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« Fantasy and Reality | Main | Glued to the Tube -- So Why Am I Not Complaining? »

March 07, 2004

Video Finds

Dear Friedrich --

I've come down with a terrible flu. For the first few days of it, I felt like I'd been fed arsenic, forced into the ring with Mike Tyson, and then run over by an 18-wheeler. I'm feeling a bit better today and my cheerfulness has returned, but I'm still unable to read or concentrate. So I've been killing the boredom by catching up with videotaped shows and movies. And, hey, I've made a few finds.

  • The Rise and Fall of the Spartans. I'm often amazed by how OK-to-pretty-good many of the History Channel's shows are. Even more surprising are the handful that are really superb. This is one of them, a stirring, clear-as-glass two-parter -- the history of ancient Greece from the p-o-v not of the usual Athenians, but of the Spartans. (Ancient Greek history is another one of those subjects I enjoy reading and watching endless intros-to, BTW.) What a strange bunch the Spartans were, dropping unfit babies over cliffs, eating horrible food, forsaking money and art, terrorizing their helots, and glowering menacingly at everyone else in the Eastern Mediterranean. The show is the usual History Channel mix of slow-mo re-enactments, animated maps, talking heads, and panning-and-zooming over art. But the producers here do it with gusto and brains, and they keep everything -- even the complicated politics -- comprehensible and exciting. The talking heads -- among them are Victor David Hanson, Donald Kagan, and Paul Cartledge -- are a classy, enthusiastic bunch; the maps and computer graphics couldn't have been more helpful ... Whew -- fab stuff: three and a half hours long, and I wouldn't have minded more. It's also one of those culture products that makes you wonder how many college courses can equal it. I can't find any upcoming showings of "Spartans" on the History Channel's website. But I do see that you can buy a DVD copy of the show for a very reasonable $39.95 (a well-produced video for the price of a big hardcover book) here. I've never run across a really good TV history of the Romans. Does such a thing exist? I'd sure love to watch it if it does.

  • Stalin: Man of Steel. A biography that does a brilliant job of moving between public and private, and from the man back out to the broader history. The show leaves you fascinated and appalled by his character and marveling over Russia at the same time. It's an immaculate and impressive production that manages to juggle and present an amazing amount of material with clarity and gravity. Hats off especially to the show's researchers, who turned up a rich array of footage and sources -- historians, victims, guards, relatives, witnesses. Ever since seeing this show, I've been pestering Tatyana (a Russian emigree) with email questions about her native land. She's been sweet enough to respond, and may even have managed to shake a little naivete about Russia out of me. I see no indication of "Stalin" on the History Channel's upcoming-programs schedule, but a VHS copy of the show can be bought here.

  • White Lightning. A 1974 Burt Reynolds rednecks-moonshine-and-cars movie that's very rewarding, believe it or not. A few years ago, some Southern film buff writing in the Oxford American listed this film as the best of all redneck movies. It may well be. I found that the fim has surprising dignity; some dark tones; tons of craft and atmosphere; a willingness to pause for color and character; an openness to landscape, light and regional types; a terrific dusty-lower-class-southern look; and a satisfying '70s cast that includes R.C. Armstrong, Diane Ladd, Bo Hopkins, Ned Beatty, and Jennifer Billingsley ... It's like "Thunder Road" (about which I raved here) crossed with one of Peckinpah's more easygoing movies, such as "Junior Bonner" -- and if it's not quite as good as that comparison might suggest, it's on its way. Burt Reynolds may not do any real acting here, but he isn't just being a rogue-ish good ol' boy either. He's doing something in-between -- he's up there on screen, willing to give the idea of acting some serious consideration. It's surprising how effective that is. A DVD of the film can be bought for $13.95 here.

I just realized that I'm completely out of energy, and that -- yowch -- my head's a-throbbin'. Time to return to my Bed of Pain, I guess.



posted by Michael at March 7, 2004


When I saw Rise and Fall of the Spartans, I was pleased to find that Paul Rahe was one of the scholars prominently featured. I never had him for a class when I studied at University of Tulsa, but I did meet him occasionally. He's simply a brilliant guy.

Posted by: Tim Hulsey on March 7, 2004 3:52 AM

Two questions arise from reading your excellent post:

(1) Did your ideas of ancient Greece change at all as a result of seeing the 'story' through the eyes of the Spartans? If so, how? I know in histories of the time I've read recently I'm always surprised at how cautious, in many ways, the Spartans were--much more so than the Athenians. I guess the Spartan army, although super-tough, was only around 5,000 men, so a few defeats would have put them in a terrible position. Odd that such macho men would end up listening to the voice of moderation so frequently.

(2) Did the Stalin documentary address the speculation, which I've read about recently, that Stalin was planning to embroil the world in World War III (nuclear weapons and all) by invading North America from the West Coast?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 7, 2004 11:39 AM

There was a very similar series on the Spartans on Channel 4 in the UK about a year ago. Really fascinating stuff. The Spartans believed they had established an ideal society, so they were deeply conservative, even fatalistic in their outlook. They didn't want to conquer other cities, build a navy, or even trade. They only fought the Athenians because Athens pushed them into it, and took on imperial responsibility only because they felt instability was too much of a threat.

I guess this conservatism is the source of the moderation Michael notes. It also seems to be behind their lasting appeal to conservatives: not only in Athens, but also in Rome, and even in modern-day America.

Posted by: Simon Kinahan on March 7, 2004 12:36 PM

Tim -- A very classy bunch of experts.

FvB -- 1) You bet! It left me eager to get run through Greek history from the p-o-v of some of the other city-states. Great to leave the ol' Athenian p-o-v behind for a while. Although in this case, as a practical matter, you're stuck going back to it regularly. The Spartans were such a sealed-off bunch and left so little spoor behind -- no art, and no lit either if I remember right -- that it's inevitable you wind up back in the lap of those gabby Athenians. Watched another docu the other day, this one about the Philistines. Interesting -- more and more seems to be known about them. But they seem to have left almost nothing written behind, and as a consequence they don't get the press (so to speak) that they deserve. Lesson: leaves lots of writing behind. And yeah, the Spartans never numbered more than some thousands -- too many babies dropped over cliffs. And once they started taking too many losses -- and once the "we fight you to the death and take you with us" mystique started to crumble, it wasn't too too long until the curtain came down.

Simon -- I wonder if it was the same series. How many such can get made? Sounds like the emphasis in the one I watched was the same as the one in the one you watched. Amazing yarns and facts, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 8, 2004 2:40 AM

Did the Sparta documentary get into the evolution of military organization and tactics?

As long as the armies of Greece consisted primarily of hoplites the Spartans did very well. The discipline of their upbringing and the constant exercise in arms gave them quite an advantage even against much larger forces. But when other cities, particularly Thebes, began using large numbers of peltasts (light infantry) to actively harass the enemy while their hoplites formed up into a proto-phalanx the Spartans were unable to respond. They lacked the manpower to field an auxillary force of peltasts and arming the Helots was out of the question. At Luectra (sp?) the Spartan line was disorded by missle weapons (javelins and slings) and the Theban hoplites rolled right over them. When Philip completed the tactical revolution in Macedonia by combining cavalry with a proper phalanx Sparta was finished as a great power.

Of course, the Greeks at the time were blissfully unaware of a small town in central Italy that was busy creating and perfecting the tactics of a military organization called the Legion.....

Posted by: carl on March 8, 2004 9:07 AM

This was a tiny contribution, and a very small pay for pleasure of reading your blog - so please, pester away.

Posted by: Tatyana on March 8, 2004 9:34 AM

FvB -- Realizing here that I wasn't answering a question ... No, I don't recall the Stalin bio going in to plans for a WWIII. I've got no way of knowing if that's a flaw or not, but the bio seemed to me to do a great job of keeping its moral wits about itself generally.

Carl -- The "Spartans" docu went into tactics some, but I'd guess that you'd find the descriptions and explanations pretty basic. Mostly news to me, though: interesting stuff about phalanxes, training, the Spartans' inability to adapt and change, how they had no idea how to run an empire, how what's his name of Thebes finally figured out how to KO them ... Pretty down-to-earth stuff. Come to think of it, I'd love to read/watch a history of Ancient Greece from the p-o-v of the Thebans. Why not? FvB is an amateur student of military tactics and such; me, I've read a couple of John Keegan books, and that's it. Are there works you can recommend about warfare in the ancient world? Short and easy reading always appreciated.

Tatyana -- Then I'll pester away even more, thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 8, 2004 11:35 AM

Michael -- I wondered if it was the same series too, but I don't think so. C4 still has a webite for it.

On military tactics, you might enjoy "Why the West has Won" by Victor Davis Hanson. Not nearly as jingoistic as the title might imply. Starts with the Battle of Guagamela and runs through various important battles up to Midway illustrating the relationship between Western military tactics and social structure. Easy to read, too.

Posted by: Simon Kinahan on March 8, 2004 3:30 PM

If you are looking for a good intro/primer type work, John Warry's "Warfare in the Classical World" is pretty good (especially if you can find the illustrated edition, which for some reason is called "The Encyclopedia of Warfare in the Classical World"--it is not an encyclopedia but rather a straightforward chronological narrative). It covers developments in tactics and equipment from the Mycenaean era to the death of Valens at Hadrianople.
JFC Fuller's Caesar bio has several interesting chapters on the developement of the Roman army and Lidell-Hart's Scipio Africanus bio gives a nice glimpse of the legions during the Second Punic War.

Of course, from the horse's mouth (as it were) there is Xenophon, Polybius, Caesar, etc....

Posted by: carl on March 8, 2004 7:16 PM

"If you are looking for a good intro/primer type work, John Warry's "Warfare in the Classical World" is pretty good"??

Excuse me while I type,"Preview is your friend, oh redundant one!", 100 times.

Posted by: carl on March 8, 2004 7:20 PM

Wow, brainy and good advice, many thanks.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on March 8, 2004 11:13 PM

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