Heroes & Villains (BBC, 2 Disc) Review

"I've been in this town so long that back in the city..." Not that Heroes And Villains given that it's Spartacus, Attila The Hun and Richard The Lionheart that adorn the cover of this DVD and not Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson. Then again, any Beach Boys biopic usually has some awful pun regarding summer in its titles and not the slightly lesser-known single from the aborted Smile album.

Instead, this is a DVD release of the BBC's rather epic series of drama documentaries on six men who, as the press release would have it, shaped the world around them. Historians may bicker as to the six figures the BBC have chosen for this series - they'll be bickering about a good deal more if they actually watch the show - but there can be no arguing as to who features. Joining Spartacus, Attila The Hun and Richard The Lionheart are Tokugawa Ieyasu - The Shogun, Napoleon Bonaparte and Hernán Cortés. Or Cortez The Killer as Neil Young would as refer to him as. Taking a somewhat more impartial view of proceedings that did Mr Young, this viewer wouldn't complain a great deal about any of the six choices. All six are well known, being either famous for their bravery in war or infamous for their cruelty. Each one led their smaller armies into battles in spite of being hugely outnumbered and their names have lived on over the passing years. Spartacus and Attila stood against the Romans, Richard against Saladin and Napoleon against the English. Tokugawa Ieyasu fought for control of Japan while Cortés invaded South America in search of gold and brought the Aztec empire to the point of ruination.

Each episode lasts an hour and rather than attempting to cover these men's entire lives, Heroes And Villains picks out a number of battles key to their legends. For Tokugawa Ieyasu, the programme-makers have chosen the Sekigahara Campaign of 1598 to 1603, in particular Ieyasu's stand against the army of Ishida Mitsunari in October 1600, the outcome of which saw him take power of the country. For Attila, the show avoids much of his military successes in favour of his killing his brother Bleda, his defeat at the Battle of Chalons by the army of Flavius Aëtius and his being extraordinarily cruel to a dwarf. That Attila The Hun has become a name associated with plain nastiness on a vast scale would suggest that he did very much more with his life that to pour scorn on those of restricted height.

Speaking of which, the episode on Napoleon occupies itself with the battle at British-occupied Toulon, a city that had revolted against the republican government. That on Spartacus concerns itself with some hit-and-run strikes against the Roman army but also on the slaves' army's final battle near the Strait of Messina. The episode on Cortés offers the fewest number of surprises as it simply documents the landing of his fleet on the coast of what is now Mexico and ends with the destruction of the Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.

There does seem to be a point to these sometimes curious selections. The episode on Napoleon, for example, draws attention to one man with such ambition as to want to stand out in a country that had, in its revolution, promised that all men would now be treated equally. It is only Louis-Marie Stanislas Fréron (Rob Brydon) who can see this but he gets posted to Saint Domingue as commissioner for his troubles, dying of yellow fever in 1802. Spartacus, wanting to head north to Gaul, gives in to the wishes of his men while Richard The Lionheart, in what is probably the best episode of the six, faces certain defeat should he ride to face Saladin while also torn with the belief that, should he not, then his soul be will damned having made a promise to God that he would take Jerusalem for the Church.

Unfortunately, that's one very high point in a series that often threatens to become very silly indeed. Even in that one episode, it has the feeling of having some hand-me-downs cluttering it up. Those who watched Robin Hood at Christmas/New Year will find themselves on familiar ground, literally so in the case of the same bits of the Holy Land as tramped by Robin Hood and Guy of Gisbourne. In Heroes And Villains, Steven Waddington reprises his same King Richard from the second series finale of Robin Hood and even takes Harry Lloyd (Will Scarlet) along from a ride. Elsewhere, Kevin Eldon is a surprising face as a Roman emissary in Attila The Hun but he's only one of a number of familiar faces in the series, Ramon Tikaram, Anthony Flanagan, Robert Glenister, Mark Wingett and Kenneth Cranham among them. Unfortunately, they're equipped with some dreadful dialogue, which demands that they explain the plot not once but a dozen times, while their armies seem to consist of a score of actors backfilled by CG people. With the handful of actors that jostle around Spartacus, it's hard to see how he would push to the front of the queue of the Boxing Day sales never mind take on the might of the Roman army. A Roman army who look to be wearing the same togas and sandals as favoured by the cast of Up Pompeii!

Historical realism might not be the point, though. Had this been broadcast midweek in the 9pm slot on BBC1, few would have cared about all that nonsense. Instead, Heroes And Villains would have been appreciated for its famous faces, its by-the-numbers plotting and its frequent moments of (CG) bloodshed. It was, though, shown on BBC2 and that channel's more discerning audience were probably rather more sniffy about Heroes And Villains. On DVD, there's none of that worrying about who it was aimed for. Instead, Heroes And Villains is good-looking, silly and does a fair job of summarising famous battles from history. No university history department in the country would touch it, mind, but there's still much fun to be had with it, not least in Attila The Hun's funnier-than-it-probably-was rise to power.


Unlike many of 2 Entertain's releases, Heroes And Villains comes with a DD5.1 audio track in addition to the usual DD2.0. There's not, to be honest, a great difference between the two. There's a little more presence to the DD5.1 track but it also sounds thinner, as though the surround channels have dragged out some of the presence from the soundtrack. The picture is no great shakes either. The image has been softened so as not to have the CG characters standing out, although they still do, while it has also been drained of colour to best represent the grim times that Attila, Napoleon and others lived through. The sun appears to shine on Spartacus alone. The bigger problem is that while it's not interlaced, you'd never guess from looking at it. Objects in the frame have the jagged edges familiar from interlaced content, which is never more obvious than in the end credits. This combing effect isn't so pronounced in the main features but it's still not the kind of transfer that 2 Entertain ought to produce, particularly how they've been much better than this in the past. Finally, there are English subtitles.


There are no extras on this DVD release.

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