THE DARK AGES
Review by Mark Wiechman
Stars: R.J. Allison, narrator
Director: Christopher Cassel
Audio: Dolby Stereo
Video: Color Anamorphic Widescreen 1.33:1
Studio: A&E Home Video
Features: See Review
Length: 94 minutes plus extras
Release Date: May 29, 2007
“The mother of the world has been killed.” - A 5th century Roman Historian on the fall of Rome to the barbarians.
“Purple is a fine color for a funeral.” - Theodora to Justinian, stopping him when he attempted to flee
I have always hated the term “Dark Ages”, which was coined by Petrarch, since it implies that pretty much nothing good happened between the fall of Rome and the beginning of the Renaissance. Historian Will Durant called it “The Age of Faith” instead, which is much more accurate. Rome embraced Christianity shortly before its fall, and when the Renaissance began, Europe became more interested in itself than God, but in the intervening years the Roman Catholic Church almost single-handedly preserved culture through its monasteries and educational institutes. While today’s culture is filled with atheistic proclamations of how closed-minded the church was, the opposite was more often the case.
On the other hand, these centuries were tough because of famine, plague, and an almost constant state of war. There was not enough time or space to bury the dead. As explained in this outstanding special, there were many cultural stars which lit this time and laid the groundwork for the rebirth that came later.
This entire special, with its excellent narration and music, rolls along like a disaster movie, with the barbarians sacking an almost defenseless Rome that had resorted to cannibalism. Slaves became the masters.
As someone who did not have to take history in college because I passed my advanced placement tests in high school, I still learn so much from these specials. Months of study is compressed into less than two hours of video and narration. So often professors go into endless minutiae without explaining the how and why things really happened. But here we see various causes interlocking before the medieval minds.
We learn about Justinian and why the split of the Roman Empire into east and west led to the ruin of the west. The marvelous professors who offer their opinions provide accurate and easy to understand comparisons that anyone can learn from. For example, when Justinian is taken prisoner after a chariot race, in which the crowds called for “conquest” against him rather than each other, the narrator compares this to baseball fans at a game between the New York Mets and the New York Yankees abandoning the game and taking the mayor of New York prisoner. When an emperor is not safe from his own people, it is a tough day at the office.
Then just as he begins to conquer Europe and restart the western side of the empire, a microscopic plague would kill 100 million people (though in the special features that figure is put at half that many. The difference may be that the larger figure includes the eastern empire.)
An amazingly well done production on par with a major motion picture, excellent segues, no artifacts or other problems. A stunning visual effect shows what appear to be dome circles spins, we see both a scroll with the date and a map of Europe emerge in great color, grabbing our attention as the chapters unfold.
A great stereo mix, perfect baritone narration, and the incidental music is well done and adds drama to the already dramatic story of the age.
There is a whole program dedicated to the plague, which is already covered extensively in the original program, but this beautifully shot 90 minute special contrasts visually the darkness of the plague itself with the lush beauty of Europe. It goes into more detail about how some survived, and how many of them were haunted by guilt for having survived, even as the poorest were able to find places to live and possessions.
“History in the Making” is the on location behind the scenes making of the main feature and is only about eleven minutes but every moment is great. We learn why even still, dead bodies evoke movement and urgency with great direction by learned producers, directors and other creators.
About fourteen minutes into the special, the narrator says that in the Dark Ages, the new Emperor was Jesus Christ. People turned to him in their despair in the long tough centuries of the dark ages. This special continues the History Channel tradition of excellent production, making even the darkest of times seem exciting and new.