BBC Video // 1969 // 650 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky (Retired) // July 26th, 2006
"Civilized man, or so it seems to me, must feel that he belongs somewhere in space and time, that he consciously looks forward and looks back. And for this, he needs a minimum of stability." -- Lord Kenneth Clark
The ideological center of Civilisation can be summed up in two words, the very words which form the title of the thirteenth and final episode: heroic materialism. Kenneth Clark, eminent British art professor, takes the approach of most mainstream thinkers of his time, that history is guided by great individuals, and their accomplishments can be marked by the products they made. Civilisation is not so much a survey of great ideas. It is a survey of great stuff. Monumental architecture, powerful statuary, profound art, clever inventions -- these are the artifacts that prove the triumph of western culture.
It makes sense for a television documentary. It is, after all, really hard to show ideas. If you are going to show the development of "Reason," you talk about Reason while showing some highly organized architectural structure. The audience can see how Reason is established in physical form. But it also shifts the focus away from the development of social theory in favor of material objects. We rarely see in Civilisation how the ideas that developed over the course of 1500 years of western history impacted politics. Politics seems more of a distraction from the production of art.
At once patronizing (he seems mildly amused by the mythology of "pagans") and erudite (he can sum up the qualities in an art work in a few precise words), Clark is like a comfortable professor who has been teaching the same core class for decades from frayed and yellowed lecture notes. He walks into the classroom, reads his lecture notes, expects no discussion from his audience, and then confidently walks back to his book-lined office. Don't expect anything on the cutting edge here; don't look for cynicism or irony. In a strange way, this is a bit refreshing, a throwback that takes on a charming retro quality. At least the show is up front about its bias, as it bears the subtitle "A Personal View by Kenneth Clark." This is his show, his view of history, even if it was to some extent the general view of English culture at the time.
It would be easy to dismiss Civilisation as stuffy and old fashioned. Remember that when this premiered in 1969 on British television, the idea of focusing an extended documentary series around the voice of one scholar, like taking a university seminar on television, had never really been tried. The success of this show led to the television careers of unlikely public television stars like Alistair Cooke (America), Carl Sagan (Cosmos), and one of my personal favorites, James Burke (Connections). Even producer David Attenborough took his turn hosting several nature series, including Life on Earth.
The formula pioneered by Clark now looks so familiar that we do not even notice it any longer: moving camera shots of buildings or natural locations, accompanied by eloquent voice-over by the host; brief recreations of the period; then the host himself turns up on location, talking to us from the rocky prominence of some stormy coastline, or along a canal in Venice. Sometimes we get a "I used to visit this island in my childhood and was awed by the wide expanse of the sea, which must have inspired these sailors to -- " kind of story. The reason the formula caught on is that Clark does it so well. He makes what was, in 1969, stuffy intellectualism friendly and accessible. He never apologizes for remarks that would make younger scholars blanch, as when he says of a baptistery that survived the barbarian invasions of Europe that, although it may be crude, at least "it isn't just a wigwam." It takes until the third episode before women turn up in history and culture, and Clark is clearly puzzled as to why anybody would waste their time with such creatures.
The show runs slower, and Clark is a more sedate host, than what we are used to from more recent "host-centered" documentary series. These days, we would get more battle sequences and political correctness. We would hear about how people actually lived (and not just artists and monarchs), and we would likely get more of the downside of the white man's burden. And all that tends to make contemporary documentaries as homogenous and dull as the knock-offs of Clark's work that those "hipper" shows are trying to react against. This brings the television history documentary full circle in a way: Clark's work now looks new and different compared to the current standard. So much for Civilisation's view of progress, the idea of "the ascent of western man," as Clark puts it at one point. The history documentary circles back on itself.
Civilisation consists of 13 hour-long episodes, taking a historical approach to art by tracking the ups and downs of European history. For a BBC series that is almost as old as I am, Civilisation is in remarkable shape. Time has only softened the video quality a reasonable amount. So pull up a chair, and let's visit the great monuments of western art.
* "The Skin of Our Teeth:" Clark begins with a quote from Ruskin that validates the view that civilization can only be truly understood by studying art. He implies civilization is about to be overrun by barbarians, so he offers to start the journey with a look at the last total collapse of reason and culture: when the barbarians destroyed the glory of Rome, then swept through Europe to threaten all the great accomplishments of good Christians. Fortunately, Charlemagne, "the first great man to emerge from the darkness," saved us all.
* "The Great Thaw:" There is a sequence in EPCOT's "Spaceship Earth" ride where we see (and smell) the burning of Rome and then pass through a scene of monks quietly toiling away copying books. (There is also a facing scene of Islamic scholars, but don't look for Civilisation to talk much about that.) One monk is napping at his desk, an ecclesiastical Rip Van Winkle who is awaiting the bright dawn of the Renaissance around the next corner of the ride. Yes, the second episode of Civilisation is about the struggle to overcome that "Dark Age" during which nothing apparently happened in the world (world meaning Europe, of course). Watch our "leap forward" from ignorance to artistic enlightenment, embodied by cathedrals. Big, heavily decorated cathedrals.
* "Romance and Reality:" The parade of heroic figures keeps coming. Religion is represented by St. Francis of Assisi; the arts are advanced by Giotto and Dante. Clark follows the development of "the gothic imagination." Now that the courtly love tradition begins to enter art, Clark also finally starts talking about women, at least as embodiments of abstract ideas like, say, Chastity and Nature. He seems to find placing women at the center of things a touch absurd and courtly love poetry "unreadable." Even Dante (who paid so much honor to his Beatrice) is a little suspect in Clark's eyes. I was waiting for him to throw in an aside about how women in the medieval world had cooties too.
* "Man: The Measure of All Things:" Now that we have devoted some time to those bothersome females, we are back to talking about what counts. Yes, men. Even better, artistic men. Clark takes a look at the Renaissance, where, in his effort to say something new about a picked-over subject, his sense of humor really comes to the fore.
* "The Hero As Artist:" Here are the heavyweight contenders in Clark's survey of art history: Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo. In 1969, getting to see color footage of the work of these artists was a new experience for homebound British audiences. Now, you have probably seen this stuff a million times. And no, before you ask, no secret Da Vinci codes revealed here.
* "Protest and Communication:" Clark finally focuses on a group of thinkers known more for their words. Erasmus, Luther, and Shakespeare reshaped written language and reflected the radical intellectual shift of their age. Still, we spend more time looking at pictures of them than learning the details of their ideas or listening to their words. We do get to see some Shakespeare performed by the likes of Ian Richardson and Patrick Stewart.
* "Grandeur and Obedience:" The Counter-Reformation provided the Catholic Church an opportunity to produce -- guess what -- more opulent art. Michelangelo (again!), Caravaggio, and Bernini rose to the task, and their work led to the Baroque.
* "The Light of Experience:" The power of the Church gives way to the power of Reason, epitomized by thinkers like Descartes and realistic painters of the rising middle class like Rembrandt and Vermeer. And don't forget the rise of trading empires like Holland.
* "The Pursuit of Happiness:" Although every episode is backed by period music, this is also the first time that Clark calls attention to the connection between architectural harmony and the structure of music, particular as this is the age of Bach and Mozart.
* "The Smile of Reason:" Welcome to the Enlightenment, seen through the windows of Versailles and Monticello and the words of Voltaire and Jefferson. Science, wit, and intellect were prized above all. Once again, though, we see more about the places where people like Voltaire wrote than actually hear any of the words of Voltaire that changed thought in Europe.
* "The Worship of Nature:" Time to take off your shoes and run in the grass. Romanticism reigns. From Rousseau's view of "natural man" to the paintings of Constable and Turner, with a detour to actually quote the Marquis de Sade (I'll give him a point for that one), we see how nature inspired a generation.
* "The Fallacies of Hope:" The reason of the Enlightenment reaches its apotheosis in the impulsive utopian visions of Napoleon, Beethoven, and Byron. Oh, as Wordsworth said, "to be young was very heaven." But soon, the revolutions would give way to disillusion and cynicism.
* "Heroic Materialism:" Don't expect anything about Twentieth Century art in this series. Clark does not even pretend to understand or respect anything after 1900, but he has plenty to say about the end of the Nineteenth Century which led to the grim modern era that seems to mark the end of civilization for him. He does see hope in a history of humanitarianism, "the great achievement of the Nineteenth Century."
The final disc of this four-disc set includes a photo gallery and a 23-minute interview with Sir David Attenborough about the grand old days of BBC-2 and the production of Civilisation. A good deal of the story is repeated in the long booklet insert.
Clark's series was the first major British documentary series in color, and its length and logistical difficulty made it quite the experiment in 1969. Let me repeat what should be apparently from the summaries above: this is all Kenneth Clark's opinionated view of western art and culture. More power to him to for not apologizing for it. When he calls Dutch painter Frans Hals "odiously skillful" or gripes about Rousseau's "defects as a human being," you have to chuckle, whether you agree or not. He is quite proud to admit that he is "a stick in the mud" that believes in old fashioned values. More power to him. But you might want to check Civilisation -- The Complete Series out of the library first to see if this is too old school for your tastes.
Review content copyright © 2006 Mike Pinsky; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: BBC Video
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Release Year: 1969
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Interview with Sir David Attenborough
* Photo Gallery