"Captain, I'm an engineer, not a miracle worker." Judge Jim Thomas begs to differ.
Our review of Engineering An Empire, published May 24th, 2007, is also available.
"When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, lad, the strongest castle in all of England."—Monty Python and the Holy Grail
As it turns out, that's a fairly accurate description of early construction. Who knew?
A massive temple cut into the living rock of the desert. A lattice of steel stretching towards the stars. Thousands of people living in a city built in the middle of a lake. A hallway of shimmering mirrors. Men walking in a giant hamster wheel, hoisting aloft materials for the greatest church the world has ever known. A fleet of ships, headed to war, streaming out from a sprawling harbor.
The word "empire" generally evokes images of massive armies sweeping across borders, overwhelming everything in their path. But on closer examination, the world's most famous empires were not made with brute force, but with cunning and skill. Three years ago, The History Channel examined the ways in which engineering breakthroughs contributed to the great empires of history, breakthroughs that have become critical to our modern way of life. We're now assembled to determine if this series will itself survive the test of time or instead be consigned to the Ozymandius wing of historical oblivion.
Facts of the Case
In 2005, The History Channel broadcast a special on the engineering marvels of Egypt. The special did well, and the following year they followed up with a similar special on Rome. Shortly thereafter, a twelve-part series examined the engineering prowess of other empires. The Egypt special and the series were hosted by Peter Weller of Syracuse University. Yes, Buckaroo Banzai himself. Weller also has a masters degree in Roman and Renaissance Art, occasionally teaching courses on art history at Syracuse. Plus there's his band, the Hong Kong Cavaliers…sorry. My esteemed colleague, Judge David Ryan, reviewed an earlier release that only included the twelve-part series. This release, the Collectors Edition, adds the longer Egypt and Rome specials. This complete set comes on six discs:
Expertly balancing reenactments, CGI recreations, current footage, and talking heads, each episode is really the history of a given empire, with engineering aspects emphasized. That approach keeps the discussion of engineering firmly grounded in its historical context.
As noted above, Peter Weller hosts the regular episodes and the Egypt special; he's more of a talking head in the Rome special. Granted, you shake you head for a moment the first time he comes on screen with the caption, "Peter Weller, Syracuse University," but it doesn't take long to realize that not only does Weller know his stuff, but he has a true passion for the material. Raw enthusiasm like his is something lacking in most documentaries; here it helps pull you into the events.
There's very little overlap in the various episodes, though there are relationships—"The Age of Alexander" dovetails nicely with "The Persians." Given that the Greek empire ultimately defeated the Persian empire, that's inevitable. But the producers are careful to avoid repeating themselves, maintaining a fixed point of view for each episode. It's to the producers' credit that towards the end of the Persian episode, we can't help but feel sorry for the Persians, having already witnessed their downfall from the Greek perspective.
The Egypt special offers a two-fer; not only do we get to see Ancient Egypt's engineering triumphs (and a couple of failures), but we also get to see a notable 20th century triumph/failure. The Aswan High Dam was built during the '60s to provide power and control Nile flooding; the resulting lake was named Lake Nasser, after the then-president of Egypt. On the plus side, Nile flooding was controlled, and a reliable source of hydroelectric power established. On the negative side, engineers seriously underestimated the scope of the rising water, and soon Lake Nasser endangered many historical sites. Massive fortresses built to guard Egypt's southern borders, fortresses that had endured for over 4,000 years, disappeared beneath the rising waters; several other sites, including the Temple of Philae, were similarly threatened; fortunately, a group of engineers, racing against the rising water, rescued some of these sites by cutting them apart and reassembling them on higher ground. The impact of the dam is discussed in both the main special and one of the features, "Everything You Wanted to Know About Egypt."
Video is solid, though, as Judge Ryan noted, the non-anamorphic transfer is a bit of a letdown. The attention to detail in the re-enactments is commendable, particularly since we never really hear anyone speaking; even if we did, it's not like I'm in a position to say if Alexander the Great is speaking ancient Greek with a Macedonian accent or not. But even though the re-enactments primarily serve as the backdrop for narration, they are well shot, and an anamorphic transfer would have let them shine.
The stereo track is pretty good as well, creating subtle but perceptible moods with both sound effects and music.
The extras are a mixed bunch. One set of extras appears to be some deleted scenes from each of the regular episodes. These mainly feature Weller talking with one of the talking heads, getting some additional information. The Rome special features a behind-the-scenes look at the HBO miniseries Rome, which I probably would have appreciated more if I had HBO. The meat of the extras is on the Egypt disc; there we get a better idea of what these documentaries entailed. The "Inside Look" is basically Peter Weller talking about much of the same things discussed in the special itself, but in a more conversational manner. My guess is this is basically deleted material. "From the Director's Chair" is a more traditional "making of" featurette, narrated by director Chris Callis. It's a tad dry, but it has its moments, particularly when Weller and the crew are filming in the depths of a pyramid, a fuse blows, and all the lights go out. Think about it: pitch black with 30,000 tons of rock over your head.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The episode on French engineering was particularly impressive, but should have been renamed. "Napoleon: Steel Monster"? The episode covers the 1100s through the building of the Eiffel Tower at the end of the 19th century. Napoleon hardly dominates the discussion, and the one monument he had erected, the Arc de Triomphe, isn't discussed at any length.
But really, there is very little to complain about in this set.
The real test of such a series is the degree to which it fires the imagination. I can imagine ships moving in and out of the great Port of Carthage, the shock of the Roman citizens when they realize that they have no more running water because their enemies have destroyed their aqueducts, or builders standing around the construction site of the Notre Dame, trying to determine what to do next because the thing was built more or less on the fly, without blueprints. The mind, it boggles.
My wife teaches a Principles of Engineering class at her high school; she has informed me that this set will be relocated to her classroom.
Sounds like a not guilty verdict to me.
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