If you've read my previous reviews of History Channel productions, you'll know that I'm an enthusiastic supporter of their entertaining, lively documentary series. I only wish I could feel the same way about Barbarians II, the latest DVD box set from The History Channel that chronicles four of history's most savage barbarian tribes: the Vandals, the Saxons, the Franks, and the Lombards. With a depressing emphasis on violence and gore, along with a desultory sameness to the four productions, Barbarians II is certainly not for family viewing (unlike so many other History Channel productions), and it fails to rise above the level of cheap historical battle re-enactments.
Like most movie fans, I've unfortunately received most of my world history lessons from the cinema, so I must admit that I was rather looking forward to some instruction on a period of history that's been underserved by Hollywood. But it's apparent that there's much distillation down of entire cultures into a 48 minute featurette, and the brevity of the docs, while welcome for a speedy pace, hardly begin to cover anything in-depth. As well, Barbarians II appears to have a smaller budget than some other History Channel productions I've seen (or it was used unwisely), resulting in a frankly cheap-looking final product. The battle scenes all have a generic sameness to their scope, along with an overly-clean look (those costumes look like something out of a high school play), that smacks of "weekend historical re-enactment" noted by enthusiasm, but not much verisimilitude.
Perhaps also indicative of a smaller budget, Barbarians II's lack of detailed graphs, charts, and maps, as well as identifying title cards for the major historical players, falls short of the usually thorough History Channel production. Since The History Channel seems to pick and choose which programs it's going to close-caption, Barbarians II suffers from discussing relatively unfamiliar figures in history, with no graphic representation of their names, or the places where they lived and fought. As with most documentaries, it's nice to actually see the name of these characters in some kind of print form, to further get across the information to the viewer. For the most part, Barbarians II consists of the standard "talking heads" historical experts (who are fine here) speaking to the camera, intercut with endless battle scenes depicting the ravaging hordes of barbarians sacking some anonymous village set.
And those battle scenes, while annoying enough because of their repetition, are also definitely off-limits for younger viewers. Great care is taken on the soundtrack to over-emphasize the horrific thuds and thwacks that go along with battle axes and swords slashing into human bodies here. While relatively bloodless in the actual depiction of mayhem (you don't see any squirting arteries a la Peckinpah), there seems to be an absolute propensity to show up-close throat slashings and pile-driving sword plunges into screaming, prostrate forms in Barbarians II - so much so that it feels like the producers knew they didn't have much to say in 48 minutes, so they amped up the violence to cover it. Normally, I enjoy watching these History Channel docs with family members, but the Barbarians II box set is definitely not for younger viewers.
Here are the 4, one hour episodes of the two-disc box set, Barbarians II, as described on their disc boxes:
Their name has become synonymous with lawless destruction. Ranging far from their roots in Germany, these power-hungry pagans swept through Spain, then across North Africa, and eventually to the gates of Rome itself. Through sneak attacks and cunning tactics -- including the largest-ever sea-borne movement of barbarian peoples -- they succeeded in facing down the awesome military might of the Roman Empire, leaving a trail of looting and terror in their wake.
Wielding the mighty battle-axe and the deadly long knife known as the sax -- from whence they derive their name -- this Germanic tribe was considered especially warlike and ferocious. The island of Britain was ripe for conquest, and the opportunities Saxons took full advantage. Watch them ravage the British coast, destroy Roman defenses and plunder monasteries in an orgy of pagan worship, then turn to confront their barbarian brothers in a bloody battle for power and land.
Witness the birth of a barbarian empire as the Franks, led by Merovich - the legendary warrior said to be half-man, half-monster -- descend upon Gaul, cutting a swath of devastation and conquering both the Roman and Visigoth armies. Merovich's grandson Clovis wins his supremacy through treachery and murder, choosing to renounce his pagan ways only when it seems that the Christian god grants him greater success on the battlefield.
Explore the primal pagan rites of the Lombards as they vie for supremacy on the crowded Italian peninsula, fending off both Roman and Frankish attacks. In the war of tribe against tribe, where the Lombards sever the heads and steal the women of their defeated foes, we travel with the brutal Lombard leader, Alboin, as he breaks through the Roman defenses, surrounds The Eternal City, and forces a captured foe's wife to drink from her slain father's skull.
Shot on Hi-Def, the 1.78:1 widescreen video image looks good, but I did notice some edge enhancement during some of the busier scenes -- which is most of the documentary.
The Dolby Digital English 2.0 stereo sound mix is quite lively, but there are no subtitles and no close-captioning options.
On disc one, there's a 21 minute featurette, from 2003, called Conquest: Weapons of the Barbarians, starring Peter Woodward. On disc two, there's an episode of Modern Marvels, entitled Axes, Swords & Knives that looks at the history of these implements. Its inclusion here is a bit of a stretch.
A desultory sameness to the battle scenes, with a heavy emphasis on showing violence and carnage just for titillation sake, the Barbarians II box set is a decidedly lesser History Channel effort that fails to overcome its limited budget, while providing a distilled, brief history lesson for its subject. If you're interested in the time period covered, I suggest you rent Barbarians II.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.