Friday, September 17, 2010

Jay Wertz on Oren Jacoby's Lafayette: The Lost Hero

I saw a preview of Lafayette: The Lost Hero at the Society of Cincinnati last weekend, and enjoyed it before it aired on PBS Monday night...yet only now found an excerpt from this thoughtful review to share, by Jay Wertz from HistoryNet:
Leading a small command at the Battle of Brandywine, September 11, 1777, he was wounded in the leg but recovered quickly. Given command of a division shortly after his 20th birthday, he went on to earn the trust and admiration of George Washington, particularly through the long, hard winter of 1777–78 at Valley Forge.

These experiences and those that lay ahead in Lafayette's long life are told in a story that unravels through unique scenarios in the program. It's as if Jacoby went shopping in the mall of documentary techniques and put one of each in his basket. In Lafayette: The Lost Hero Jacoby bends and twists through different techniques to glide easily through the biography and make it entertaining. He shows a map with all the places named Lafayette in the U. S. A. and takes us to some of them; he uses clips from several Lafayette movies, etc.

Reenactors recreate battles in the film. Courtesy of Thomas Beckner - Storyville Films.The all-important first five minutes had me hooked as Revolutionary War reenactors arrive on a benign landscape to stage a scene for the documentary. The often folksy-sounding narrator reminds us that living history interpreters do so to try to understand how life was in times past. I concur and have been broadcasting that message for more than two decades, since I began filming authentic historical reenactments with the 200th anniversary Yorktown Victory Celebration. Jacoby's opening scene hooked me, and I was delighted that the style and content held my attention to the end.
Besides negotiating French arms, men and warships for the American war effort and leading a significant command at the Battle of Yorktown, Lafayette impressed the new nation in other ways. His love of liberty that brought him to the American cause extended in his mind to all citizens, and he encouraged the young nation to rid itself of the hypocritical scourge of slavery. He even bought the freedom of an African-American who acted as a military spy in his Yorktown command. Many of Lafayette's feelings and thoughts are revealed in excerpts from his memoirs, convincingly delivered in the show in a gently accented voice.

James R. Gaines, a Lafayette biographer, picks up much of the weight of the narrative early in the program. With Sabine Renault-Sabloniere, another biographer and Lafayette descendent, the audience is led through the Marquis' early life, long association with America, his uncomfortable and ultimately tragic role in the French revolution and the love bond he shared with his wife. Hearing her words are also among the more poignant moments in the program.

Although I enjoyed most of the cornucopia of techniques used in the program, the animated maps were a little creepy—literally; instead of animated arrows, color blobs creep down the maps. And when Mme. Renault-Sabloniere comes to the U. S. to visit that iconic symbol of French-American friendship, the Statue of Liberty, she is interviewed by Public Radio's Sarah Vowell. Vowell's dull-headed conversation with Lafayette's 6-times great-granddaughter could definitely be used as evidence in a French snob's derision of Americans. Garrison Keillor would have been better. These are minor aberrations, however, in a really engaging program about a remarkable man whom modern Americans have known precious little about.