Entire family: No
2016, 336 min. (4 episodes), Color
HISTORY / Lionsgate
Not rated (would be PG-13 for some violence)
Aspect ratio: 1.78:1
Featured audio: Dolby Digital 2.0
Bonus features: n/a
Includes: Blu-ray, Digital HD
HISTORY (formerly The History Channel) has been criticized for focusing too much on American history, and so you’d think that their docudrama Barbarians Rising would be just the thing to silence those critics. But while the subject matter may be international, the production itself is all too familiar. The four-part series tracks the rise of “barbarians” against the Roman Empire, blending voiceover narration, interviews with scholars and (curiously) Civil Rights leaders, and dramatic reenactments. That mixture feels as unbalanced as some of the historical figures we encounter along the way, and the series’ undoing is ultimately those reenactments . . . some of which go on way too long, and feature little in the way of dramatic tension.
The first episode, “Resistance,” focuses on Hannibal from the time he is a boy sworn to try to defeat Rome through his famed crossing of the Alps. Nicholas Pinnock (a Shakespearian actor who appeared in a minor role in Captain America: The First Avenger) is fine as Hannibal. The problem is with the scenic construction. There’s no built-in drama to the scenes, which often go on way too long and therefore prevent viewers from finding a comfortable rhythm as the series jumps from reenactments to talking heads and various maps and illustrations that feel more like lectures than integrated enhancements. With shorter reenactments or more dramatic ones, the balance of narrative components might have seemed more fluid and natural.
That’s the series’ chief weakness—other than the fact that Caesar’s Gallic Wars seems to have been ignored. Aside from that apparent oversight, its strength is overwhelmingly the subject matter itself, and the fact that it educates audiences about not just well-known figures like Hannibal, Attila the Hun (Emil Hostina), and Spartacus (Ben Batt), whose gladiator-slave rebellion also qualifies as “barbarian,” but also lesser-knowns like Viriathus (Jefferson Hall), a shepherd from western Hispania/Iberia who reached out to other groups in order to build an alliance that could stand up to Roman expansion. His story is fascinating because he survived a massacre and used his knowledge of the Romans to help his people wage what now would be called a guerilla war against the more formal and militaristic Roman army.
Narrated by Michael Ealy, Barbarians Rising might be tonally consistent, but the episodes themselves vary in quality. The series manges to find a foothold with the opening episode, which features the stories of Hannibal and Viriathus, then peaks with the Spartacus and Arminius episode titled “Rebellion,” but then tapers off with “Revenge”—the stories of Arminius (Tom Hopper), Queen Boudica (Kirsty Mitchell), and Fritigern (Steven Waddington)—and fizzles when it should sizzle with the final episode, “Ruin,” which details Alaric’s (Gavin Drea) sack of Rome, Attila the Hun’s sweeping destruction, and, finally, the Vandal king—Geiseric (Richard Brake)—who brought about the end of the Roman Empire.
If it sounds fascinating, the subject matter certainly is. It’s the execution that’s disappointing. These stories could have been told in livelier fashion and with considerably more drama. As is, I found myself leaving the room to get a snack whenever the reenactments droned on too long and returning for the history lessons. Too often those reenactments were just plain dull. I kept wondering what the point was, and that was part of the problem. The reenactments didn’t feel well integrated.
I’m sure history nuts will still gravitate toward shows like this, but for families looking for an educational program that’s also entertaining, well, there are better options out there—though the transfers are top-notch, with two episodes per disc in this two-disc set.