DVD Review: Rome – Season 1

One of the more unusual shows I saw on DVD last year was the first season of Rome. As soon as you pick up the box, you realise that it’s not designed for everyone. It shows a pair of Roman-sandalled feet standing on cobble-stone streets running with blood and (in Australia), it has a rather large R rating on the front warning you about the sex and violence.

This clever series weaves a mixture of fictional/non-fictional events starting with Julius Caesar’s victory in Gaul all the way through to his eventual assassination in the Senate. The very fact that there is a long rise and fall arc in the series immediately makes it more interesting than a regular TV series, with its “let’s fix all problems in the one episode” set-up.

It follows all the famous true-life characters in this drama: Julius Caesar (Ciarán Hinds), Pompey (Kenneth Cranham), Mark Antony (James Purefoy), Marcus Brutus (Tobias Menzies) and Co. Then there’s the fictional characters: a couple of Roman soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson). In addition, there are some spectacularly revenge-driven women in the story: Atia (Polly Walker) and Servilia (Lindsay Duncan). There are lots more characters (it’s quite a large ensemble), but these are the main players, whose lives connect and intersect over 13 hours.

If you’ve got the stomach for it, you can enjoy this for the convoluted, twisting plot. Or you might enjoy the historical detail – especially if you have the DVD, where you can turn on a feature called “All Roads Lead To Rome”, which puts up informative historical facts on the screen while you’re watching.

On the whole, I found it a show that gave me mixed emotions – primarily because of the writing. The two main creators of the show, Bruno Heller and Jonathan Stamp point out many times on their commentaries and extra features that they deliberately set out to create a world where Judeo-Christian morality did not exist. And so they have written their Romans to sometimes act like us (e.g. wives, romance, business intrigue) and then sometimes not (e.g. beating slaves, killing people with no compassion). Because all the actors speak with perfect English accents, this enhances the feeling that these people are real, so when they suddenly turn savage, it’s quite a shock.

I think Heller and Stamp secretly like the Romans unbridled way of living (especially the sex), but obviously feel uncomfortable with the violence that went with it. To my mind, don’t the two go hand in hand? If you have unrestraint in one area of society, why would you hold back in another? To be honest, what this series did do for me was explain quite clearly how Christianity ripped through Rome and took hold. It would have only taken a few Christians committed to caring for people around them and looking after those less fortunate than themselves, and they would have stuck out like a sore thumb, and caused major social change.

4 out of 5.

DVD Review: Band of Brothers

At the beginning of the year, some friends and I came up with a novel way to pass the time between when we caught up (because we all live in different parts of Australia) – we’d go out and buy the same TV show on DVD, watch one episode a week and then swap notes about the episode via SMS or phone calls or whatever. There were only three of us, so taking it in turns to pick a show means that we basically get 1-2 picks a year.

The inaugural show picked by the youngest member of our troupe was the famous Band of Brothers, which I’d heard of many, many times but never gotten around to watching, so it was good to have the excuse to watch the whole thing.

If you haven’t ever heard of it, this miniseries was made for the HBO cable channel about 10 years ago, and was the brainchild of Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, both of whom wanted the chance to tell another World War II story after the success of Saving Private Ryan.

Based on the book Band of Brothers, by Stephen Ambrose, they found the perfect war tale. The miniseries, over the course of 10 episodes, follows the adventures of Easy Company, a paratrooping company from America. They’re a great group to follow for World War II, because they were in a lot of the major skirmishes of the time. They were parachuted into France on D-Day, then later on found themselves in Holland, Germany and other places.

What makes this different from many other war films is that there are no fictional characters here. Every actor, even in a small role, is playing a real historical character. To further emphasise this, each episode begins with a filmed interview of some of the real members of Easy Company (obviously now quite elderly) describing their recollections of the battle. If you watch the excellent extra features on this disc, you will find that all of the actors were sent on training boot camp where they were required to take on the name of the soldier they were playing. This has clearly carried over into the film, where all the actors take on their roles with great seriousness and professionalism.

In the end, though, this attention to detail is the main drawback. Because nearly all the actors are little-known (and, oddly enough, many of the leads are British performing with American accents), it took me several episodes to really get the hang of who’s who in the company. There’s also not much time given for explaining the various military strategies being used. This is very much a program where the viewer has to “sit forward”, as it were, and pay attention.

However, that won’t be too hard for most people. The production design on this show is phenomenal. This show successfully proved that there’s no reason why TV has to be a poor cousin to cinema. The action is engaging, the special effects, sound design (especially if you can watch this in Dolby Digital 5.1!) and cinematography are all top-notch. (Depending on how much you like hand-held camera and a washed-out green colour. This series has taken its lead from Saving Private Ryan in terms of the look and feel.)

For an insight into what it was like to fight in World War II, this is probably as good as it gets – and makes me very glad that we haven’t had a war on that scale since. Definitely check it out.

4 ½ out of 5.