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Our review of Engineering an Empire: The Complete Series, published January 31st, 2008, is also available.
Did anyone know that Robocop has a master's in art history? Anyone?
The History Channel Presents: Engineering an Empire is among the latest offerings from the History Channel, and one of its best. It combines elaborate on-site photography, historical re-enactments, and state-of-the-art digital graphics to provide twelve strikingly informative primers on eleven of the great civilizations in history. (Greece gets two episodes.) Hosted by Peter Weller (Robocop)—who, as noted above, has a master's degree from Syracuse University (and is an occasional guest professor there as well)—it raises the bar for the History Channel's historical documentaries, a bar that was pretty darn high to begin with.
The twelve episodes contained in this set cover almost all of the big name cultures, plus some you wouldn't expect. Here's the list:
Two big, big absences probably jump out at you: Where's Egypt? And where's Rome? Well, they're not here. And there's really no good reason why they shouldn't be here. Engineering an Empire episodes were produced for both Egypt and Rome, but for whatever reason they were not included with this set. Both are available elsewhere, however—the two-hour Egypt episode (which served as the premiere episode of the series' run) was released as a separate single-disc product, while the Rome episode (which was made as a one-off show well before the series, without Weller, and is therefore the de facto "pilot" for the show) was included as a bonus with copies of the computer game Caesar IV.
The absence of Rome and Egypt is not a reason to skip this set, though—there's plenty of history goodness left to keep you interested. Even I, who fancy myself a knowledgeable student of history, learned a heck of a lot from these 12 episodes. For example, I had no idea how technologically advanced the Carthaginians were. Everyone has heard of Hannibal and the elephants in the Alps, but Carthage was an advanced naval power with a gargantuan military marina that defies belief. And that's just one episode.
As you can probably figure from the title, this series emphasizes how technology, especially civil and military engineering, shaped empires. Often, a culture became dominant due to their superior building skills—the Romans had their roads, the Greeks their biremes and triremes, the Chinese their Great Wall, the Byzantines their masterful defensive fortifications in Constantinople. (And everyone seemed to have aqueducts.) Sometimes, the technology was used not to thwart competitors, but to appease deities: the Parthenon, the Aztec and Mayan pyramids, and cathedrals like the Duomo or Hagia Sofia. But Engineering an Empire isn't a lifeless engineering lecture, nor is it ephemeral and flighty like an art history lecture. There's a lot of humanity involved here, with all the jealousy, war, pathos, subterfuge, and drama that brings with it. This series does a great job at telling the stories, not just the history. It's a fine distinction, but it makes all the difference in the field of historical documentary.
Weller is definitely the most surprising element in this series. Unlike most celebrity hosts of documentaries, Weller clearly knows what he's talking about. In fact, some of the "behind the scenes" footage included as an extra shows him lecturing his cameramen and director about the pitch ratio of an aqueduct, and why it's important to mention it in the script. I did a little research of my own, and found that Weller is almost a no-brainer for this sort of job. He was an Army brat, and grew up on various Army bases in Europe. He's lived abroad for part of his adult life (he speaks very good French, another thing you can see in the bonus featurette), and—to reiterate—he's got that master's in art history from Syracuse. Plus, he's got a lively and engaging style that adds a lot to the presentation. It's not Robocop hosting here—it's Buckaroo Banzai. And that's great.
The only criticism I can level at this disc is the utterly indefensible decision to present this widescreen show via a non-anamorphic transfer. Frankly, it smacks of laziness on the part of the History Channel—they clearly just transferred their full-frame TV feed straight onto the disc. I doubt it would have taken that much time, effort, or money to go back and remaster from the original widescreen source. (Which may have been a high definition source as well—the cameras we see in the bonus featurette sure look like digital HD cameras to me.) Yes, most widescreen TVs have a "zoom" feature that will expand the frame to the full 1.78:1 ratio, but that results in a loss of detail. Again, it's not a reason to skip the set, but it's a disappointing flaw in an otherwise high-quality, high-value DVD set. (The sound, in the original broadcast stereo mix, is perfectly fine for a documentary feature.)
If you're interested in learning the broad outlines of the history of these varied cultures, Engineering an Empire is just the ticket. It really is one of the best things the History Channel has produced in its long and storied history. Even if you're not into engineering, I think you'll find a lot to like in this series.
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