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Documentary | War

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3 August 1998 (USA)  »

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The Devil's Foot.
16 January 2014 | by (Deming, New Mexico, USA) – See all my reviews

It's kind of amusing. If you go to the "Episode List" of this series, you'll find an episode called "Gunpowder", under which is the instruction, "Add a Plot." And I immediately felt I should write "A Gunpowder Plot." (Kids: The original gunpowder plot happened in 1605, when Guy Fawkes -- well, forget it.) You have to keep an eye on these loose associations because, well, that way lies madness. I speak to you as your shrink. That will be ten cents.

This is another episode from what has so far impressed me as a fine series. It covers, basically, the Battle of Crecy, which was won against the French by the English long bow. It was a deadly weapon and shortly become obsolete with the introduction of gunpowder. Oddly, there is no description of Chinese firecrackers, usually taken to be the first invention of gunpowder, but maybe that's in another episode.

Later the narration, by the ever-avuncular Walter Cronkite, describes the first use of gunpowder in Japan, during a battle between two warlords in the 1600s. The arquebus won. Then the gun disappeared from Japanese culture for the next 250 years. Its use clashed with the warrior tradition (and religion) which depended on the magnificent Japanese swords.

It's really an informative and well-done series, right down to Rob Lane's original music, which echoes the period and the region being described. I don't know if professional historians will get cranky about some of the narration or the way the material is presented but I got a lot out of it. It tied together things that I already knew, but had never imagined their being connected. James Burke's series, "Connections," did the same thing -- all the time.

I'll give one example, then quit. Before cannons, settled populations protected themselves from marauders by building stone forts with very high walls. The forts themselves might be of any shape but were always dangerous to approach. The introduction of the cannon made simple masonry walls ineffective. The cannon balls blew holes in the high walls and broached them. Thereafter, forts changed shape. The walls became thicker, backed with earth, and the designs began to resemble stars, with odd points sticking out here and there, dead ends to entrap attackers, and all sorts of angles. The cannon balls no longer hit the straight walls head on. Perforce, they hit the thick walls at an angle and bounced away. The result was enhanced safety -- and an arms race between fort builders and cannon builders. The "star forts" were expensive and evidently brought some towns near to bankruptcy.

Well, that's more or less part of the same dynamic we find in the collapse of the Soviet Union, isn't it? They spent themselves into oblivion, just as we would have, eventually.

Apologies for the rambling. The program itself is not nearly so entropic as this comment.


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