Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees looks to this documentary mega-pack for the answer to history's great unanswered question: Who is prettier, Helen of Troy or Brad Pitt?
Sometimes one should look a gift horse in the mouth.
Released in what was probably an attempt to ride on the coattails of the theatrical feature Troy, this two-disc set from the History Channel packages together four documentaries relating to the legendary city of Troy and the Trojan War. However, the features are of varying quality and relevance, so buyer beware.
Rise and Fall of the Spartans—This miniseries is both the most intriguing and the least relevant portion of this set. This miniseries is divided into two parts: The first, "Code of Honor," tells us about the Spartan way of life and form of military training, while the second, "Tides of War," covers the conflict between Spartan oligarchy and Athenian democracy that became the Peloponnesian War.
Ancient Mysteries: The Odyssey of Troy—Leonard Nimoy narrates this program, which is a solid, wide-ranging overview of the cause of the Trojan War, the literary depiction of the war in Homer's Iliad, and archeological expeditions that have sought the actual location of Troy. It's an unexciting but comprehensive introduction to the Trojan war and the attempts to locate the ancient city.
Treasure! The Ancient Gold of Troy—As its title suggests, this is the most specialized of the programs, focusing on the discovery and provenance of the cache of valuables Victorian businessman-turned-archeologist Heinrich Schliemann claimed to have discovered in the ruins of Troy. Reenactments of historical scenes liven up this program somewhat, although they aren't as classy as the historical paintings that provide visual aides in "The Odyssey of Troy." The story devolves into an account of bureaucratic infighting, as governments wrangle for ownership of the artifacts.
The Trojan City—According to the box text, this documentary is about the search for the ruins of Troy. While this is the partial truth, it would be more accurate to note that this is in fact the same program as the Ancient Mysteries episode that opens the disc. Nimoy has been replaced as narrator, and some of the location stock footage has been replaced as well, but the script is, as far as I can tell, identical, as are the interview clips.
Rise and Fall of the Spartans, which takes up Disc One, is a three-hour miniseries, while the three other programs, which are grouped together on Disc Two, are about 45 minutes each. I have to say right away that there is no reason to include both Ancient Mysteries: The Odyssey of Troy and The Trojan City in this set except to bulk up the contents and make the set look more impressive than it really is. They are redundant. (Perhaps there are a few people out there who are happy to have the option of choosing between Leonard Nimoy and the more anonymous narrator of The Trojan City, but this seems like an unnecessary luxury to me.) Either one is a perfectly respectable introduction to this historical event, although neither makes mention of the beauty contest that myth tells us started the whole mess. Some of us still remember being taught that Paris got the bright idea to abduct Helen of Troy because Venus promised the lady to him as a bribe for choosing her as the most beautiful of the competing goddesses, and the omission of this episode here is glaring. Even if it is the History Channel and not the Myth Channel, I expected at least a nod to this prologue to the historical events.
Moreover, if you watch either of these features before proceeding to Treasure!, you will notice a logical discrepancy. Both the other features on this disc (if one can dignify this cloning by distinguishing between the original and its product) point out that Schliemann, who ostensibly discovered this cache of Trojan Gold, was discredited: His story of the gold's discovery was proven to be false in many significant details, and there remain grave doubts about the authenticity of his discovery. Yet the makers of Treasure! blithely unspool detailed reenactments of this fictitious discovery. By the time we learn that the governments of different countries have been fighting for ownership of this gold for decades, we can't really care, since the documentary is based on false information.
Rise and Fall of the Spartans is by far the meatiest and most solid of the features in this set. It's fascinating to learn of the grueling training undergone by Spartans and the customs that made their society a successful, if self-defeating, one, such as their distinctly eccentric marriage customs and their economic basis in a system of agricultural serfdom. In the second half of the program we see the rigidity and extremism of the Spartan system break down and result in the fall of Sparta, but we also learn that Spartan oligarchy was a great influence on Thomas Jefferson as he set about framing a government for the newly independent United States—much more of an influence, as it turns out, than democratic Athens. We also encounter some colorful individuals who shaped the Peloponnesian wars, and even as related by scholars and academics the unfolding action is as gripping as any big-screen blockbuster. The only problem is that this all seems of negligible relevance to Troy and the Trojan War.
Audiovisual quality is what one would expect from recent television programs: The picture is clear, but the quality of the documentary footage varies widely, from blank-looking video footage of interviews to grain-riddled location photography to cheesy CGI. The reenactments of historical events are deliberately blurred and otherwise manipulated to decrease their realism and, I suspect, obscure historical inaccuracy, but this out-of-focus and often extra-close-up technique becomes pretty irritating over time. Audio is quite strong, clear and nicely separated, although the music that accompanies these documentaries doesn't really deserve such crystalline presentation.
I recommend that potential buyers take a careful look at the contents as I've described them and decide for themselves if this set is worth a purchase. For those specifically interested in Spartan society and the Peloponnesian War, it may well be a worthwhile investment. However, those seeking a comprehensive look at Troy and the Trojan War will find only a limited amount of useful material here.
I declare A&E guilty of false advertising, unacknowledged recycling, and generally shameful behavior in trying to cash in on the Brad Pitt film. Leonard Nimoy is, as always, free to go.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
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