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Case Number 21084: Small Claims Court

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American Experience: Dinosaur Wars

PBS // 2011 // 60 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Roman Martel (Retired) // April 9th, 2011

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All Rise...

Judge Roman Martel was inspired by these 1800s paleontologists to wax his mustache.

Editor's Note

Our reviews of 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: The Duel (published July 30th, 2011), American Experience: Victory In The Pacific (published September 5th, 2005), and American Experience: Kinsey (published June 21st, 2005) are also available.

The Charge

Two paleontologists living in the late 1800s brought their scientific field to the world stage with amazing discoveries. Because of these men we know about some of the most recognizable prehistoric animals of all time, including Triceratops and Stegosaurus. In the process, these men destroyed each other in a war of egos.

The Case

The American Civil War is over and interest in natural history, inspired by Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species," is exploding. On the forefront of that explosion are two men, Othniel Charles Marsh (also known as O.C.) and Edward Drinker Cope. Marsh takes a trip to the recently opened West by railroad and is astounded by what he finds. Geologically, it's a land filled to bursting with potential fossil finds.

He travels to Philadelphia and meets with Cope, a man who made some amazing discoveries with fossils from New Jersey. The two men hit it off; Cope is excited to find someone else who shares his passion for ancient life. But Marsh is a businessman at heart. He takes what he learns from Cope, cuts off the fossil supply from New Jersey and even makes a point to make Cope look like a fool to his colleagues.

Cope is incensed, and decides to beat Marsh at his own game. He heads out West as well. Soon the two men are leading competing fossil expeditions, fighting over the naming of prehistoric animals and even sinking so low as to destroy or steal fossils from each other.

Along the way they find fossil records that help support Darwin's theory of evolution. They reveal a world no one ever knew existed, the Jurassic era, and find fossil remains of some of the most amazing dinosaurs that have ever walked the earth. They brought paleontology to the world stage of science, and brought American science up in respectability and importance.

But the the battles between them grew more heated, and more damaging. Eventually all the hate fuels a breakdown, and it's a tragic one.

Dinosaur Wars chronicles these men and the conflict, bringing their world to life. It was a glimpse at a time I had never considered—a period when people just didn't know about dinosaurs. The theory of evolution was new, and this rich discovery of fossils did much to support it. I can imagine how exciting this was for the scientific minds of the day.

The documentary uses a lot of archival photos, films and interviews to flesh the whole story out. We get some readings of letters from both men, as well as pans over the completed fossil remains they discovered. Director and writer Mark Davis keeps the story moving at a good pace and with such a rich story to work with, it never flags.

PBS' presentation is solid. The sound is available in 5.1 but other than some surround on the music cues, it didn't make much of a difference. Still the voice over and interviews are well balanced. The picture is clear for the panoramic footage of the American fossil beds as well as those museum exhibits. Sadly, there are no extras.

Anyone with an interest in paleontology and the role of science in the late 1800s will find a lot to enjoy in Dinosaur Wars.

The Verdict

Guilty of being stubborn fools. Also guilty of bringing paleontology to life.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 86

Perp Profile

Studio: PBS
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• English (SDH)
Running Time: 60 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Documentary
• Historical
• Science and Nature
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• None

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