Making an outstanding
documentary is every bit as tough as making an outstanding feature film... and
the results, when it works out right, are just as compelling. Egypt's Golden
Empire, part of the overall Empires series from PBS, is an example of
the very best in historical documentaries.
Egypt's Golden Empire
focuses on the portion of the ancient Egyptian dynasty known as the "New
Kingdom," from 1560 BC to 1080 BC, more than a thousand years after the
reign of the pharaohs who built the great pyramids of Giza. The program does an
excellent job of something that other Egyptian documentaries tend to fall short
on: truly establishing a sense of the vast expanse of time in which the
Egyptian pharaohs reigned over their empire. The focus on the New Kingdom in
detail is an excellent approach, allowing the documentary to focus on key
pharaohs in detail, explaining their situations, their ambitions, and their
accomplishments and struggles. It's a fascinating story, rich with detail and
The documentary's three parts
follow a chronological structure, starting with the "warrior
pharaohs" who fought against foreign invaders to establish a renewed
empire, continuing with the reigns of important rulers such as Hatshepsut, a
female pharaoh; Akhenaten, who established a monotheistic cult of the sun god
Aten; the young Tutankhamen, known in the modern day by his spectacular burial
goods; and the great diplomat and empire-builder Ramesses.
Egypt's Golden Empire is
fascinating because it goes beyond a simple list of events or tour of
impressive monuments. We learn a great deal about each pharaoh, what he did,
and more importantly, why he did what he did. The politics of Egypt's court,
including its power struggle between the king and the priests, as well as the
delicate diplomatic balance between Egypt and rival nations at its borders,
come vividly to life. We see not just what happened, but why. We see not just
the monuments that have come down to the present day, but what these monuments
tell us about the interrelations between pharaohs and their subjects, their
heirs, their priests, and their foreign neighbors.
The documentary makes excellent
use of the information that archaeologists have gleaned from contemporary
written texts: carvings on palace, temple, and tomb walls, but also diplomatic
correspondence, letters from ordinary people, and scribal reports. An
impressive amount of detail about the daily lives of the pharaohs and the major
events of their reigns comes from these original sources, including the fact
that the pharaohs were astute politicians, often eager to re-write history in
their own favor, from eliminating the names of rivals in the historical record,
to inflating their own accomplishments on the field of battle.
One aspect of Egypt's Golden
Empire that impressed me is the way that it makes extremely good use of
maps throughout the program to develop a clear sense of the physical setting
for the events we learn about. The maps aren't static, either: various colored
areas change shape, arrows appear to indicate direction, and new cities and
nations appear on the map as the narrator explains a change in the empire's
borders, the movement of an army, or the appearance of a new outside threat.
Overall, the visual support provided by the consistent use of maps definitely
enhances the viewer's understanding and appreciation of the events being
presented in the documentary.
Egypt's Golden Empire
makes use of a variety of techniques to bring its topic to life. A great deal
of impressive footage of the actual monuments as they stand today is included.
A fairly large number of reenactments, including both live actors and
re-created buildings, are also used throughout the documentary. These scenes
are mainly used to give the overall impression of an event: soldiers milling
about in battle, stone carvers chipping away at a temple, citizens in a
procession to a temple. As such, they add a nice flavor to the documentary and
give a sense of what it must have been like at the time. I probably would have preferred
fewer segments of reenactments, particularly in the third part where the
program is a little too enamored of a particular battle sequence, but on the
whole it's well handled. In addition to the overall narration, several
archaeologists regularly contribute information and commentary; these segments
are nicely handled, long enough to allow the speaker time to make his or her
point, but not so long as to fall into the "talking head" syndrome.
We also get quite a few voiceover readings of actual Egyptian writings of the
times, which are very interesting.
Egypt's Golden Empire
runs a substantial two hours and forty minutes, and every minute of it well
used. Between the fascinating information and the excellent pacing, it remains
consistently interesting and engaging from start to finish. The three-part
structure also makes it conveniently watchable in several sessions.
This documentary is presented
in its original widescreen aspect ratio of 1.85:1, but unfortunately it's not
anamorphically enhanced. The image quality is quite good as a whole. Colors
look vibrant and natural throughout the documentary, and contrast is also
handled well. The print is clean, with no flaws apparent, and very little
noise. I did notice a fair amount of pixellation, especially visible at
high-contrast points such as silhouettes against the sky. On the whole, the
transfer would certainly have benefited from anamorphic enhancement, but as it
is, it's quite good.
Egypt's Golden Empire is
presented with a Dolby 2.0 stereo soundtrack. For the first two thirds of the
program, the sound is quite good; the narrator and the various scientists
offering comments are clear and understandable, and the overall sound is clean.
The music is balanced well with the rest of the track, though rather oddly it
is strikingly (and distractingly) similar to the theme from Last of the
Mohicans. The final third of the program suffers from a decrease in audio
quality: the sound becomes concentrated in the center channel, and some distortion
and harshness becomes evident. All in all, the soundtrack is reasonable, though
it could have been better.
The DVD has no special
features. Viewers will be pleased to know that the DVD is packaged in a
keepcase, even though it's distributed by Warner.
Informative, intelligent, and
compelling, Egypt's Golden Empire is a standout as a historical
documentary. In addition to being full of interesting information on Egypt's
New Kingdom period, the program is extremely well organized and well
structured, which adds considerably to its overall appeal. This DVD is sure to
please any viewer interested in history, as it goes beyond the "dates and
events" of the period to present an in-depth look at the politics and
society of the time, showing us what the pharaohs were like and why they chose
the courses of action that shaped their empire. I highly recommend this DVD; in
fact, the only thing keeping it from a Collector's Series rating is the fact
that there are no special features and that the transfer is good but not
exceptional. Go buy this documentary; you won't regret it.