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Three Profs and a Conqueror November 10, 2004
by Eugene N. Borza

[image] Alexander (actor Michael Cardelle) on his favorite horse, Bucephalus (Blackout). (Ben Glass; courtesy History Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

It was with some trepidation that I sat down to watch a program entitled The True Story of Alexander the Great. My rule of thumb is that anything labeled "true" probably isn't. The program in question was produced by Greystone Films for A&E and was first shown on the History Channel on November 7.

My apprehension, however, soon disappeared. As is customary in such programs, three professorial talking heads soon appeared on the screen--and what talking heads they were! Brian Bosworth and Peter Green are among the greatest living scholars of Alexander, and the third, William Murray, first learned his Alexander as my student many years ago. Thus emboldened by confidence that this was a serious exposition, I relaxed to enjoy a straightforward presentation of the Alexander story. And for good reason, for not only did Bosworth, Green, and Murray provide insightful comments on Alexander's character, abilities, and motivations, but Green and Murray also served as historical consultants for the project.

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There is a lesson to be learned here. There are a lot of bad historical documentaries on television, many of which are flawed from the start and beyond redemption. Others are capable of salvation, needing only a few corrections to convert them into sound historical narratives. No one can expect the producers and writers of such programs to be expert in the subjects they choose to explore. But there are experts out there whose teaching and scholarly careers have been devoted to the subjects that interest film makers. Exploiting the talents of these scholars need not jeopardize the dramatic and cinematic qualities of the programs, and, relatively speaking, their services come cheap. It would not take much time or money on the part of producers to enroll the talents of such scholars, not only as talking heads (which has become standard practice), but also as consultants in script development and review, and, I might add, to assist the production team to insure that narrators pronounce correctly all those ancient foreign names. It short, it doesn't take much effort to tweak the product and get it right. Much of the historical strength of this Alexander program is likely results from the producers having listened to their scholar-advisors.

Now, to the usual lot of nit-picking: for example, some Macedonian helmets and shields were not accurately reconstructed; Aristotle did not tutor Alexander in a cave at Mieza (as the film suggests) but rather likely in a stoa built into a rock face; it is not reasonable that the Theban Sacred Band fought naked; the last wife of Philip II did not commit suicide (she was murdered by Alexander's mother, Olympias); and the evidence now very strongly suggests that the great royal tomb at Vergina is not that of Philip II, but of a later king, probably Alexander's half-brother Arrhidaeus, who succeeded the conqueror. But these are, in the long run, details that do not jeopardize the value of the program.

[image] Alexander (Michael Cardelle) leaders the Macedonian companion cavalry in Alexander the Great. (Ben Glass; courtesy History Channel) [LARGER IMAGE]

Computer graphics restaging battle scenes are impressive, and, for the most part, accurate, and in a compelling and creative stroke, actors portrayed the ancient authors Arrian, Diodorus, Quintus Curtius Rufus, and Plutarch reciting passages from their works on Alexander.

Finally, I should like to lodge a strong complaint about a matter that is not the fault of producers. The program ran three hours, of which (I would estimate) one hour was devoted to frequent and long History Channel promos and commercial advertisements. Several persons I know simply gave up because of the tedium of the advertising interruptions. One assumes that, if the program is to be made available to the public on tape and DVD, it will be without the advertising. If that is the case, it will be a sensible investment by those who want a serious and lively account of the Macedonian king's career.

Eugene N. Borza is professor emeritus of ancient history at Pennsylvania State University.

The True Story of Alexander the Great premiered November 7, 8:00 pm EST, on the History Channel. It will air again on November 13 at 8:00 pm EST and November 14 at 4:00 pm EST, check your local listings. The program will be available on DVD and VHS at the end of December. See www.historychannel.com/alexander/ for more info.

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© 2004 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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