'Battles BC' is History's great slip-up

BY TOMMY COLEMAN
Daily Arts Writer
Published March 22, 2009

“Battles BC”
Mondays at 9 p.m.
History

1.5 out of 5 stars

Today, television caters to every possible interest. For those wanting to know more about decorative cakes, there’s “Ace of Cakes” on Food Network. If you want to know the process behind flute production, it’s on “How It’s Made” on the Discovery Channel. Golfers get a channel all to themselves, for some reason, named, aptly, Golf Channel. And history buffs, well, they get History (aka The History Channel, as it used to be named).

Overflowing with facts and historical reenactments, History covers just about everything that happened in the past, and only those viewers who really care about this type of thing pay any attention.

Recently, though, History has been trying to expand its audience base and reach out to people other than self-proclaimed historians with “Battles BC,” a new show recreating some of the most notable ancient wars.

Each week, “Battles BC” dissects an infamous clash between ancient armies. The series premiere chronicles Hannibal, the great war tactician and commander of the Carthaginian army, and his unsuccessful effort to conquer the Roman Empire. Future episodes will cover the military exploits of Alexander the Great, David (of David and Goliath fame) and many others.

Now that all sounds like the same old stuff for History. But there’s a catch.

With “Battles,” History takes a stab at making a show that's exciting for a wider audience. It’s clear that the show is intended to captivate not only those genuinely interested in history, but also those who love hard-hitting action flicks and the heroics and violence of superhero films. Accordingly, “Battles BC” is different from the typical historical documentary — it’s the mutant child of History documentaries like “The Presidents” and Zack Snyder’s 2007 blockbuster “300.” But, ultimately, it's a mix that just doesn’t work.

“Battles BC” shamelessly mimics the visual style of “300,” dramatic backdrops and all. There are countless gory portrayals of decapitations and spears tearing through flesh. During exceptionally bloody moments, everything moves in Snyder-esque slow motion, occasionally stopping on one frame in particular and allowing for a cartoony blood splatter or two.

It’s easy to understand why someone thought these special effects would help to make things “look cool,” but there comes a point where historical accuracy needs to be respected (the channel is called History). Who is expected to believe that Hannibal looked exactly like a bodybuilder? Or that during battle he would pause for a moment to give an enemy soldier a menacing look before using both of his swords to decapitate him? Or that, after decapitating the soldier, Hannibal would stand in the same spot, reach his arms out, tilt his head back and let out a lion’s roar? These ridiculous exaggerations make sense in a movie adapted from an exceptionally violent comic book, but for a documentary on History, a more realistic portrayal would have been more appropriate. In an attempt to please everyone, History seems to have mixed two unmixable genres.

Although there are moments of visual awesomeness and others of historical insight, “Battles BC” doesn’t really contain quite enough of either to be satisfying, leaving both history buffs and action junkies wanting more.