Friday, November 2, 2012

The Battle of Homestead--As seen on TV!

 "All great historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice ... the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce."--Karl Marx

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On October 23rd, I belatedly tuned in to the History Channel's series on "The Men Who Built America: Bloody Battles," the episode about Andrew Carnegie, but only got to see the last 20 minutes.  On November 12th, I watched the whole two-hour passel of nonsense thrown together by some Hollywood screenwriter apparently on crack.

This episode is far, far worse than I had originally thought.  There are so many inaccuracies and outrages against Clio, the Muse of History, that I'll start with a just a few of them here:
1) The narrator, Campbell Scott, consistently mispronounces Carnegie's name as CAR-neg-ie, rather than Car-NEG-ie.  It's all the more glaring because he's the only one who does.
2) The actors who play Carnegie and Frick bear little resemblance to them. "Carnegie" is too tall and dark; "Frick" is too ugly--although I think this casting is intentional to make him look evil. H.C. himself would roll over in his grave if he could see how this terrible ham actor played him.
3) The interviews are mostly with modern-day robber barons, Donald Trump, for example.  For pity's sake!
4) Frick and Carnegie plan their skulduggery while walking around among workers in the mill.  One shot shows Frick personally delivering his ultimatum to a few workers.  Another shows him walking along in the mill, pushing workers aside with his shoulders.  So absurd!

The pre-battle background, according to the HC:

The narrator tells us that a small group of men were upset at being made to work longer hours, and eventually "reached the breaking point."  One guy is shown haranguing a couple of dozen workers about standing up to Frick.  Then we're told that when one worker was killed in the mill (image of guy covered in black makeup lying down, groaning), the men were spurred to strike.  The impression is that only one man had ever been killed, even though it happened frequently.

Now to the battle:

The battle starts when workers barricade themselves inside the mill.  We're told by a historian that the workers felt they owned the mill and were protecting their property.  Au contraire, Mr. Alleged Historian.  The workers were angry about low wages and long hours.  They had no desire to take over management of the company.  This is the mistake the anarchists, like Berkman, made.  They thought it would be easy to get the workers to unite and take over the company, when in fact the workers only wanted food on the table and housing for their families.

The images on the screen show men in black suits, wearing hats similar to officers' hats in the Civil War, approaching on foot the men standing behind the barricade.  Threats are exchanged (amazingly, in the words recorded in eyewitness accounts) and the MIB start shooting rifles at workers in clean, pressed shirts and pants.  Inside the derelict mill, the men in black are quite close to the other men, who, cowering behind pieces of metal, fight back with clubs and rocks. The MIB mow them down like flies. 

The first time I saw this, I was very confused.  Could this possibly be a dramatization of the Homestead Strike of 1892? To my amazement, it was.

Next they show a young MIB (aka Pinkerton), horrified at the slaughter, refusing to shoot at the strikers. An officer holds a gun to his head, and he aims and fires, dropping one of the strikers.  The "battle" continues.  The strikers throw rocks, but are no match for the rifle-toting MIB. One worker tries to help a wounded comrade, but is shot dead by the MIB.

And that's it.


The narrator goes on to say that the strikers eventually won the battle, but were crushed when the Pennsylvania Militia arrived.  He notes that nine strikers were killed, but says nothing about Pinkerton casualties.

This famous engraving from "Harper's Weekly" shows the defeated Pinkertons preparing to run the gauntlet. By then, they had been disarmed (not as shown). But the picture well illustrates the size and scope of the battle scene.

Here are some of the many, many inaccuracies:

*The Pinkertons were in barges on the river; the strikers were shooting at them from the high bank.  The Pinkertons were a good distance away from the strikers, many of whom had rifles.  In fact, it was the Pinkertons who were short of rifles.
*Even though the Pinkertons had the upper hand during the first hour of the battle, the strikers took control, shooting the barges full of holes and blowing off the cover of one.
*The Pinkertons officers were wearing their signature blue military uniforms.  Headgear as shown in contemporary illustration ranged from caps to bowlers.  On the sweltering barges,the Pinkertons fought in shirtsleeves. Many of the strikers, rousted from their beds in the middle of night, were disheveled, clad in nightshirts or anything they could grab at the time.
*Many of the actors playing the workers are overweight and out of shape.  They wouldn't have lasted a half hour in the mill.

But wait, that's not all.  As I sat there with my mouth open watching this travesty, the camera turns to a dramatization of Berkman's assassination attempt on Frick.  The scene is a dark room that looks like the study in a house.  Berkman walks down an empty hallway, comes into the room, asks, "Mr.Frick?" (Berkman isn't sure this is Frick. Really?) in an American accent, and shoots him once.  Frick, who is alone, immediately springs on Berkman, who stabs him in the gut.  Frick throttles Berkman, then beats him to a bloody pulp. The fight ends in the hallway, with Frick standing triumphantly over Berkman, who lies, battered and submissive, on the floor.  Several people run down the hallway to see what has happened. 

 This scene is just as ridiculous as the battle scene:
*Frick was working in his downtown office, not in a mansion.  His office was inside a larger office area where several people worked.
*Berkman, after waiting in the outer office for most of the day, burst in and shot at Frick (who was talking to an assistant) four times, hitting him once.  The assistant and another worker joined Frick in his struggle with Berkman, who pulled out a knife and stabbed Frick in the leg. The other men and Frick managed to subdue Berkman, but Frick definitely was the one who was the worse for the encounter.
*Berkman was from Russia and spoke English with a thick Russian accent.
This contemporary drawing shows Berkman bursting into the office as Frick is talking to his assistant

The History Channel obviously sympathizes with the strikers--too much so, as they take every opportunity to demonize Frick.

Is the History Channel's budget too small to afford a cast of thousands, literally, to reenact the battle?  I suspect that some digital wizards could easily and cheaply replicate the scene via computer.  A few still shots would certainly be preferable to the fantasies they showed. 

In 2006 PBS also dramatized the battle in their series, "Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America." Frankly, this version is even more ridiculous than the "Bloody Battles" version.  The scene shows a dozen men paddling a big canoe.  They beach it, as a dozen more men run at them over the flat shore of what looks like a lake.  OK, I exaggerate--about the canoe.  Nevertheless, I'm willing to cut PBS some slack for this low-budget silliness because this series sticks to the facts and doesn't try to snooker us with overblown rubbish. 

In the case of "Bloody Battles", I'd say that Marx's quote about historical events being experienced as tragedy and reproduced as farce applies. This episode calls into question all the other episodes they've produced.  How can we trust them to stick to the facts?  
"History is more or less bunk."
Henry Ford, Chicago Tribune, May 25, 1916

I'm not the only one who is worked up about the lack of facts in this series.  Tom Conroy of "Medialife" magazine titled his review 'The Men Who Made America. . .sort of:  History series plays fast and loose in these dumb-down sketches.'

History is, after all, the record of the past, not the past itself.  If the History Channel can't do better than this in checking the recorded facts, the channel should be renamed.  
I suggest borrowing from Henry Ford's famous declaration and call it The More Or Less Bunk  Channel--or simply The Bunk Channel. At  least we'd be forewarned.