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The History Channel Does Hannibal

posted Aug 6, 2012, 2:06 AM by Douglas Sun
Originally posted: March 16, 2009

Finally cued up the DVR this evening and pulled from it the first episode of “Battles B.C.”, the new History Channel series that tries to use Frank Miller as a model for historical discourse. History Channel, you may recall, experimented with aping the gory-splashy visual style of 300 with “Last Stand of the 300,” a 2-hour documentary that, with admirable elaboration and sobriety, tried to flesh out the story of the Battle of Thermopylae, and was broadcast (of course) in sync with the premiere of the Zack Snyder blockbuster.

Well, a good one-off has to become a series at some point, doesn’t it? Especially if you’re a basic cable channel, and you’re damned lucky if you can get by without having to rerun your top-rated shows 80 times each week. Hence, I suppose, “Battles B.C.,” which kicked off by taking on Hannibal.

Hannibal Barca of Carthage was an fairly obvious choice, I suppose. He’s almost as easy to romanticize as Alexander the Great and is, as one of the show’s historical experts pointed out, the Robert E. Lee of the Classical world: He failed strategically in the end, but he was an underdog who won a lot of spectacular victories in the field. In other words, it’s very easy to twist the historical record into pretzel knots because if you just tweak it here and bathe it in glory there you get a ripping story that doesn’t let facts get in the way.

It gets even easier if you’ve already decided that you’re going to use a highly stylized, romantic look and feel as your bedrock. And indeed, Hannibal here is not the grizzled general with an eyepatch and a leather beanie-helmet of conventional depiction, but a naked-to-the-waist cross between Vin Diesel’s Riddick and a stripped-down version of Xerxes in 300. He is not shown riding his war elephant behind the lines, rallying and directing his army (exerting proper command and control, as a good general of the day would have done); instead this Hannibal is always deep in the middle of the fight, gutting hapless legionnaries left and right with a kris-like sword in each hand, baying for Roman blood all the while. Bet you didn’t know that Hannibal killed 70,000 Roman soldiers at Cannae all by himself, didja? Yup. And supped on their entrails after.

But that’s really the worst of it. Apart from the homoerotic action-hero Hannibal, I didn’t spot any howling factual errors or stupid misinterpretations. As history, it’s actually fairly solid. The august, yet invigorating Richard Gabriel of the Royal War College of Canada is steadying presence here, as he was in “Last Stand of the 300.” Yes, most of the show pumps up the victories at Trebbia River, Lake Trasimene and Cannae — and at some points, one is tempted to growl, “Yes, but the Romans kicked his ass in the end, didn’t they?” But the last segment pretty much drives home that very point, that as much as Hannibal cuts a romantic figure — because of his tactical genius and the narrative drive of his burning desire to avenge Carthage’s defeat in the First Punic War — he lost. As Prof. Gabriel puts it, “In warfare, you don’t get points for trying.”

In the end, I judge this debut episode of “Battles B. C.” to be not as bad as it could have been, and even somewhat rewarding. But still, the look and feel (chosen, no doubt, to make Classical history appealing to the great unwashed who steeped themselves up to the forearms in 300) leads them astray. “Last Stand of the 300” worked because it offered itself implicitly as a counterpoint to 300: “Look, that was a comic book and a movie. We’re going to tell you how the real story of Thermopylae, and we’re going to imitate the visual style of the movie so you understand that we’re telling you the history behind 300.” But “Battles B. C.” doesn’t have Miller and Snyder off of which to bounce itself. So we’re left with a Vin Diesel Hannibal that is both ahistorical and apropos of nothing. Quite frankly, I find it more entertaining to read Richard Berg’s wisecracks about how you can’t tell the Carthaginian generals apart because their names all sound alike.