If you're looking for directions to Afghanistan, Judge Joel Pearce says this documentary is for you. And who better to give you travel tips than Alexander the Great?
."…it's hard to pin down people in history, because like us, they are always on the move, as we constantly reinvent them" -Michael Wood
Whenever a major Hollywood film deals with any historical or mythical subject, a flurry of documentaries on DVD are released in order to capitalize on the hype. Some of them are valuable, allowing us to dig deeper and discover the truth behind these blockbusters. Others are fluff designed solely to nab a little cash. In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is one of the former, but most audiences will find it overstays its welcome.
This PBS miniseries is definitely ambitious. Host Michael Wood follows the path that Alexander took during his conquest, telling the story of his life along the way. It's impossible to know for certain precisely where some of the accounts took place (and whether they took place at all), but it immediately shows that Wood has used every historical source available to him to discover the truth. He references books written by the leading Greek and Roman historians from shortly after the conquest, has dug into archives, taps local legend, and discusses details with experts from around the world. He is honest about his historiography, realizing that history is written by the winners and that these stories tend to be embellished over centuries. The result is a carefully considered and occasionally exciting journey. Most of the areas depicted are still quite barren, so have not changed much since Alexander's life. This is a far more vivid way to explore the past than looking at the path on a map.
Unfortunately, it's also a good deal longer. If the goal is to quickly brush up on your Classical Greek history, you may find this just a little too thorough at times. If you are a budding or avid historian and want to dig into the period, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great gives you tons of material, accuracy, and stories. Michael Wood is a compelling host, always interesting to listen to if a tad too excited at times. I suppose it's good that he can hardly contain himself, but it is hard to match his enthusiasm about this particular topic.
While I have a lot of respect for Wood's historiography and conceptual framework, I am a little less blown away by his methodology. The journey is a cool idea, but at times he tries too hard to draw parallels between his own journey and that of Alexander the Great. He spends far too much time discussing the civil war in Afghanistan, and he often claims to be able to feel what Alexander would have felt at the same moment of the journey. That said, Wood and his film crew were willing to risk their lives and safety to accomplish this documentary, and the footage from within the war-torn countries is impressive and daring.
The DVD offers a fine reproduction of the television experience. The video transfer is ugly and lacks detail, but has been cleaned up as much as a production shot on tape can be. There is some visible edge enhancement, but not much dirt on the print. The color reproduction is accurate, and the cinematography does a wonderful job of capturing the various points in the journey. The dialogue is easy to understand, even when Wood is hurtling down a small dirt road in an old jeep with no roof. The music and ambient noise are mixed well across the sound stage, never taking too much attention from the discussion on screen.
There are no extras on the disc, but the documentary itself has more than enough background information.
Whether or not In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is a worthy purchase will depend on what you want to get out of it. If you have a mild interest in finding out more about the remarkable story of this ancient conqueror, a quick trip to the wikipedia will probably satisfy your curiosity. If you care enough about the history to share the fascinating but slowly paced four-hour journey with Michael Wood, you will probably get a lot out of this disc. The concept of the journey seems gimmicky, but it does allow Wood to put the pieced together story of Alexander the Great into a workable and compelling framework. I learned a lot during this documentary, maybe even more than I wanted to.
In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is not simply trying to cash in on the recent interest in the time period. It's a great example of how documentaries can bring history alive. Not guilty.
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