I'm always on the look out for material that can help me understand the Ancient Hellenes better. I feel like there's never enough. Yet when I want more information I usually turn to books or articles, since TV and movies tend not to be overly accurate or helpful. I was pleasantly surprised however when I watched the PBS special Greeks: Crucible of Civilization Special Edition. This nearly three hour documentary covers the amazingly rich history of Ancient Athens from the 6th century BC until the fall of the polis, using actors and a host of prominent historians to walk us through the events of the time. Among the more notable historians that appear in this film are Barry Strauss, Victor Davis Hanson and Paul Cartledge, all names that should be familiar to people studying Ancient Greece. These men lend a sense of legitimacy to the documentary that a lot of similar films lack. Yet what really sets this work apart is the director's ability to take the viewer back through time, showing us a glimpse of what life might have been like for men like Themistocles and Pericles.
Instead of offering cheesy acting or dialogue, the director hired professional actors and even real local specialists to simply act out different events. He also had cinematic shots of the modern city of Athens subtly painted over to make it look like more archaic, so when the shots appear on screen it's like you're seeing the city as it might might have been thousands of years ago. Especially impressive is the aversion of studio-made sets. When the film portrays men knocking olives out of trees, you know that those are real olive trees in the Attica countryside. When you see a spectacular shot of a trireme, you're looking at a real ship (the one built a few years ago by scholors). No expense is spared, not corners cut...but that's not to say the film is above reproach.
Despite its name, the documentary rarely focuses on any city-state but Athens, and almost never mentions men or battles that don't have anything to do with it. The oversight of events like Thermopylae is especially cringe worthy. Yet if you opt to listen to the Director's Commentary, the director does mention that he chose to have the film revolve around only a few select men (all Athenian), so a piece about Leonidas and his accomplishments would admittedly be akward. Still, it would have been better to change the documentary's name to Ancient Athens: Crucible of Civilization, thus making the absence of certain battles and historical figures less conspicuous.
This misnomer can be forgiven though once you realize the director's complete commitment to making this film as good as possible. Not only did he use professional actors and real locations, he also hired an orchestra to make a stirring and riveting soundtrack. This beautifully compliments the story telling in its richness and detail, making the experience of watching the film even more pleasant. So if you love Ancient Athens and want to see a detailed and complete picture of the early years of the polis, rent or buy this DVD. And hey: it's hosted by Liam Neelson. What more could you ask?