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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » Michael Palin - Pole to Pole
Michael Palin - Pole to Pole
BBC Worldwide // Unrated // October 9, 2007
List Price: $49.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Stuart Galbraith IV | posted September 4, 2007 | E-mail the Author
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C O N T E N T
V I D E O
A U D I O
E X T R A S
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
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After circumnavigating the globe in their travel/cultural documentary Around the World in 80 Days (1989), host Michael Palin, co-director Roger Mills, and producer/co-director Clem Vallance undertook a five-month journey from Pole to Pole (1992), a beguiling eight-episode miniseries whose title says it all. Roughly following the 30-degrees east line of longitude, the show traces the former Python's journey south from the top of the world, through Finland and the Soviet Union, Turkey, Egypt, and the Sudan, through Ethiopia and "Darkest Africa," with several major detours along the way.

Determined to avoid using aircraft whenever possible, he makes his way by snowmobile, on the backs of lorries and the roofs of ancient passenger trains - you name it. The low-key, humanistic approach, eschewing the often boring classical style of most travelogues, is the key to its appeal. Though Palin clowns around here and there (some of it surprisingly corny), the emphasis is on his everyman status as he interacts with the indigenous peoples of myriad cultures, races, and religions. It's the fulfillment, he says, of living the life of "an explorer - to see strange and wonderful things in strange and wonderful countries."

This kind of thing is not without precedent. In America, Charles Kuralt went "On the Road" for many years until his untimely death in 1997, while in Britain radio host and travel writer Tom Vernon did a series of terrific (and now, unfortunately, obscure) "Fat Man on a Bicycle" television specials that may have been a big influence on the Palin shows.

The show soft-sells its educational aspects but they're there. At the equator there's a demonstration showing how water drains clockwise or counterclockwise depending upon which hemisphere you're standing on. I knew that, but here discovered what happens when you drain water at the equator. (Answer: It doesn't swirl in either direction; it drains straight down.)

Pole to Pole is quirky and not always pleasant. There's a fairly repulsive tour aboard a mammoth factory fishing boat, and later a haunting visit to an abandoned maternity hospital near Chernobyl. Conversely, there are lighter moments, including a tour of St. Petersburg by a Lenin impersonator, and a visit to "Santa Claus Village" in Finland.

What most people seem to remember about these shows, however, is through Palin vicariously experiencing the challenges of Third World travel, its hardships and rewards. (In searching for images to accompany this review, I was surprised to see that a whole mini travel industry has sprung up with travel packages inspired by this very show.) In Wadi Halfa, Sudan, for instance, Palin simply trying to buy food to sustain him on a long train ride takes enormous effort: trying to figure out what's what, what's safe to eat, how to use his Egyptian currency in Sudan. All-in-all, it's like haggling with people from another planet on the surface of the moon. (He eventually buys steamed chicken, "with bone," canned in faraway China.)

For his part, Palin is a good sport throughout, very open to try new (and often unsavory-looking) things and roughing it, whether it's battling an onslaught of mosquitoes in Africa or going to the bathroom in an open-air igloo in the bitterly-cold Antarctic. If he ever lost his cool during those five months, the audience never sees it.

Looking at it now, 16 years after it was made, Pole to Pole has enormous value as a kind of historical travel documentary as well. Two days after Palin and his crew left the Soviet Union, there was the August coup attempt, while in Africa they have to avoid war zones in Sudan by detouring through Ethiopia, which had only concluded its own civil war four months before.

Video & Audio

Pole to Pole, in its original full-frame format, runs 393 minutes spread over three single-sided, dual-layered DVDs. The show, presumably shot in Super 16 or something like it, looks just fine and the optional English subtitles are good, as is the Dolby Digital stereo.

Extra Features

The only supplement is an almost 30-minute interview with Michael Palin, in 16:9 enhanced widescreen, but it's a big disappointment. Instead of enhancing the viewing experience with stories-behind-the-stories and amusing anecdotes that didn't make the final cut, the interview mostly consists of Palin simply talking about what happens in the documentary, which the audience for this will have just finished watching. Not much value in that.

Parting Thoughts

There's a moment in one episode where, looking out a train window on a long journey through hundreds of miles of endless swamplands, a man in a tiny canoe is briefly seen. Who is he? What does he do for a living? What's his life like? Pole to Pole is the type of show that asks these questions, and by introducing its viewers to ordinary people from other lands and offering a glimpse at their everyday lives, the series is at once fascinating and invaluable. Highly Recommended.

  Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's most recent essays appear in Criterion's three-disc Seven Samurai DVD and BCI Eclipse's The Quiet Duel. His audio commentary for Invasion of Astro Monster is now available.

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