"History need not be dull," said Michael Maclear. "It can be as entertaining as a dramatic series."
The theory will be tested this week. "American Caesar," based on the William Manchester biography, will bring the story of Gen. Douglas MacArthur to television in a two-night, five-hour documentary miniseries.
The program is syndicated by Metromedia Television and Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., with 82 stations signed up to carry it at last count. It will air on Channel 5 Sunday and Monday nights at 7 and 8 respectively.
Maclear, the show's executive producer, is a man who read Manchester's best-selling book and saw a miniseries.
"I found it a splendid read and a good television story," he said. "I don't think the war's Pacific theater has been done as well as the European theater. There wasn't the range of film available one would have thought. There's a vast archive on the European theater and Vietnam."
And there is enduring fascination with MacArthur, whom Manchester described as "a great thundering paradox of a man -- noble and ignoble, inspiring and outrageous, arrogant and shy." He was, simply, one of the dominating figures in U.S. military history and a major force in securing victory in World War II.
Maclear, like his subject, shares a bias toward the Pacific. A Briton by birth, Maclear has been a correspondent in the Far East and London for Canadian television. Six years ago he left to set up Cineworld, a Toronto-based production company that specializes in historical documentaries. Probably the company's most noteworthy product was "Vietnam: The 10,000 Day War," a 26-episode series.
"My background inclinations are journalistic," Maclear said. "People want the factual as well as the fictional. There's a job to be done -- stepping back to give space and time to the events and historical figures."
And Maclear is wary of mixing fiction and fact. He said he thought the blend of the two was lamentable in the recent docu-drama "The Atlanta Child Murders," which included composite characters and took obvious artistic liberties. "The question of a miscarriage of justice was raised, but how was the viewer to judge?" he said. After viewing "Atlanta," he said, "I'm no wiser."
So, even though this program is referred to as a miniseries or docu-series, don't look for Gregory Peck to reprise his 1977 role as "MacArthur." One concession to show business is made -- John Huston lends his mine-shaft-deep voice to the general's words. But basically this is the kind of straight- forward documentary effort that grows more scarce each season on network television.
Part of this series' 11/2-year production time was spent hunting for film. Maclear noted that most of the war's film and photographers had gone to the European theater, just as MacArthur had complained that most of the guns and soldiers had been sent there too. "We went to Australia and Japan for footage," he said, giving the documentary a sense of his adversaries' view of MacArthur. But you don't have to go overseas to find either lovers or haters of MacArthur.
"He was a 19th-century figure," said Maclear. "He felt you fought for total victory. That was his downfall in Korea. He didn't understand a war fought for a limited political end, like Vietnam.
"We wanted to show him, warts and all. It's the contradiction of the man that makes him fascinating."
Maclear spoke warmly of the man who wrote the book that served as the series' outline. "Manchester is an amazing man," he said. "He produces an incredible output, but it's all high-quality. He has good historical perception but still reaches a large audience."
Manchester served in a "friendly consultancy" during the filming and was "ecstatic" when he saw the result, sad Maclear.
During production of the series, Maclear added, members of his staff swung like pendulums in their feelings for their subject, admiring the general one day, despising him the next. His own view, he said, is that MacArthur is the greatest military leader the United States has ever produced. "I wound up not sure that I like the man," said Maclear, "but admiring him tremendously."