The Great Commanders Review

The men featured in Phil Grabsky’s enjoyable six-part documentary are the very stuff of legend. From age to age their stories have been passed down through the generations, becoming so much a core of our shared heritage and so powerful a part of our history that we need only one name to refer to them: Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Nelson. Nowadays to sing their praises, or herald their achievements, has become something of a cliché: by any normal measure they have surpassed simple humanity and become icons, symbols of a so-called glorious, blood-stained foundation of modern Western society. Indeed, it’s become so much so that we can take what they did for granted: to say that Alexander was a great warrior sounds as banal a statement as that Shakespeare was a good writer, a self-evident truth which nevertheless can be forgotten under the deadening effect of over-familiarity. This can be a problem as for many they are now little more than ciphers, lifeless statues or portraits on a wall, with little to distinguish them from mythological figures such as King Arthur or Robin Hood. In that sense they’re no longer real in the way that someone like Hitler or Churchill is still to the present generation (although in time even they will fade away), and as so much has been said or written about them by scholars down the ages it can become difficult to find “a new angle” or a new way of presenting their stories. Step forward The Great Commanders, a series which aims to breathe life back into these colossuses of world history, wrest them from the one-dimensional portraits in our minds and make them real flesh-and-blood men again, ones with as many foibles, flaws and contradictions as you or I. By examining their personalities, the series tries to discover just what it was about them that elevated them above the masses and made them the legends they were, while never forgetting that they were ultimately as three-dimensional as the common man on the street.

While each episode focuses on one particular individual (together with the four listed above, the series also covers American Civil War general Ulysses S Grant and Georgi Zhukov, the Russian general who captured Berlin in WWII), with little to no cross-referencing, certain common characteristics emerge over the course of the series which, when taken as a whole, present a wholly convincing thesis as to what makes a successful commander. Each man was a natural leader of men, one who had an intense, almost fanatical patriotic zeal, an impulse that made them strive for national glory on the international stage. All were prepared to take huge risks to achieve their goals, both with themselves personally and the armies they commanded, but while they had no compunction about sending their men into the field to die, they were worshipped by those self-same underlings, who would literally die for their adored leaders. Without exception they had an everyman touch which made their followers adore them, that easy way of mixing with underlings which modern politicians strive for but only a few ever achieve. In part this came from immense self-confidence, an arrogance that they were truly the masters and that nothing could stop them from achieving whatever they wanted, which in turn gave their followers belief that anything was possible. Psychologically, it’s interesting to note that nearly all were born outsiders who rose through the ranks in spite of rather than because of their origins (famously, Napoleon was a Corsican) which perhaps gave them that added tenacity and determination at the crucial time: they were simply carried forward by the momentum of their own struggles. Even when outnumbered on the field of battle they could turn the tide in their favour, combining that innate grit with a tactical and strategic understanding and subtlety that, even had they not become as famous as they are, would still have earned them a place in military textbooks. Together, these attributes all coalesce into one ultimate attribute, an almost preternatural charisma which has survived long after they themselves departed this mortal coil. After all, it’s one thing to be a hero in your own lifetime, but the very fact that people still worship Caesar more than two thousand years after his death just shows how strong his personality was. We feel we know him today: just think for a moment how extraordinary that is.

To illustrate these attributes, Grabsky uses as the centre point for each episode one of the commanders’ most legendary battles. After filling in the subject’s life leading up to the crucial moment, military experts than discuss the encounter in detail, describing both the tactics and strategies used on the battlefield itself and also how each commander rallied his men and pushed them on to success. In this way we come to see each in their finest hour: these were the moments when literally legends were born. Together with the use of what now looks primitive but was at the time pretty good CGI (it’s no Time Commanders though) to give an idea of the terrain and movements of the two armies, together with much newly-shot footage of the theatres of war as they are today, quotations from sources of the time, and the contributions of many learned historians, each episode provides a series of vivid snapshots of what it was like to be there, and how the fights were won, both in the hearts of the men involved and in the field itself. The suggestion, which one can’t help but agree with, is that these two were inextricably linked together, that the true genius of each man was how he used the advantages of both people skills and battlefield savvy to claim victory. In the end, it’s not just how many troops you have: it’s what you do with them, both on and off the field, and it’s this lesson which one comes away from the series most appreciating. Have your men fall in love with you, and not only will they do anything you tell them to, each one of them will do it with a passion and zeal which is worth ten of a disinterested enemy. In a way, these men have been making people fall in love with them ever since.

As a central argument around which to base a series, this is entirely convincing, and the production is equally so, telling its stories in a straightforward, entertaining but never facile way. There are only two small issues I had with it. The first is trivial, namely the choice of selection of subjects. As with any series of this sort, one could argue that the choice of subjects is not entirely balanced: we pass over the Dark and Middle Ages entirely, going from Caesar’s victory at Alesia to Napoleon’s at Austerlitz, which misses out on such names as Richard the Lionheart or Genghis Khan, both of whom would easily fill the criteria for a Great Commander listed above. Meanwhile, the inclusion of Grant over Washington is pleasing in that it balks convention, but unfortunately the episode covering the Civil War general is the least convincing of the six, making me wonder whether Grabsky should have just gone the whole hog and thrown in old GW (the good one) instead. That said, the director's selection of Zhukov, whose achievement is still not as acknowledged in the West as it should be - certainly not, as I discovered last year in helping my nephew, in the current GCSE course - is bang on the money, and benefits from using much original film of the general in action during and after the Berlin siege, one of the highlights of the entire series. Of course, one could argue until blue in the face about such lists: I would have swapped Nelson for Richard I and Grant for Washington, but ultimately this is a matter of choice.

The other main criticism is that there isn’t enough of it. The unfortunately brief running time of each programme - just forty-five minutes - with a majority of that time focusing on the single encounter means that the rest of each commander’s life is given in little more than a thumbnail sketch: not so much a problem for Alexander the Great, but more so for someone like Napoleon or Zhukov, whose massive achievements in pushing the German army out of Russia is rather skirted over in the show’s eagerness to get to Berlin. In some ways the series acts as a teaser: given a glimpse into the brilliance of each man, one is left invariably wanting more to fill in the gaps. This is, of course, a testament to a series which doesn’t pretend to be comprehensive, but one still comes away not feeling entirely nourished, its narrow focus acting more as a primer than anything else. One gets a snapshot of personality, leaving one with a desire to find out more about what that personality did.

But then I’m quibbling about things the series is not meant to be, which is a little unfair. It fulfils its own raison d’etre superbly, and taken purely for what it is is a highly enjoyable, informative (and surprisingly gripping), well put together documentary. One of the biggest recommendations I can give it is that as a rule I find the subject of military history utterly boring: whenever ploughing through the life of a soldier or whatever I find my mind wandering during descriptions of the battles and am not the tiniest bit interested by troop deployment, weaponry or anything else of that ilk. None the less, the clear diagrams showing exactly what was going on the battlefield, together with the commentary, have opened my eyes and for the first time actually made me interested in learning more about the art of war, and appreciate anew the role of the commander’s personality on the outcome of battles. I doubt I’ll ever sit down and study the nuances of Grant’s conflict with Lee in the Wilderness, but the fact writer-director Grabsky has brought these ancient battles to life, together with the men who led them, is a marvellous thing. In some small way, he has managed to reclaim Alexander and co from the dusty old history books to which they are too often consigned. For anyone with more than a passing knowledge of these men there’s little here that’s new, with not enough depth to satisfy. For those just starting their journey through the greats, though, this makes an excellent primer and will convince some that history isn’t just about a bunch of dead people: it’s about life and glory and power and excitement, and people doing extraordinary things. Truly, the stuff of legend.

The series gets a low-key but attractive presentation. The series comes on two discs, three episodes on each, with Disc One opening with a trailer for Grabsky’s feature-length documentary In Search of Mozart. The Main Menus on each disc are simple, with the choice to watch any of their three episodes, with an illustration of each subject (one which is also reproduced on the disc, a welcome touch which makes it easier to find which disc one is looking for). Equally, each episode is split into distinct chapter headings, with such titles as "The Battle", "The Army", "Tactics" and so on, which makes surfing through them nice and easy.

For a set like this, there’s little point in going into the Video or Audio in any great detail. The former is not splendid: we get quite a dark picture even in the shots of bright sunshine, with subdued colours, and a bit of grain which makes it a murky, albeit perfectly watchable, viewing experience. The Audio is a simple two-speaker set-up which does its job perfectly adequately.

There are no extras, which for a release like this is fine, and no subtitles at all, which is not, and instantly loses the disc one point.

A very enjoyable, rewarding series gets a reasonable release from Seventh Art Productions, with only the lack of subtitles really lacking the side down.

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