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Sort-of documentary mischievous look at War of 1812

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They say that history is written by the victors; if that's true, then it's appropriate that a Canadian wrote the mischievously mirthful sort-of documentary The War of 1812: Been There, Won That.

On this side of the Canada-U.S. border, the 200th anniversary of this mostly forgotten conflict is ample reason to look back proudly at a moment of military triumph.

"(There are) lots of terrific reasons to remember it," says host/narrator Peter Keleghan in the opening minutes of this tongue-in-cheek Doc Zone feature, which airs tonight at 8 on CBC, "not the least of which is that we won. We whupped their a**es. Whupped them real good. And everyone knows that -- everyone, that is, except the Americans."

It's true. As far as the American historians and political pundits interviewed here are concerned, the War of 1812 was either an indecisive American victory or a tie, or perhaps something that certainly can't be called a loss because it was never really a completely war-ish kind of war.

Their bumbling perspectives are both silly and funny, and they set the stage nicely for the irreverent two-hour examination of history that follows.

Keleghan, who has played the blissfully unaware bumbler to perfection in such Canuck-TV series as Ken Finkleman's The Newsroom, the showbiz satire Made in Canada and The Red Green Show, is a perfect choice as tour guide through this murky chapter of Canadian history. His voice is authoritative, but his demeanour is more inclined toward winks-and-nudges tomfoolery.

There's a fair amount of factual information dispensed, and if you listen carefully to Keleghan's narration, you'll learn all you need to about the Old World politics and economics that prompted the Canada-U.S. spat in 1812-14, the tactical brilliance and/or ineptitude of the commanders on both sides (hint: Brit Gen. Isaac Brock was a military genius, while U.S. Gen. William Hull was pretty much an idiot), and the ultimate end-game results of the war.

But if you watched Been There, Won That with the sound off, you'd find the visuals much more amusing than enlightening -- filled with roughly drawn, Dudley-Do-Right-ish animation, Monty-Python-esque mapmaking and event re-creations that are more sketch comedy than historical re-enactment.

As Keleghan recounts the story of a U.S. army courier who delivers a crucial message into the hands of the Brits, we see a guy on a racing bike and modern cycling gear pedaling along an Ontario highway; when it's time for the red-coated British soldiers to take their positions and defend Canada, Keleghan has to roust them out of line at a modern-day Tim Hortons to get them back to work.

And when the historical timeline calls for an explanation of a battle that took place near Montreal, on ground now 10 metres underwater because of flooding caused by construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, Keleghan expounds while red-clad actors wearing goggles and flippers splash into the water and "re-create" the skirmish beneath the waves.

It's silly, but it's smart. And even though it might not be -- and clearly, from segments shot south of the border, is decidedly not -- what the Americans might not want to hear about the War of 1812, Been There, Won That is a perfect mix of historical exploration and flag-waving mischief for viewers on the chillier (and, in 1812, victorious) side of the border. Twitter: @BradOswald


The War of 1812: Been There, Won That

Hosted by Peter Keleghan

Tonight at 8


3 1/2 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2012 D8

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