Appellate Judge James A. Stewart couldn't dislike a Michael Palin travelogue. After all, who could argue with a rave review from the Dalai Lama?
"I think Sahara was the hardest journey that I've ever done. Maybe just because I'm getting a bit older. Just in logistical terms, it was the most difficult. Um, there aren't creature comforts in the Sahara."—Michael Palin, in a bonus interview, talking about his journey across the Sahara.
Michael Palin has gone Around the World in 80 Days and Pole to Pole. Each time he's hit the road, he has vowed it'll be the last big journey. Even so, he's kept going and logged quite a few miles. You'd be surprised, then, to hear him opening Michael Palin's Sahara by describing his fears of travel:
"I always have bad dreams before a new journey. Dreams of being late, forgetting to pack my underwear, or being shot at. What do I need? Maps. Boots. Sneakers. Mosquito net. Stay calm now. Read the newspaper. It might be the last one you see for a while," he says.
Palin points out that the Sahara is only 300 miles from his native England and a mere 12 miles from Gibraltar, where he's beginning his journey. He crosses the strait to begin at Tangier with a camel ride. "It doesn't come naturally to me, this," he says as he crosses a beach on the dromedary, luxury hotels in the background.
Before winding up back on Gibraltar, Palin will journey through eight countries, including Algiers and Libya, two places that Westerners rarely see. Along the way, he'll ride with a camel caravan, where he perpetually needs help donning his turban as he learns to walk at a camel's steady pace; learn about skiing on sand dunes and watch a paraglider fly through the desert; meet with British veterans at Tobruk, and see the mile-long bazaar by the tracks as he leaves Dakar on the Bamako Express.
Palin's not playing his trip for laughs, although you will find a few good quips along the way:
• On dining at a "motorway service station" with food service that isn't exactly Howard Johnson's: "With a little help from a friend, I negotiate for kebab, but you have to watch what they put in it."
• On witnessing the sacrifice of a sheep: "The sheep's looking nervous, like an actor on his first night—or his last."
• On embarking with a camel caravan: "I've failed already. I got him a few yards, anyway."
• On a commuter train ride in Tunisia: "Five Carthage stations. Whatever the Romans think, Carthage isn't destroyed."
For the most part, Palin's journey won me over with his ingratiating way of chatting up people; he's just out like they're old pals. It helps that he's a familiar face from TV and movies—from Palin's Himalaya, I recall that even the Dalai Lama mentioned his enjoyment of Palin travelogues—but it's also that Palin has a genuine knack for befriending people. Although his goofy narration might suggest otherwise at times, Palin also comes across as an intelligent, thoughtful traveler, with a keen interest in the world around him.
In the accompanying interview, Palin explains it thus: "People are generally interested if you're interested in them."
Palin doesn't have all the good lines, since he manages to charm a few out of the people he meets. In a bazaar, for example, Palin asks a man if he can tell which women are Fulani and the man points out a Fulani woman. How did he know? "She is the cousin of my wife," the man says. Elsewhere, a British veteran attending a reunion in Tobruk marvels at how important grooming was to the soldiers: "We were down to a cup of water a day. The surprising thing was that none of us grew beards."
The Michael Palin you meet here is the same Michael Palin that Monty Python's Flying Circus fans know and love, but he's changed a lot over the years. That's illustrated by a quip when he tours the Tunisian shooting locations of The Life of Brian.
"Laughter's a very, very good weapon, not used nearly enough," Palin says in recalling a scene of people laughing at the Romans. When Palin was cutting up with the Pythons, he used laughter as a sharp edged, cutting weapon. As a TV traveler, Palin's comic knife has been forged into a tool that, used gently, can show us the world and break down barriers.
Although Palin tells us otherwise in the interview, he occasionally sounds like a man who eschews luxurious transport or accommodation. Who else could sound ecstatic with a line about booking passage on a small, wood-hulled cargo boat after learning that the relatively luxurious steamboats aren't in service?
"The river isn't deep enough this time of year to take these heavy steamboats. I shall just have to look for an alternative," the intrepid Palin says.
When I watched this the first time on TV, comic visions of Palin getting booked on more and more ridiculously uncomfortable modes of transportation kept running through my mind. Skiing to Timbuktu on sand dunes, perhaps?
The transfer and production are high quality, with the journey getting widescreen treatment that gives it a panoramic scope. Admittedly, you see a lot of sand, but you see it in sharp color, barring an occasional overly bright or shadowy image caused by the reliance on natural light. Sound quality is good as well, with the obvious problems from rough conditions at a minimum.
I had doubts about the promise of "bonus" footage when I noticed that each of these episodes is 59 minutes long, about the same length as they were with commercials on cable TV. However, there are a lot of deleted scenes here, about half an hour's worth. Palin introduces some of them, trading his joking banter for wide-eyed fascination. He's less "on" here, with a few "ums" and mispronunciations suggesting that he's working without a script. Some scenes, like the reunion of veterans in Tobruk, move at a slower, gentler clip as well. If you want to see the bloopers, go to the end for "One Take Palin? Gibraltar."
The video diaries, shot with a camcorder so you get the date and time stamps from 2001, are of rougher quality, with light that's often too bright or insufficient and herky-jerky camera angles. Here, you'll get Palin talking off the cuff about taking ill on the trip, the contents of his bag, or the construction of mud buildings.
The extras package is rounded out by a 15-minute interview with Palin and an unseen questioner.
As a serious traveler with a light touch, Michael Palin makes learning about the world easy and enjoyable. He might not really be an innocent abroad, but this judge finds him not guilty.
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