British history springs to life

Critic's Choice

Film

February 02, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach

Simon Schama has done the unlikely, if not the impossible: not only does his five-disc DVD collection, A History of Britain, cram more than 2,000 years of British history into only 15 hours, but it flies by so quickly that even those who would rather be blinded than sit through another history documentary will be left craving more.

A co-production of the BBC and the History Channel, Schama's narrative takes viewers from the mute, nearly indecipherable mysteries of Stonehenge to the heady patriotism and indefatigable optimism of Winston Churchill. Along the way, Schama, a native Brit now living and teaching in the U.S., probes deeper into such legendary rulers as William the Conqueror, Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, George III and Victoria. (I do wish he'd gone into detail about one of my personal favorites, Ethelred the Unready -- only the Brits could come up with a name like that -- but let's not quibble.) Beyond that, his history teems with everyday figures, both nobles and peasantry; a look at the Black Death that shook 14th-century England is especially gripping in its ability to make the past seem alive, even outside the royal courts.

Schama also takes pains to personalize his narrative, so we don't forget his is only one interpretation (though one that has been exhaustively researched and thought out). In such moments -- as when Schama, a Jew, while admitting historians have found little to praise about Oliver Crom-well's Republic, notes that his rule afforded Jews the right to live in England and worship openly -- history becomes something to be embraced, not endured.

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