One of the great things about the proliferation of cable channels is that there is programming available for every taste. From old game shows to soap operas and how-to shows, if the shows don't exist already, cable stations are willing to commission them. The History Channel is one of the stations I find myself tuning in to most often. With their wide range of biographies and examinations of historical events, it seems that there is always something new to learn on that channel. Last year they aired The Dark Ages, a two hour (with commercials) program that looks at one of the lesser known eras in European history. This interesting and enlightening feature is now available on a DVD with some very nice bonus features. Anyone looking to expand their knowledge of European history would do well to check out this show.
In the fifth century the great Roman Empire was a mere shadow of its former self. For reasons that would make a good documentary in itself, the empire fell when Rome was sacked by barbarians. The area that Rome had ruled, much of present day Europe and beyond, fragmented and splintered. With no central authority in charge, individual warlords started carving out territories and fighting among themselves. The technology and civilization that Rome exported was lost and forgotten. This was the beginning of the Dark Ages.
From that time until the first Crusade, civilization would be stagnated and learning a luxury that only a very few could afford. That's not to say that there weren't important events that took place during that period. As this documentary shows, this period laid the seeds for the countries that we now know collectively as Europe.
Told through extensive reenactments, interviews with scholars, and narration, this feature examines the period chronologically, charting the rise and fall of various rulers and the events that had a great impact on the times. Warlords such as Charles the Hammer are profiled, as well as more sympathetic characters such as Charlemagne and St. Benedict. The work of the Emperor of the eastern Roman Empire (the empire was split into two regions before Rome fell) to regain the kingdom's previous glory, and how he nearly succeeded is chronicled, as well as the invasion of Muslim forces into Europe. The tragedy of the Black Death, which killed up to half of the continent's population, is chronicled as well as the effects of the horrible plague.
The program focuses on the big names of the era, implying that strong-willed individuals were responsible for most of the events of that millennium. While it does make for a linear and clear narrative, I was also interested in how the people lived at the time. That aspect is touched upon, but only briefly, which is too bad.
With only about an hour and a half of screen time to cover approximately 1000 years of history, this documentary does not have time to go into great detail. It does however give a very good overview of the period and manages to examine some of the forces that were at work; the power of the church and the rise of knights among them. There was actually a lot more substance than I was expecting.
Filmed in Lithuania, the recreations are very realistic looking and well done. There are scores of extras employed which gives the show the scale it needs, and the hectic battle scenes make viewers feel that they are in the middle of the action. While little CGI was used (mainly for the backgrounds and to recreate destroyed ancient buildings) the special effects were very good. These usually depicted people being killed in battle and were of a quality sufficient enough to make me forget that I was watching a reenactment. It was only after a scene had passed that I would realize that the man who had a sword driven through him or was shot down by an arrow was accomplished by special effects.
This documentary comes on a single DVD in a standard keepcase.
The stereo English soundtrack was very good. The dialog was clear and clean and there was no distortion or background noise. The program would have been helped by a 5.1 track however. The battle scenes didn't have the impact and punch that a good multi-track recording would have given it. As it is the action scenes are fine, but a little anemic. There are no subtitles.
The biggest flaw with this disc is that the 1.78:1 image is not anamorphically enhanced. Frankly it is astounding to me. In this day when widescreen displays are becoming more and more common and it is clear that the days of the 4:3 TV are numbered it is a serious flaw not to enhance a widescreen image. That is the reason for the low video quality rating. Besides that the image looked fine. The level of detail was good, the drab colors accurately reproduced, and the blacks were solid. It's too bad that the image looks so small on a 16:9 display.
This disc has some fantastic bonus items. First is a 10-minute featurette on the making of the show. This was more than just a fluff piece, and though brief it was interesting. The most impressive bonus item was a second full length documentary on the Black Death entitled The Plague. This hour and a half program looked at the spread of the disease, how it affected cities and countries, and the futile efforts that people used to try to stop its spread. This is a wonderful compliment to the main program and well worth watching.
This documentary gives an excellent overview of the Dark Ages.
Though I like to think of myself as moderately well versed in European
history, I learned an awful lot from this show. It wasn't a dry examination
of the period however. The reenactments brought the history to life
and made the show enjoyable to watch. The second feature on the Bubonic
Plague is equally good and adds a lot to the disc. Unfortunately
the image is not anamorphically enhanced, and that is a significant flaw.
Even so, this is a disc worth picking up if you want to learn more about
this little talked about era of history. Recommended.