The Siege of Fort William Henry is a substantive hour-long endeavor like the kind of content found on the History Channel before it was consumed by stuff like Pawn Stars, The UnXplained and The Proof is Out There … so, actual history programming.
A brief overview: In 1757, French forces besieged the United Kingdom’s Fort William Henry in New York. The French were allied with the local Native Americans. After the British surrendered, the Native Americans ambushed the unarmed soldiers, murdering and scalping many of them. It was one of the most noteworthy moments in the French and Indian War, used in part as a rallying cry among British forces as the conflict continued. For years, it was believed that the Native Americans killed 1,500 British soldiers, although we know now it was probably closer to 200.
Director Erik Swanson mixes B-roll footage of New England, re-enactment footage and voiceovers reading from the journals kept at the time. He has a handful of experts chime in, particularly to help set the historical stage for the eventual siege. His hour-long running time is used well; he explains the various French and British military decisions that led them to this crossroads. Although he tries to capture the Native American perspective, the primary materials are basically nonexistent. We largely hear their story through the eyes of the French and British journalists who witnessed the siege.
It’s hard to take a historical event and make it feel intense, but thankfully Siege features a solid buildup. Miscommunications, dead couriers, tragic redirections — every moment a missed opportunity to avert disaster. Although it’s straightforward in its telling, the film still manages to make the circumstances feel tragic and frustratingly unavoidable. One thing that helps is that in addition to the classic artifacts used, the film also employs CGI re-creations of Fort William Henry. By modeling the maps in 3D, it offers a better understanding of just how large the structure was and the ways in which men were deployed to defend it. Showing re-enactors on wooden battlements is one thing; creating a rendered bird’s-eye view of their surroundings is another.
Swanson, whose credits include programming on ABC, the History Channel, NBC, and The Colbert Report, has crafted a no-nonsense look at the tragic siege and ensuing massacre that happened during the French and Indian War. Fans of Michael Mann’s adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans might recognize the event, which is featured heavily in James Fenimore Cooper’s original novel and its subsequent adaptations. Of course, that movie was nearly 30 years ago; as a cultural reference point, it’s decidedly old — just Siege feels like a piece of ’90s History Channel programming. That’s not a knock. I wish modern cable shows felt this substantial. It made me a little nostalgic.