There's no denying it - Michael Palin changed the face (and attitude) of TV travel programming forever. It's one of those unusual ideas that just should not have worked - a retired sketch comedian, part of a now mythic broadcast classic, stepping into shoes no one knew he owned (or enjoyed). But not only did he succeed, he practically reinventing the reality genre. Now, some seven series later, Palin has traversed the globe, gone from one end of the planet to the other, explored the Sahara and the Himalayans, circumnavigated the Pacific Rim and a post-millennial New Europe. One of his most unusual journeys consisted of following in the literary and personal footprints of favorite author Ernest Hemingway. Now, along with two unconnected installments of the BBC program Great Railway Journeys, Region 1 DVD gets a chance to experience both exploits. They wind up being lesser Palin at best.
Divided up into two separate presentations, Disc 1 of this set gives us the complete Hemingway Adventure. Consisting of four 50 minute installments, we are treated to the host's obsession with the American myth as he follows in the author's renowned footsteps, beginning with:
It's the running of the bulls in Pamploma, meaning Palin must take in Spain's national passion - bullfighting. He then heads to Africa where he embarks on a very PC safari.
In Chicago, Palin traces Hemingway's suburban roots. In Michigan, he learns the basics of hunting and fishing. In Italy, he explores a World War I memorial. In Paris, he recreates a famous incident in the author's life.
At the end of the United States, in the sunny climes of Key West, Palin witnesses a Hemingway lookalike contest. In Africa (Uganda), he looks for the place where the writer survived a plane crash.
Cuba proves to be a problematic location, with many of the issues revolving around attempts to interview Fidel Castro. Finally, in the American West, he visits the Hemingway's final resting place.
Disc 2 takes two previous outings by Palin - one as part of a 1980 BBC Television series Great Railway Journeys of the World, the other from a 1994 episode of the same show. The initial outing emphasizes Palin's partiality to the very British pastime of "trainspotting" (read: rabid railroad fandom), while the second showcases a journey from "Derry to Kerry". It traces his family's heritage, using the trek made by his great grandmother -- Brita Gallagher - as she leaves Ireland during the Great Potato famine and heads to the new world of America.
Anyone interested in seeing Michael Palin as a "scripted" adventurer vs. his otherwise excellent extemporaneous journeys need look no further than this unusual DVD set. The connection to the train material is confusing at first, since its part of a much bigger BBC series. To isolate out the moments featuring the Monty member seems suspicious - that is, until you see them side by side with his exploration of Hemingway. Both subjects are very close to our host, and as a result, they come with a great deal of personal and professional baggage. Of the two, the obsession with the author of such literary classics as A Farewell to Arms, The Sun Also Rises, and The Old Man and the Sea seems the more forced. Palin is clearly trying to get across his passion for the subject, and as a result, a lot of his innate subjectivity is missing. In addition, Hemingway loved to do very macho, very politically incorrect things, so when Palin pales in recreating such infamous feats, his courteous cowardice seems staged. No, we don't expect him to love watching a bull get speared to death, or shooting a defenseless animal. But perhaps there were better ways of offering this aspect of the writer's notoriously outsized life.
Elsewhere, other parts seem pretty pointless. Key West is a notoriously eccentric place, yet Palin seems transfixed only on the extroverted people more than the past. Similarly, Cuba could offer up a wealth of wise insights, the concept of Communism incomplete equaling the connection to Hemingway in importance. Instead, Palin plays failed journalist, fanatical on his desire to talk to Fidel while other aspects of the country are left unexplored. Granted, this is someone who really can't create a travel-oriented failure. Just by showing up and talking with the various locals, something like the Hemingway Adventure can't help but succeed. Those who complain about the lack of directional focus (the series does jump around quite a bit) are really missing the point. This is a biography based on one man's life, so bouncing around to the highpoints is not inexcusable. What is, however, is turning the journey into something insular and unapproachable. Palin clearly loves this author, but he can't help but crack wise once in a while. This undermines the dignity, and keeps us from appreciating the finer details of the trip.
As for the pair of railroad episodes, the insertion of humor works a whole lot better. Palin is so young during the 1980 installment that you'd swear he just walked off the set of the "Dead Parrot" sketch. His enthusiasm is contagious and the look at London during the dawn of the '80s is some nutty nostalgia indeed. The journey through Palin's genealogy is also enlightening, since it allows us to put a personal face on the subject at hand. Both episodes center on the gorgeous countryside as well as the luxuries (or, long ago, the pitfalls) of train travel, and Palin is one of the few people capable of making us appreciate such a lost extravagance. He seems so at home on the rails, riding along as life passes casually by his window that the reason he's hosted so many of these programs becomes crystal clear. Even in the bumpy tribute to Hemingway, Palin's personality wins us over. Still, it's obvious that the producers of these programs got the message. Hemingway Adventure was the last time our guide ever used a single individual as a means of making his journey. From then on, it was more clever cross country outings.
Finally - the Palin series step into the 21st Century. The 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image is excellent, avoiding much of the made-for-television, medium shot look of previous series. Like later adventures which took advantage of a more cinematic look (thanks to being filmed and presented in a 16x9 format), Hemingway Adventure constantly transcends its broadcast beginnings. Some of the camerawork is a bit wonky, and we do suffer through a few too many uncomplimentary close-ups. Still, this is an amazing travelogue from a visual standpoint, and the DVD does a good job of preserving said approach. By the way, the train trips revert back to the full screen 1.33:1 format. Rats!
Sadly, the sound is no great shakes. It's just Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo delivered in the most mundane way possible. Everything is even and midrange, while Palin's conversations and voiceover narration are always crystal clear - and in the end, that's what's most important.
Another BIG bummer - there are no added features on this DVD. Neither the Hemingway Adventure nor the train trips offer up a single piece of added content. In fact, the better way of presenting this material would have been to make the railroad adventures part of the Hemingway package's bonus features. Instead, it's a couple of hours of unconnected viewing as part of a more or less unnecessary second disc.
Make no mistake about it - you can't truly dislike a Michael Palin travelogue. You can be disappointed by the subject matter, or the places he misses along the way, but his personable approach is so amenable that he eventually wins you over. Both presentations deserve to be Recommended for this fact alone. Some will be able to forgive the mostly forced elements at play and suggest a higher scoring. But as a true fan, someone who waited patiently each week as a new installment of Around the World in 80 Days or Pole to Pole appeared on his TV screen, Hemingway Adventures was a disappointment. And the trainspotting sequences, while fun, seemed cast off from another, unrelated project. In the hierarchy of Palin productions, these are minor works. They are not without their charms, but they are far from the classics which bookend their entertainment existence.