Judge Russell Engebretson could not formulate even one light and amusing quip relating to the First World War.
Blood and Oil—The Middle East in World War I examines the devastating conflict that laid the foundation for wars, coups, revolts, and military interventions in the Middle East.
Blood and Oil is one of a series of historical DVD documentaries offered by Inecom. The DVD under review is composed of color and black and white archival footage, and was written, produced, and narrated by Marty Callaghan. A few voice actors were employed to recite quotations of the major historical figures that played a part in the Great War; added narration is interspersed throughout by historians Edward Erickson, David Fromkin, and David Woodward.
The documentary focuses on the Ottoman Empire's entry into World War I in 1914, rather than the more well-known history of the Western Front. It also discusses how the Ottoman Empire was later carved into territories that were controlled primarily by the British and French, and how the remaining territories became the modern state of Turkey in 1923. Callaghan's concluding argument is that redrawing the map of the Middle East for the benefit of Western political and economic aims and in selecting pro-Western leaders to rule Muslims of various cultures and religious beliefs, Europe guaranteed that the future of the Middle East would be plagued by civil strife, regional wars, and foreign occupation.
Callaghan's presentation is direct and somewhat dry. There is a barrage of information—much of it hardcore military history—narrated in a no-nonsense manner. As an example of the documentary's tone, here is an extract from the first chapter: "The Ottoman Empire, spanning from the southeastern tip of Europe across modern day Turkey to the Arabian Desert and the Caucasus Mountains plunges into the cataclysm of a world war that is already claiming thousands of lives on the battlefields of France. Three men are in control of the Ottoman government in Istanbul—Enver Pasha, the minister of war; Taalat Pasha, the minister of interior; and Jemal Pasha, minister of the navy. These three dictators rule over the lives of more than 20 million people. About half of them are Turks. The other half is made up of Arabs, Greeks, Armenians, and other minorities. Enver Pasha is determined to join Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in their fight against France, Great Britain, and Russia." The narrative becomes increasingly complex as the Byzantine events of "the war to end all wars" unfold. Indeed, this is the stuff that high school history students' nightmares are made of. Luckily for the viewer, an exam will not follow.
The video and audio are more than adequate for a documentary, especially considering that some of the film clips are around 90 years old. Dialogue is clear, and the film score by Michael Goodis (replete with military drum rolls and brass flourishes) is competent. It's overall a well-mounted DVD production.
The bonus material is sparse: roughly 30 minutes of extended interviews. The liveliest commentary is provided by Kentuckian David Woodward in his talk about insect pests—flies, lice, and sand flies—that British troops endured in the Middle East. He mentions that American soldiers in Iraq today refer to sand fly bites as "Baghdad Boils." Not to take anything away from the other two historians, both of whom provide interesting background on the diplomatic shenanigans of the British and French as they haggle and attempt to out-maneuver one another for the spoils of their respective empires. Edward Erickson also handily deflates the Hollywood myth of T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) and dismisses his attacks on the railroads as strategically worthless and a minor nuisance to the Ottoman war effort.
I was disappointed that the documentary glided over the massacre of more than one million Armenians perpetrated by Ottoman Turkish troops during the war (it is a crime today in Turkey to claim an Armenian genocide ever took place, despite ample evidence to the contrary). Otherwise, I found this to be a fine summary of WWI on the Eastern front.
World War I was the beginning of what historian Eric Hobsbawm calls the short 20th century of 1914 to 1991: the events between the start of WWI and the fall of the U.S.S.R. The events in Blood and Oil: The Middle East in World War I mark the transition from the relatively peaceful 19th to the most violent and bloody century in the history of mankind. This DVD is not a light entertainment, but a compelling view if you are prepared to slog through a mire of places, dates, and names.
Summing up, this is a decent rental title for the average viewer. It may be worth a purchase to the history buff with a deeper interest in the Middle Eastern theatre of World War I.
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• Extended Commentary by Edward Erickson
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