A no-nonsense history of a fantastic project: the Panama Canal

A Man, a Plan, a Canal, Panama PBS, Tuesday, 8-9 p.m. Writer/narrator: David McCullough. Producer/director: Carl Charlson. Executive producer: Paula Apsell. Produced for PBS's ``Nova'' by WGBH, Boston, in association with the BBC. ``Nova'' highlights the beginning of its 15th season on PBS with a playful title for a serious human drama. ``A Man, a Plan, a Canal, Panama'' is a famous palindrome (a sequence of letters that reads the same backward and forward).

But the documentary itself, although entertaining, is far from playful - it is a straghtforward history of the building of the Panama Canal, written and narrated by an ``American Alistair Cooke,'' the ubiquitous David McCullough. This historian wrote the best-selling book ``The Path Between the Seas,'' recognized as the definitive history of the canal.

While this show is a serious and perceptive study of the social, political, and economic forces that contributed to the building of the canal, the charmingly authoritative Mr. McCullough manages to give a human scale to this story of what he calls a ``colossal perpetual-motion machine.'' It is a tale of misery, perseverence, and, in the long run, grand accomplishment.

The canal was begun in the 1880s under the aegis of the French entrepreneur and builder of the Suez Canal, Count Ferdinand de Lesseps. McCullough traces the stops and starts that finally resulted in the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914 under President Theodore Roosevelt. In the interim there had to be an all-out assault on the pestilence and poverty of the region, the most difficult and deadly terrain on earth at the time.

Problems such as disease, snakes, political intrigue, financial swindles, bankruptcy, laggard technology, temperamental engineers, and mud slides constituted an overwhelming set of circumstances that made building the canal, according to McCullough, ``the moon shot of its era.''

The French effort, abandoned after huge monetary losses and more than 10,000 fatalities, was followed by the US takeover of the project, after what McCullough honestly refers to as ``gunboat diplomacy.'' This resulted in a bargain $10 million deal for the US. Soon, more than 24,000 men were at work on the $350 million project.

Even so, more than 5,000 workers died before the first ship made the 50-mile crossing through the locks in 1914. Today, about 12,000 ships per year go through the system of locks that raise the vessels to the level of a large man-made lake. Rather than a sea-to-sea journey, the crossing has become a trip up-and-over Panama.

The highest fee paid to use the canal was forked over by the Queen Mary - $99,000. The lowest fee was 36 cents paid by travel writer Richard Halliburton when he swam the canal. As a result of a recent treaty, in 1999 the canal will finally revert to Panama.

The documentary makes effective use of archival film footage of the actual construction, as well as historical moments and personal snapshots. As a kind of coda, there is stately footage of a contemporary luxury liner, the Royal Viking Sea, making the journey.

How did this fantastic project succeed, despite overwhelming odds? According to McCullough, the answer is simple. He gives the kind of precise, incisive commentary that dominates this straightforward ``info-tainment'': ``The time for success was exactly right.''

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