On DVD: In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great

Michael Wood is his own worst enemy. His 1998 BBC documentary, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great displays the best aspects of the English approach to historical investigation: tenacity, insight, a deep level of commitment to subject matter, and a sweeping perspective that allows information to fall into place while maintaining a broader context. Shot across the globe in adventuresome locales and brimming with regional color, In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great is a remarkable and entertaining documentary mini-series with one self-defeating drawback: its presenter. Aiming for an infectious enthusiasm that no doubt has its origins in genuine feeling, Wood nonetheless overshoots the mark, coming off as a hyperactive poseur whose desire to excite is consistently undercut by his dorky attempts at bravado and a predilection for overstated dramatic gestures. Not content to rely on the truly engaging material in his hands, Wood thrusts it in our faces with the thuggish insistence of an overeager showman. Had he relied more confidently on the material itself, and avoided the added "personality," the result would have been much more enjoyable.

Wood's project here - and it is an impressive one - is to physically retrace the route of Alexander the Great's ongoing campaign to conquer the known world, a journey that originally took place more than two millennia ago. Wood's camera crew ably captures the visual splendor of these locales, which range from Greece to Afghanistan, and from the Mediterranean Sea to the mountains of the Himalayas. It's certainly a picturesque journey, and Wood's narrative approach is to juxtapose what Alexander experienced and achieved with the modern ways of the peoples he conquered so long ago. In many cases, Alexander's legacy is alive and visible among the cultures he swept through, especially in parts of the Middle East, a reminder that some places on Earth remain largely untouched by the engines of progress - a true anthropological marvel that was once the dream of imperial Britain, a power that yearned to conquer and "enlighten" such people (see Victorian-era English literature, from Haggard to Kipling.) Wood's more empathic and curious attitude is in no way reminiscent of his own cultural ancestors', except in his desire to document what fascinates him.

And fascinating this documentary is, as it covers a vast conceptual landscape that embraces geography, anthropology, archaeology, and history. When Wood is on-camera, however, the proceedings falter. The writer-presenter's energy is forced, unnecessary, and distracting. Fortunately, he does not hog the camera, and the exotic locations are often allowed to visually speak for themselves; fortunately, Wood's off-camera narration does not suffer from the same overbearing quality as his on-camera persona, and his input in this context is extremely informative.

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