Russell Baillie: Commanding but not compelling

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Doco about 'forgotten' New Zealand World War I general full of facts but lacking in telling detail.

Andrew Hamilton Russell (played by Colin Moy) emerged with his reputation intact despite the disasters of Gallipoli and Passchendaele. Photo / Supplied
Andrew Hamilton Russell (played by Colin Moy) emerged with his reputation intact despite the disasters of Gallipoli and Passchendaele. Photo / Supplied

Every year at this time comes the familiar barrage. The annual dusting off of the grainy footage and marching music for the Anzac Day docos.

New shows on old wars have been high ground long held by Maori Television with its broadcast of the big day in full, TVNZ and TV3 having long surrendered to anything but token coverage. So Prime's The Forgotten General on Sunday was a kind of pre-emptive strike.

Being broadcast pre-Anzac Day also meant this New Zealand On Air-funded doco came interrupted by ads and also that its credits at the end were squeezed into illegibility as the channel promo-ed yet another war doco.

Which was a pity because despite being about just one man - World War I New Zealand Division commander Major-General Sir Andrew Hamilton Russell - this programme had a substantial cast.

That included those playing Russell and his top brass comrades in the dialogue-free impressively-moustached recreations of Gallipoli or the Western Front, and its gathering of military historians as well as Jock Vennell, whose biography of Russell this doco got its name and inspiration from.

The hour-long programme attempted to explain why, among those in charge of the disasters of Gallipoli or Passchendaele, Russell emerged with his reputation intact, and how this Hawkes Bay-born farmer became a soldier's soldier whose name should have gone down in history like Freyberg or Park.

Russell's story, said Christopher Pugsley, encapsulated New Zealand's experience of World War I. And in telling of Russell's war, this certainly offered an illuminating refresher on this country's role in the Great War.

Fellow military historian Andrew MacDonald offered the view that many families today should thank Russell for getting their grandfathers and great-grandfathers back in one piece. That said, Russell was still keen on shooting men for desertion and punishing the conscientious objectors sent to him on the front.

"If it meant breaking eggs and shooting soldiers for desertion, so be it," said Pugsley of Hamilton's disciplinarian style, which apparently engendered the trust - "trust but not love" - of the thousands of men under his command.

But in its efforts to have so much expert opinion, so many scenes of Russell (played by Colin Moy) deep in thought somewhere in a trench, The Forgotten General also felt like a doco you could trust but not love.

A frequently clunky narration didn't help. "More death was just around the corner," it warned as it set the scene for the third Battle of the Somme, a place where anything with a corner on it had long since been obliterated. Neither did fidgety editing of some otherwise crafty battleground recreations, or a music score hellbent on declaring Russell's heroism from its opening bars.

The overall effect was of a biography that told us a lot, one fact after another. But it was one that had just a few telling moments - there was one about Russell the man, not Russell the leader of men, that resonated: When his son died in World War II, the now retired general continued to write letters to him until his own death in 1960. It's a pity we didn't hear more about what they said.

The Forgotten General still emerged as a solid, well-researched prosaic study of a man of war. But as television, it was more an exhaustively detailed memorial than truly memorable.

- NZ Herald

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