Mystique of the Miniseries

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Mystique of the Miniseries

This week's edition of the ScreenAnarchy-o-Meter presents a very unusual topic, yet one that everyone somewhat old enough may still relate to - at least if you grew up somewhere around Europe. I am here to tell you about a time when TV films were still worth watching, strange as it sounds nowadays. I don't know if these were ever popular in the US, but in certain parts of Europe, they were a phenomenon: The historical mini-series, or multi-part TV movie. The sweeping historical epic that would be shown on Easter or Christmas, going on to drain any signs of life from every street, as families huddled together in front of their TV screens and watched in awe. Originating somewhere in the 1960s, they reached their culmination with the European co-productions in the late 1970s and 1980s; big-budgeted adventure romps which often utilized star ensembles of internationally renowned actors. More interestingly, these kind of features represented a new home for many Italian directors fleeing the sinking ship of the Italian film industry during the early 80s. For me, as I watched quite a few of these miniseries as a child, they were the purest form of escapism one could get from a TV set. In retrospect, although I freely admit to being nostalgic, which surely taints my view to some degree, I am still surprised how well some of them have held up, especially in comparison to what constitutes TV movies in the 21st century - soulless, corny, CGI-laden snoozefests. So let me share some especially fond memories with you...

5. Secret of the Sahara (1988)

Archeologist Desmond Jordan (Michael York) is obsessed with tracking down the mysterious "speaking mountain" in the Sahara, which supposedly rewards the one who finds it with endless amounts of happiness and wealth. He is soon joined by former soldier Orso (Diego Abatantuono) and the mysterious Anthea (Andie McDowell). In the desert, they not only have to flee from the merciless legionnaire Ryker (David Soul), but are soon facing the khalif of Timbuktu (James Farentino) as a rival in their hunt for the speaking mountain.

Directed by Alberto Negrin, Secret of the Sahara, besides appearances of Michael York and Ben Kingsley, will always stick in my mind due to its unforgettable score by Maestro Morricone. The main theme especially is one of those pieces of music that flood your mind with memories and vivid images after mere seconds. In a certain sense, this miniseries was perhaps one of the last of its kind. Sure, these things are still coming out every now and then - but as they say: They just don't make them like they used to. Perhaps it's the Italian influence that lent a series like Secret of the Sahara a true sense of beauty and grandeur - and a few cheesy moments, too. However, that is not stopping me from including it in this list.
How can you watch it again? Sadly, it's looking grim: There's a German DVD out there, but video quality is poor, and it lacks any English language options. Here's hoping someone's going to improve on the situation eventually...

4. Sandokan (1976)

In 1850, the British Empire is hard at work exploiting the territories of South East Asia. Malaysia, too, has fallen victim to the British. Sir James Brooke (played by the great Adolfo Celi) represents the interests of the East India Trading Company in this region. But he and his cronies have a hard time going up against Sandokan (Kabir Bedi) and his friends, who are seizing every opportunity to spoil Britain's plans, giving back to the local people whenever possible.

Sandokan is an incredibly charming, colorful adventure. Yes, it's pretty much Robin Hood set in Asia, yet that doesn't take away from its qualities. The setting is believable, mostly because many of the minor characters were played by locals. It was also helmed by Sergio Sollima, whom you may recognize as one of Italian cinema's shining figures. As he explains in the interview included in the sadly not very import-friendly 3-DVD set by Koch Media, Sandokan was originally supposed to be directed by Sergio Leone. Let's not imagine how that might have turned out. What we got was still awesome: Vibrant cinematography and costumes, light-hearted action and a satisfying finale. If you can get over the moments of silliness and the lack of more complex characters, it will entertain you for a good 360 minutes. Yes, I still love to watch it today. Apparently, a follow-up series was aired in 1998 in Italy, but I have no idea whether that was any good. Frankly, I'd rather not let anything ruin my memories.

3. Christopher Colombus (1984)

Tracking the life of Christopher Columbus (played by Gabriel Byrne) from his birth in 1450 to his death in 1506, this series deals not only with his journeys to America, Asia and other parts of the world, but also puts focus on personal issues - his clash with the Catholic Church, for example - and the aftermath of 1492.

Rightfully receiving two Emmy nominations, Christopher Columbus can be lauded for its remarkable sense of authenticity - not only with regard to setting, costumes and all the other aspects one would aspect from a miniseries like this - but also in the way that Columbus himself is depicted. The filmmakers thankfully acknowledged the fact that Columbus was not a shining hero who respectfully claimed the land he discovered in the name of a peace-loving nation. Therefore, this production firmly sits among the more mature examples of the genre. Props to Byrne for some great, dignified acting. Byrne is joined by the late Oliver Reed, Max von Sydow, Eli Wallach and Faye Dunaway. It's great, captivating stuff. But once again, a DVD release is only available in Germany. Are we the only ones liking these things!?

2. I, Claudius (1976)

Roman emperor Claudius (Derek Jacobi) recounts his life, touching on many milestones of Roman history - the reign of Augustus (Brian Blessed), his attempt to find an heir and the intrigue that follows, the short, but bloody reign of Caligula (John Hurt), and lastly, his own ruling period that ends with his murder in 54 AD.

For once, this is not a primarily Italian production, but a British one, and it should come as no surprise that it's seen by many as the pinnacle of the UK's TV production. Just look at that cast! John Hurt, Derek Jacobi, John Rhys-Davis, Patrick Stewart (though obviously, at that time, the latter two did not have the same status as they do now). Production values are excellent - Tim Harvey won an Emmy for his art direction - and befitting the series' themes, it is a satisfyingly dark and complex affair. Not even HBO's Rome managed to surpass this BBC masterpiece. Sure, at 13 episodes and 650 minutes of running time, you could say it stretches the borders of what I've established as common ground here. But it was mandatory for me to include it. Watch it and you'll know why.

1. Marco Polo (1982)

In 1269, Marco Polo (Ken Marshall), son of a wealthy businessman, embarks upon a journey from Venice to the far lands of the Orient. He seeks to build trade routes between the two different cultures, so that the business interests of his family are accounted for. But in doing so, he also discovers a strange, new land.

And we're back with the Italians again. Damn, they were good at doing this. For me, this is it. [i]The[/i] miniseries experience. Directed by the great Giuliano Montaldo (Sacco & Vanzetti), cinematography by the legendary Pasqualino de Santis, music by Ennio Morricone. Of course, as a kid, you don't know all this, and you don't really care. But then you're blown away, and you watch it again as an adult, you're blown away once more, and it all makes sense. Marco Polo is, quite simply, a phenomenal achievement. It was nominated for eight Emmys and won two of them. Recognizable actors? This one's got them by the truckload: Burt Lancaster, Ken Marshall, Mario Adorf, Leonard Nimoy, Anne Bancroft, F. Murray Abraham. And more. But that's not the reason why one needs to see this series. It is an absolutely enchanting, homogenous experience, as if the creative forces behind it were carefully selected like valuable ingredientes for a majestic meal. Sure, the writers take their liberties with the source material, but when the result is this good, there is no reason to complain. Remarkable. Oh, and the R2 DVD set by Koch Media actually features English language options.

And we're there. I hope you have enjoyed reading about some of these, for the most part, long forgotten productions as much as I enjoyed looking back on them. I'd like to hear some opinions, actually. Do you think historical miniseries have gone out of fashion? Can movies replace them? I miss me some new ones, for sure...

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RedBullFuelledMarch 26, 2008 6:13 AM

If chronology doesnt matter 1997's The Odyssey (NBC) is by far the best miniseries i have ever watched.Cast included : Armand Assante, Eric Robets, Christopher Lee, Irene Papas and Isabella Roselini. A well worth it Emmy!

Ard VijnMarch 26, 2008 9:19 AM

Ooooooh, great topic!!!!!
The moment I read that intro, images of Sandokan jumped into my mind... loved that show and watched every re-run (there were two or three). And in the late 80's, "Shaka Zulu" was all the rage...
Now I keep remembering more and more of these. "Jewel in the Crown" for instance.

But historical mini-series like these were also a phenomenon in the US: "Roots" scored the highest number of viewers at the time, and was surpassed a few years later by "Shogun".

Kurt HalfyardMarch 26, 2008 6:16 PM

Jewel In The Crown! Rocked. Is that even available on DVD? I handn't thought about that one for years, but I remember catching it on TV back in the 80s...

Oh, another really great and surreal one is Peter Brooks' Mahabharata. Sublime.

Ard VijnMarch 26, 2008 7:05 PM

"Jewel in the Crown" is available both in region 1 US and region 2 UK.

If you are interested, go for the region 2 UK. It's generally a lot cheaper (even now), has subs for HoH and includes several commentaries and extras.

In contrast, the region 1 US is totally barebones. Both versions are listed as 4:3, non-anamorphic (which makes sense, being 4:3 already) and with stereo sound.

GodofJoySeptember 2, 2008 6:07 AM

It's months after the original blog, but I'd like to throw in my favorite. I'd love this to be available as a region 1 someday... "The Life and Loves of a She Devil" - based on the Fay Whedon book, and much MUCH better as the BBC series, compared to the later watered down US theatrical 're-make' presented stateside as "She-Devil"