Appellate Judge James A. Stewart once built a grand palace out of bottle caps.
"Once home to China's all-powerful emperors, it remains the greatest palace ever built, the result of one man's vision…"
I probably won't get a chance to visit China's Forbidden City, but I realize that it's a place of great history and beauty. The Smithsonian Networks have released China's Forbidden City, a two-part look at the palace's creation and its downfall, at least as a seat of Chinese power.
Its origins are covered in "The Centre of the World," which tells the story of the superstitious, paranoid emperor who built the "earthly image of heavenly order." Its last years are covered in "The Reign of the Concubine," which tells how a concubine became the Empress Dowager, who was the power behind the throne as China struggled to deal with the French and British as the Fists of Heaven, known to Westerners as Boxers, rose up among their own people.
Most of China's Forbidden City is devoted to re-enactments of these events, with a narrator telling the story. There's an occasional interruption for some facts from experts, scenes of modern-day restoration efforts, or film clips of trains going through turn-of-the-last-century China.
That focus mostly works; the narrator lets the events unfold dramatically without going into overkill. The one thing that's lacking is names. I really wanted to see the names of the people in the drama spelled out on screen so I knew who was who.
The choice of events, in addition to hitting key points on the Forbidden City's timeline, gets to show different aspects of the palace. The first episode serves as the tour as it shows the events around its construction. The second episode demonstrates that "the Forbidden City is riven by envy, factions, and politics." While there's undoubtedly much more to be told and I get the feeling that there will be a sequel disc someday, I left satisfied that I got the basics.
The picture was sharp and clear, except for that vintage black-and-white film. The everpresent narration was never overshadowed by the music.
As always, Smithsonian's habit of telling us that trailers for TV shows I can't get are "More" makes me want more real extras even more. Come on, give me some deleted scenes or a timeline here! More, more, more!
Not guilty. It's a documentary of great history and beauty.
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Studio: Smithsonian Channel
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