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‘The Great Commanders’ Struggles With its Limitations

The Great Commanders is a six-episode series from Seventh Art productions, which has now been collected into a 2-disc DVD set. Originally broadcast on the BBC’s Channel 4, the series combines talking-head interviews, location footage, maps and a small degree of computer animation to recreate a series of pivotal battles. In doing so, the show tries to express what makes each military figure such an outstanding one. To a large degree, the series succeeds in illuminating the particular strengths of the men involved. As dynamic television, though, the episodes are not always quite so successful.

This is, to some degree, not the fault of the producers. When bringing to life the careers of such famed tacticians as Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar or Napoleon, there is nothing in the way of eye-catching visuals to rely upon. So the program on Alexander, for example, tends to show the same busts of the great man over and over, and the same mosaic image of him facing off against Darius, his Persian arch-rival. (That mosaic also featured prominently in my seventh-grade social studies book, no kidding.) It’s not the producers’ fault that there are few representations of Alexander left in the world, and perhaps the alternatives would have looked foolish—like hiring an actor to dress up in uniform and strut around the countryside, looking smug and important. But the reliance on the same set of visual does create for a certain monotony when watching this and other episodes.

Not surprisingly, the final episode, which focuses on Marshal Georgy Zhukov, suffers much less in this regard. Zhukov led the Soviet Union’s Red Army against the Nazis, and was largely responsible for the Allies’ eventual victory; the show’s claim that he is the single most important military figure of the twentieth century may come as a surprise to fans of Patton and MacArthur (not to mention Rommel or Montgomery). Because he was a 20th-century figure fighting in one of history’s best-documented conflicts, there is an abundance of video footage of the man, as well as of the battles he coordinated. This makes for a livelier viewing experience than some of the other episodes. To some degree, this is true of the episode on Ulysses S. Grant as well—no video footage of course, but plenty of grainy black-and-white photographs.

Despite the limitations in archival material, though, there’s plenty of interest throughout the series for fans of military history. Caesar’s victory against the Gauls at Alesi, in which he surrounds one enemy while fending off attacks from another, is frankly astonishing, while Napoleon’s success at Austerlitz is equally impressive. In case the computer animations and stentorian narration from Brian Cox isn’t sufficient to impress, the various interviewees—various experts in military history and strategy, mainly British with a few Americans sprinkled in—do their best to breathlessly clarify just what made this or that engagement so significant. There is probably little here that will be new to devoted students of history, but for curious viewers without much depth of knowledge, the show is enlightening.

Each episode offers a quick biographical sketch, formed around three main sections: “Before the Battle”, “The Battle” and “After the Battle”. As expected, the bulk of each episode goes to the nuts and bolts of the military engagement itself. Here is where the program is as its best. The details of, say, Horatio Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar are that much more astonishing for seeing how much could have gone wrong; Alexander’s victory against the Persians at Issus takes place against extraordinary odds that seem, at first blush, insurmountable. Ulysses S. Grant “knew that this, the Battle off the Wilderness, would decide the future of the United States”. Hey, no pressure.

As far as the DVD set goes, there are no extra features at all, so viewers will have to be satisfied with the episodes themselves. At roughly 45 minutes apiece, this makes for a substantial, four and a half hour long program. Nonetheless, given the series’ fecund subject matter, this dearth of bonus features feels like something of a missed opportunity.

Ultimately, The Great Commanders is a little stiff and staid, engaging without being spellbinding, illuminating without being revelatory. The casual viewer will find moments of interest, but not too much more.

RATING 6 / 10