4 different ways caused each story to feel like it lasted much longer than it really did. If you are easily distracted, though, this element of the tales will make the documentary a waste of time.

Battlefield Britain is also intended specifically for a British audience. The way Peter Snow explained troop movements and elements of strategy, he used British cities, streets, landmasses as if everyone in the audience knew where these places were. I have no idea where modern day Colchester is without looking on a map, for example. This isn’t a serious problem for the curious, but not having the location explained more clearly, it lacks the level of a full package deal wanting.

The religious aspect can cause problems because the logic used doesn’t support the conclusion. Peter Snow insists that the reason the Spanish Armada was sent to England was to reestablish Catholicism as the state religion; and the battle of Boyne was the same. For an American audience, I think this idea would be off-putting. The primary reason for Philip II and James II to want to take the British throne was not religion. Each man believed that the throne belonged to him (there is no disputing that James II had more than a little connection to it). The religion had a large part to play, but each man wanted the throne for himself first, then he would offer the proper oblation to the Pope. This may seem minor, but in the course of the series as a whole, it weakens the analysis of motive that Peter Snow presents.

While this list of distractions is relatively long, I really did enjoy each story; the list really is just of distractions not serious problems. The analyses are complex and deeply covered, so I had to explain the aspects that could cause problems for viewers. I recommend it for fans of British history and those interested in pre-modern tactics. I’m pretty sure that if you don’t fit either category, the series would bore or frustrate you.


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