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The war next door; Film tells the grim story of 1814's futile Siege of Fort Erie, in which 3,000 American, British and Native American soldiers' lives were lost

When WNED-TV producer Paul Lamont was asked to document the siege of Fort Erie a soggy and futile battle that claimed the lives of 3,000 American, British and Native American forces in 1814 -- he had one thought.

"You won't see hundreds of bodies lying in the field," said Lamont, who wrote, directed and produced the 27-minute film. "You will see the hand of a fallen soldier with blood dripping down one finger. It's symbolic of all the death and dying. We tried not to be overly graphic, but we didn't want this to be a clean version of war.

"War is not clean. War is not pretty. War is dirty."

"Glorious Battle: the Siege of Fort Erie" is a documentary that thinks it's a movie. It stars costumed re-enactors. It features voice-overs by local actors, and it includes the original music of David Kane. When it debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday on WNED-TV, its special effects will be remembered.

"It needed to be cinematic. We wanted the audience to feel chaos, like they had been in a battle," said Lamont. "Smoke became a character."

One of the most protracted engagements between British and American forces during the War of 1812, the siege of Fort Erie ended in a stalemate with the successful defense of the fort by American troops, who subsequently blew its roof off before returning to New York.

" 'Glorious Battle' shows the futility of war, the loss of life -- and in the end, what do you really gain?," said executive producer David C. Rotterman, vice president of television production for WNED-TV. "The original borderlines were restored."

Narrator Victor Garber, with a hint of a Brit accent, described Fort Erie in 1814 as a forlorn outpost that held 137 British soldiers. It was a supply depot and a transit point. But was it a one-company post or an important point of control?

The documentary, funded by the Buffalo and Fort Erie Bridge Authority, had a $325,000 budget, according to Rotterman. It was developed in partnership with the Niagara Parks Commission, which sought a documentary on Fort Erie to coincide with the opening of its new $7 million visitor center (see sidebar). The two partners had already worked together on a two-hour film, "The War of 1812," scheduled to debut on WNED-TV this fall.

The majority of the film was shot at Fort Erie and at Westfield Heritage Village in Rockton, Ont., which is west of Hamilton. Additional footage was shot at Lundy's Lane in Niagara Falls, Ont., in Orangeville, Ont., and at Forest Lawn.

The goal of the production crew was to impart information in a balanced story that would declare no winner or loser -- a real good Hollywood narrative, according to Jim Hill, superintendent of Heritage Sites for the Niagara Parks Commission.

"It won't make patriotic Canadians or Americans happy, but the two countries co-exist," said Hill. "Both sides were bankrupt by war, both sides were losing thousands of soldiers without really gaining any strategic foothold. It's really a story about these poor fellas who get stuck in a terrible place at not a very nice time."

Hill, 42, born in Hamilton, Ont., grew up in Jordan Station, 20 miles west of Niagara Falls, Ont. He has worked at many War of 1812 historic sites in Canada, including Fort George in Niagara-on-the-Lake, and Brock's Monument in Niagara Falls. Historically familiar with the War of 1812, Hill admitted surprise at the young age of its participants.

"You forget how painfully young these people were," said Hill. "Jarvis Hanks, for example, enlisted in the U.S. Infantry just after his 14th birthday. He enters combat at age 15 as a drummer."

On his march along the Niagara River, drummer Hanks was charged with picking up the bodies of fallen soldiers. His voice told the story, part of the film's attempt to personalize the narrative.

"We didn't use a lot of historical images, paintings or drawings," said Rotterman. "We stayed away from them. This conflict was not documented with paintings."

Letters written by two women act as bookends for the documentary. At the film's beginning, a Black Rock woman bemoans the sounds of approaching war, and the changes it will bring to her life.

"The din of war, which we had been hearing from a distance, came nearer and nearer until it burst upon us," wrote the woman, whose cabinetmaking shop would soon turn into a coffin factory.

Explosives used in the film's production were real, Lamont noted, with all muskets loaded with live gunpowder. Postproduction work supervised by sound man Shaun Mullins enhanced the volume of the blasts. The fort explosion, overseen by special-effects coordinator Tim McElcheran, was one of the film's bigger challenges, recalled Lamont, and required crews to work through the night and into morning.

"The summer of 1814 was one of the rainiest on record," said Lamont, "so we were making rain with water trucks and water towers. The downpour was torrential. It was very difficult to see what you were doing on that battlefield."

Attention to historical detail in the film's handful of re-enactment scenes was coordinated by technical adviser Peter Twist ("Pirates of the Caribbean," "Master and Commander" and "The Patriot"). It was Twist who procured an authentic brandy bottle and musket ball bowl for one scene.

Historians from both sides of the border interpret the significance of events during the two-month siege. Rick Hill -- artist, historian and expert on tribal history of New York State and Ontario -- described the siege "as a war against civilians as well as against military forces."

Through snippets of narrative mixed with re-enactment scenes and alternating views of period maps showing troop movement, the film captures the story of the people involved in a war that enveloped the Niagara Peninsula.

"History tells us so much about today," said Lamont. "And that's the thing about 'Glorious Battle'; it shows us the futility of war. In 1814, that fort was so important, but in the end the Americans blow it up, walk away and the British leave. So how important was it?"

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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"Glorious Battle: the Siege of Fort Erie"

10 p.m. Wednesday WNED-TV

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