I can forgive "The History Channel" for some of their misdeeds: non-anamorphic transfers on DVD, the "dumbing-down" of documentary series to attract viewers who otherwise wouldn't watch their network, and even their dabbling in pseudoscience. What I don't tolerate is taking an episode from a very recent television series, slapping some half-hearted "educational materials" and marketing it to teachers as a teaching resource.
"History's" "Instant Expert: Beowulf" is exactly that, a 45-minute episode of the very questionable series, "Clash of the Gods" that is an utter waste of time, especially for use in a school setting. As an educator by trade, I often utilize programming from networks like "History" or "A&E" to enhance my own lessons. The marketing behind this release is targeted towards English teachers who may be studying the famous text in their classrooms. I expected a program about the history of the text, but instead was treated to C-rate CGI dramatizations of key events of the story interspersed amidst interviews with academics.
This disc should supplement a reading of the text and fill in the historical detail of the story. Instead, like other episodes of "Clash of the Gods" it takes the approach that Beowulf was a real guy as were his exploits and gives a "Cliff Notes" version of such events. The attempt at educating viewers comes from the academics, many of which speak about the text as if they didn't know what type of program they would end up in. To their credit they do touch on historical events such as a battle between the Swedes and the Geats, but often their words are twisted to try and sell the notion of Grendel being real. I feel bad for the scholar who spoke of a mass grave in England being found with dismembered corpses, which was later revealed to be executed prisoners, attached to such nonsense as a giant monster with magical powers.
The only historical aspect that might serve of some use to educators is the similarities between Beowulf's exploits as an allegory for Christianity triumphing over Paganism. Can I speak to the validity of such claims? No, alas I can't, my area of expertise is science, so I have to trust what I'm being told, but with such wild claims as a man fighting dragons being a possibility within the first ten minutes of the program, I end up taking everything I heard with a grain of salt; not something you want from a documentary.
If the very thin educational content wasn't enough, the dramatization of the Beowulf story is a crime itself. Heavily dependent on CGI and with production values making a Sci-Fi Original Picture look like a WETA project, it fails in all aspects. A strange almost translucent parchment effect lies over all the footage and is extremely distracting, although the action itself is quite dull. Even if a teacher merely wanted to use this disc to show students a live-action version of the story, they would be better served by showing them Zemeckis' CGI adaptation; only the most naïve teenager wouldn't openly laugh or mock this take on things.
I honestly don't know of any better documentaries about "Beowulf" but I can safely say no documentary is better than this poor excuse. Students can get their own share of this new wave of edutainment on their own time. This program serves no purpose but to tell the story of Beowulf to someone who doesn't care enough to read it for themselves. I have enough concerns with the existence of "Clash of the Gods" in the first place as a educational television program, let alone its use in the actual classroom. If I had to think of an equivalent injustice for students, I'd say a science teacher showing "Armageddon" would be pretty on the nose.
The 1.78:1 non-anamorphic widescreen transfer comes as no surprise from a "History" product. Detail can be quite striking at times, but the CGI heavy action scenes reveal some heavy aliasing and an interlaced transfer. Color levels are well balanced, as is contrast, although the non-dramatized portions of the program don't look as sharp.
The English 2.0 audio track serves its intended purpose well, with crisp clear narration, a semi-lively score, and a slightly undercooked handling of the "story" sequences.
A text educators supplement is included as well as a 10-question review quiz on the disc itself.
A failure in all categories, "Instant Expert: Beowulf" sums up what is wrong with "The History Channel." The included printed study guide reads like it would be more useful after the students read the actual text, and the interactive quiz almost focuses entirely on the dramatization of the story and contains very little recall to the minimal historical content. "History" deserves a double dose of shame for this shoddy program and the underhanded marketing of old, pseudo-schlock as a valid teaching tool. Skip It.