Michael Wood is his own worst
enemy. His 1998 BBC documentary, In the Footsteps of Alexander
the Great displays the best aspects of the English approach to historical
investigation: tenacity, insight, a deep level of commitment to subject
matter, and a sweeping perspective that allows information to fall into
place while maintaining a broader context. Shot across the globe
in adventuresome locales and brimming with regional color, In the
Footsteps of Alexander the Great
is a remarkable and entertaining documentary mini-series with one self-defeating
drawback: its presenter. Aiming for an infectious enthusiasm that
no doubt has its origins in genuine feeling, Wood nonetheless overshoots
the mark, coming off as a hyperactive poseur whose desire to excite
is consistently undercut by his dorky attempts at bravado and a predilection
for overstated dramatic gestures. Not content to rely on the truly
engaging material in his hands, Wood thrusts it in our faces with the
thuggish insistence of an overeager showman. Had he relied more
confidently on the material itself, and avoided the added "personality,"
the result would have been much more enjoyable.
Wood's project here - and
it is an impressive one - is to physically retrace the route of Alexander
the Great's ongoing campaign to conquer the known world, a journey
that originally took place more than two millennia ago. Wood's
camera crew ably captures the visual splendor of these locales, which
range from Greece to Afghanistan, and from the Mediterranean Sea to
the mountains of the Himalayas. It's certainly a picturesque
journey, and Wood's narrative approach is to juxtapose what Alexander
experienced and achieved with the modern ways of the peoples he conquered
so long ago. In many cases, Alexander's legacy is alive and
visible among the cultures he swept through, especially in parts of
the Middle East, a reminder that some places on Earth remain largely
untouched by the engines of progress - a true anthropological marvel
that was once the dream of imperial Britain, a power that yearned to
conquer and "enlighten" such people (see Victorian-era English literature,
from Haggard to Kipling.) Wood's more empathic and curious attitude
is in no way reminiscent of his own cultural ancestors', except in
his desire to document what fascinates him.
And fascinating this documentary
is, as it covers a vast conceptual landscape that embraces geography,
anthropology, archaeology, and history. When Wood is on-camera,
however, the proceedings falter. The writer-presenter's energy
is forced, unnecessary, and distracting. Fortunately, he does
not hog the camera, and the exotic locations are often allowed to visually
speak for themselves; fortunately, Wood's off-camera narration does
not suffer from the same overbearing quality as his on-camera persona,
and his input in this context is extremely informative.
The full-screen video image dates from 1998 and so is presented
in its original aspect ratio. Colors pop and contrast is strong.
Occasional evidence of the image's video origins are visible, but
are not terribly ugly.
The stereo soundtrack is capable and clear. Well-mixed and
favoring dialogue and narration, there are enough ambient sounds to
help the film's far-flung locations come alive.
There are a couple of very good bonus features that add some real
value to the four-hour documentary itself. First, an Interview
with Michael Wood (35:44) finds the presenter to be a bit more contained
and relaxed than he appears in the documentary. Wood provides
a nice overview of Alexander and the appeal of his story, as well as
a rationale for the documentary project. Next up is the bonus
program Alexander's Greatest Battle (48:01), a new (2009) documentary
that compares Alexander's conquest of the Persian empire with the
contemporary invasion and occupation of Iraq by the US and its allies.
It's an engaging piece that lends an interesting contemporary political
cast to Wood's historical inquiry.
Luckily enough for them, most
people are less easily irritated than I am, and hopefully Michael Wood's
hyperactive and self-aware antics won't detract from their enjoyment
of his otherwise fine documentary. An incisive historical journey,
In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is well worth seeing in
any case. Recommended.
Casey Burchby lives in Northern California: Twitter, Tumblr.