The lamentations of many women were heard during the writing of Judge Erick Harper's review of this smashing documentary.
Four barbarian tribes. A millennium of terror.
The Vikings. The Goths. The Mongols. The Huns. Each of these four peoples struck fear into the hearts of peoples all over Eurasia, slaying, pillaging, ransacking, and destroying to their hearts' content. In their own way, each also contributed to the development of world cultures in ways that still affect us today. Barbarians, a recent History Channel miniseries, takes us into the worlds of these feared warriors to examine their backgrounds, societies, accomplishments, and histories. Prepare to enter the domain of the Barbarians.
Facts of the Case
The Barbarians miniseries consists of four episodes, each showcasing a different barbarian culture.
With the proliferation of educational cable channels, documentarians have more outlets for their work than ever before. However, there is also increased pressure to create documentaries that are not just informative but entertaining. The trouble is the filmmakers need to compete with the excitement offered everywhere else on the dial. Even the best History Channel docs have to make do with budgets that wouldn't buy the hairspray for a feature production, and even the best tend to look a little shoddy when compared to the spectacle offered by Hollywood.
Barbarians represents The History Channel at the top of its game, but also highlights the problems inherent in making history that people will actually stick around to watch. Each episode is fast-paced and entertaining, with some of the best historical reenactment footage I've seen in a while. Director Robert Gardner shot on various locations in Lithuania with a limited number of extras, using some impressive directorial tricks to make the battle scenes seem fully populated and realistic. There is an amusing lack of any real gore, but this is basic cable, after all. Barbarians also manages to spend some time away from the battle scenes, showing what life was like in a Viking village or a settlement under attack by the Huns. Each episode is a compromise between education and entertainment, but they seem for the most part to be happy, successful compromises.
In addition to the reenactment footage, there is the usual collection of talking eggheads who give their learned insights into the various barbarian cultures. These academics are passionate about their barbarians as only historians can be. Their enthusiasm is contagious, and the interview segments work as well with the rest of the material as any I have seen.
Another technique that is gaining popularity as a standard History Channel tool is the use of computer-generated 3-D animated maps. These work very well for Barbarians; my only real complaint is that there should have been more of them.
Barbarians is a History Channel/A&E release, presented in anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen. The picture quality looks excellent at first glance, with crisp, lifelike colors and a sense of overall image sharpness and clarity. That's the first glance, anyway. Looking closer, we find that the picture is not so sharp and clear as we thought. Almost every frame is plagued with massive edge enhancement and mosquito noise artifacts that swarm around any sort of hard edges or fine details. Leaves in a forest, rocks on a seashore, or chain mail on the back of a Viking all sparkle like the spring collection from Cartier. The few times these problems don't crop up, it appears to be because of image softness and blurring.
Audio, on the other hand, is a very nice Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo mix that does a surprisingly good job of creating an immersive experience. Our faithful narrator's voice comes through resonant and lifelike, and accompanying musical scoring or sound effects are satisfactorily rendered.
The two special features tie in nicely with the miniseries. On Disc One we find Behind the Shield, a behind-the-scenes featurette that does double duty as a promo piece. As is usually the case with History Channel featurettes of this nature, there is a good dose of information culled from the miniseries, just enough to whet the audience's appetite for the whole thing. There is a lot of time spent on the set with Gardner, who actually takes the time to give substantive insights into how he made the documentaries. Not everything is wonderful, however. There is a painfully stupid bit featuring "Thor" and "Munnin," a pair of barbarian reenactors/entertainers and their trip to the John Robert Powers school of modeling to try to learn how to behave like civilized people. Thankfully, it doesn't last very long.
The other special feature is an episode of Biography. After all, what would an A&E box set be without at least one Biography? This one is entitled "Genghis Khan: Terror and Conquest," and complements the Mongol chapter of the miniseries quite nicely. Picture and sound quality are surprisingly good for an episode that originally aired in 1995. Most important, we learn that young Temujin (the great Khan's given name) grew up hating dogs; I like this guy better and better all the time.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
No matter how good the director, there are some elements of any documentary that are just bound to ring a little false due to lack of budget. One of the criticisms that has been leveled at Barbarians is directed specifically at the Mongol chapter. It appears that Gardner had to work with what he had available for actors, and as a result Genghis Khan and his henchmen look awfully European. Heck, John Wayne had a better makeup job for The Conqueror. Throughout the series there are certainly a number of beards that are obviously fake, and some of the battle reenactments are a little too obviously choreographed and performed a bit too slowly.
The biggest problem with Barbarian is the running time. There is simply no way to pack an in-depth look at each of these cultures into an hour-long (approximately 45 minutes without commercials) episode. At times the series probably skews too far in favor of entertainment over information. All things considered, however, this is an ambitious project that turned out pretty well, considering the resource limitations of filming for The History Channel instead of a major Hollywood studio.
If I had to pick a favorite chapter, I would have to go with the Vikings—they are my people, after all. Their episode also happens to be the one where the filmmakers did the best job of balancing a people's peaceful and cultural innovations with the stories of their conquests and terror.
Not guilty! The History Channel and director Robert Gardner have done a nice job with Barbarians, creating a convincing look into the past and striking an acceptable balance between entertainment and education.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Behind the Scenes Featurette
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