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In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great [DVD]
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Michael Wood travels by bus, boat and train from Europe to India, retracing the journey taken by the army of Alexander the Great. Along the way he visits the Khyber Pass, the Indus River and the Makran Desert, investigating the myths which still surround one of the planet's greatest historical figures.
Historian Michael Wood embarks on an idiosyncratic journey of 20,000 miles tracing the expedition of Alexander the Great in this captivating documentary. Relying on the words of Greek and Roman historians, Wood sought to follow Alexander's route of world conquest as closely as possible, and it is simply amazing how much folklore about the great general he is able to pick up on the way. Beginning in Greece and proceeding through 16 countries, including Turkey, Israel, Egypt, Iran, Afghanistan and India, Wood listens intently to local storytellers who are still passing down the legends of Alexander. In one fascinating segment, Wood is barred from entering Iraq, but he is able to view the terrain on which Alexander's troops faced the Persians by scanning the radar screens of an American AWACS plane patrolling high above. In the course of his travels, Wood passes through four war zones and he notes that strategic regions of Alexander's day are still "on the fault lines of history". This is a lengthy production, clocking in at almost four hours, but the relaxed pace is a virtue, as Woods and the people he meets along the way, from local storytellers to noted historians, pass along an amazing array of historical knowledge. Lovers of history will find this documentary to be a joy and may well find themselves savouring every mile of Alexander's great journey. --Robert J. McNamara --This text refers to an alternate DVD edition.
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It is clear from the risks he took during the making of this four-part documentary series, and from the near-obsessive zeal with which he pursues Alexander's shade across the Near and Middle East (and on into Asia) that even Michael Wood is not immune to his influence, nor to the question which he sets up in the mind of every man: "What have YOU done...?"
Where Wood particularly scores is in giving you the sense and sight of the vast and often empty landscapes which Alexander and his men traversed. Lonely, dangerous and often frightening places - neither well known nor well travelled in his day - which underscore the tremendous risks which he took, as well as his determination to master them and conquer. No-one else could have done it. And no-one else would have done it. Because on the face of it, it looks like sheer madness to even try...
It is also to his credit that Wood includes the Persian side of the story, in the form of the still extant oral traditions which the local people have about Alexander. Alexander the Accursed. Alexander the Devil. Alexander the Horned One, who burned their holy books, ruined their temples and (so they say) forced their children to marry Greek soldiers. There is also Alexander with Blood On His Hands. In other words, this documentary is not simply an exercise in western chauvinism and triumphalism.
You cannot but respect the lengths to which Wood and his team went to make this series, which is spread over two DVDs. My one criticism of it is that I wish it had been given a better overall shape. In brief, there is too much crossing of the Hindu Kush (which seems to take forever) and too little on Alexander's boyhood and adolescence - the formative years in anyone's life. They could have edited the first, and used the time saved to flesh out the second. And that's why I'm giving this production four stars. Also - and this appears to be customary - the boyhood dynamic between Alexander and his great tutor, Aristotle, is largely ignored. Although the Greek biographer, Plutarch, does touch upon it.
So, 'In The Footsteps of Alexander...' is not quite a great documentary series, but it is a very good one.
Unfortunately, events in Iraq (the journey took place in the mid-1990s) meant that he could not reach the site of the battle of Gaugamela. Instead, we are compensated by time spent exploring the paths and problems that had Alexander had in his approach to the Persian capital of Persepolis. He also has trouble in Afghanistan, but not necessarily from the Taliban; rather, it was the terrain and the bandits in the mountains that caused problems.
Thankfully, this is no docu-drama: no, it is Wood himself who makes the journey whether it is by foot, by train, yacht, tractor, bus, car, helicopter, van, AWAC (!), lorry, horse, or warship. And his knowledge of languages is clearly impressive, seemingly being able to communicate directly or throgh interpreters in Turkish, Makrani, Baluchi, Urdu,or Pashtun.
The series is not as academic as his search for the Trojan Wars; rather, it is more of a travelogue, but he tries to remain as faithful to the sometimes contradictory sources as possible. Wood's key problem is untangling the facts from the legend. With the writings of the contemporary Callisthenes in hand, together with those of Arrian and Curtius, who wrote three-to-four hundred years afterwards, he attempts to make sense of the disagreements that exist in the documentary sources.
By following in Alexander's footsteps, Wood claims to have made some insights into Alexander's character. For instance, walking along the coast of south-western Turkey, he deduces that Alexander did not always plan ahead, that he was an obstinate man, and that many of his successes depended on luck. He also locates the spot - at Siwa in the Egyptian desert - where you can still stand on the same stones that he stood upon, perhaps the only place on earth where this is possible.
Throughout the series of four episodes, Wood seeks out modern day resonances in the stories and legends still told in the communities along the way. In Persia it is the Zoroastrians who tell their side of Alexander's march through their lands. Whilst with the Kalash of the Hindu Kush he drinks with possible descendants of Alexander's army. Wood does not shrink from examining the dark side of Alexander, such as his self-deification, his crucifixion of Callisthenes, and what would now be termed `war crimes'. Come the end of the journey, Wood's admiration for Alexander is tinged by the hero's foolhardiness and trickery: "A man broken in the end by the loneliness and insanity of absolute power."
The set comes with a thirty-six minute interview (presumably shot in 2005 - it refers to the Oliver Stone movie), in which Wood says that to try and tell Alexander's story without following it on the ground would be a meaningless exercise. He also says how his view of Alexander was affected y the still-living traditions that he encountered along the way, traditions that viewed Alexander as accursed rather than gifted by the gods. He also tells how some of the trips were organised, especially to Afghanistan, and he comments on the Hollywood films that have been made with their `negative ending problem'.
Of the documentaries available on Alexander the Great, this one is definitely the best.
The series is very well done. I enjoyed it immensely
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