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Case Number 21896: Small Claims Court

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American Experience: The Duel

PBS // 2000 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // July 30th, 2011

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All Rise...

The last duel Judge Roman Martel participated in involved banjos and silly string. Don't ask.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of American Experience: Dinosaur Wars (published April 9th, 2011), American Experience: Hijacked (published February 22nd, 2006), American Experience: Houdini (published October 14th, 2011), American Experience: LBJ (published March 8th, 2006), American Experience: Panama Canal (published February 12th, 2011), American Experience: Victory In The Pacific (published September 5th, 2005), and American Experience: Kinsey (published June 21st, 2005) are also available.

The Charge

American Experience takes us back to a time when politicians could end a war of words with a couple of pistols. Now that sounds like a spectator sport!

The Case

Since I already reviewed Anton Chekhov's The Duel I figured it was time to go to the source material and examine the historical basis of that story…

Whoa, calm down there angry history professors. I'm just kidding around. American Experience: The Duel has nothing to do with angry zoologists. It's all about a political battle between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, two men who were present at the forging of the United States of America. Both men contributed to the political landscape of the country. Both men were aggressive and ambitious. Both men just wouldn't back down when it came to a matter of honor.

This episode of American Experience presents an overview of the lives of Hamilton and Burr, spanning their youth up to the fateful duel on July 11, 1804. Now 60 minutes is a pretty conservative running time to cover only the life of Hamilton, much less include background on Burr. So keep in mind, this is not a biography on both men. It is an examination of the factors in their lives, the political and social world they lived in and the pressures that forced the to to face off and shoot at each other.

What I found most interesting about The Duel was the context it provided for the event. Sure, I knew the basics of the incident, and a bit about the personality of both men. But I never understood the social constructs that were set up at the time that would allow this to occur. I mean these two men weren't stupid. So why would either consent to a duel? Was it all a matter of honor, or was there something else going on? The documentary answered my questions and offered some new insights. Can't ask for much more from this type of show.

Directors Carl Byker and Mitch Wilson make use of recreations, location shooting, interviews with historians and readings from the journals and letters of both men to tell the story. Linda Hunt (Dune) is on hand for narration duties. Rene Auberjonois (The Last Unicorn) reads the letters of Hamilton. Brian Dennehy (Gladiator) reads for Burr.

PBS provides an average disc. The image was clear. The sound is a standard stereo mix. Hamilton's wild shot must have blown away the extras, because there aren't any to be found.

Anyone interested in finding out more about the specifics of this duel, as well as getting some biographical information about Hamilton and Burr will enjoy this episode.

The Verdict

Not Guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 82

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2000
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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