By and large, television has confirmed the famous 1961 prediction of then-FEC Chairman Newton Minnow, in that is has become a "vast wasteland". A quick glance at the what is being shown on the various cable stations on any given night easily confirms this. We are awash in reality television about disagreeable people doing disagreeable things, sitcoms that are not funny, pseudo-documentaries about made-up things, and other unpleasant programs. Whenever I scroll through the cable stations to see what's on, I feel a sudden need to wash my hands.
Amid the trash, though, there are a few gems. In particular, HBO has produced some outstanding history-based mini-series over the last twenty years or so. It started with From the Earth to the Moon in the late 1990s; I remember watching it in rapt fascination. The two wonderful programs about men in the Second World War, Band of Brothers and The Pacific, are both of top-notch quality. While the sex could have been toned down a bit and the incest done away with entirely (especially as it didn't advance the plot) I absolutely loved Rome, especially the first season. I wish it could have been spread out to four or five seasons instead of just two. Finally, John Adams was the best thing that has ever been on television, as far as I'm concerned.
HBO has done a great job and some other networks picked up on the trend. Showtime produced The Tudors, which I liked very much. I admit that I have not yet seen The Borgias, but have heard it was good. Netflix has also jumped on the history mini-series bandwagon with a show about Marco Polo. AMC has produced a wonderful show about the Culper spy ring called Turn, which highlights one of the lesser-known aspects of the American Revolution. A&E, back when it was making quality television, produced Longitude, a lovely two-part series on John Harrison's invention of the chronometer, based on the Dava Sobel book of the same name.
I often ask myself what historical event or period I would want to see made into a television mini-series. Assuming it would have a decent budget, good actors, and good writers, I eventually settled on the following five choices. Each has the amazing drama and astonishing characters to make for an outstanding show.
1. The Conquest of the Aztecs by Hernan Cortes
Could you ask for a more dramatic story? It's the tale of a small band of Spanish soldier-explorers journeying to an unknown land and discovering an empire vaster, more powerful, and more mysterious than they could have imagined in their widest dreams. They then embark on the seemingly mad quest to take control of this empire and loot it of its riches. The Aztecs, not understanding anything about the strangers, do not know how to respond to their intrusion until it is too late. The meeting of Cortes and Moctezuma on the causeway leading into Tenochtitlan is as dramatic as history gets. The events of La Noche Triste, the desperate and terrifying escape of the Spanish across the divided causeway out of the city, are seemingly tailor-made for a talented director to transpose onto the screen. The intrigue between and among the Spanish, the Aztecs, and the various native states (especially the Tlaxcallans, who became allies of the Spanish) rivals the plots and machinations one would find in the court of a Renaissance city-state.
It is a story of terrible battles, dramatic escapes, dark betrayals, grand settings, and forceful personalities. You cannot find a more astonishing character than Hernan Cortes in the pages of any novel ever written. The Aztec Emperor Moctezuma II could have served as a Shakespearean character who manifests indecisiveness as his chief character flaw. The Aztec leaders Cuitlahuac and Cuauhtémoc played the role of noble warriors determined to defend their people against the alien invaders. You even have a femme fatale in the form of La Malinche, the native woman who became the translator and lover of Cortes.
I'm amazed that this hasn't been made into a mini-series already.
2. The Fall of Constantinople
To describe this story of history as "epic" is to understate the case. Constantinople had stood as the capital of the Byzantine Empire for more than a thousand years. It was the magnificent citadel of Eastern Christianity, keeping alive the classical learning of ancient Greece and guarding Europe against the Islamic forces of the Arabs and the Turks. At its height, Constantinople was unquestionably the most impressive and splendid city in the world. However, wrecked by the Crusaders in 1204, it was a shadow of its former self by 1453, when the Ottoman Turks arrived outside its walls.
The Ottomans had risen quickly from nomads to empire-builders and they were determined to wrest Constantinople from the Christians and make it their own capital. But the walls protecting Constantinople were legendary for their strength. Week after week, the Turks attacked repeatedly only to be thrown back. Dramatic naval battles raged on the waters around the city. In nightmarish underground combat, Turks sought to tunnel underneath the great walls while Byzantine troops in turn sought to dig countermines to stop them. And then there was the final, terrible, irresistible assault of May 29, which finally overwhelmed the Christian defenders and allowed the Turks to force their way past the walls through sheer force of numbers.
Want interesting characters? You can't ask for better than you'd get from the story of the Fall of Constantinople. You have Emperor Constantine XI, heir of a line that goes all the way back to Augustus, determined to defend what remains of the once great empire no matter what the cost. You have Sultan Mehmed II, young, ambitious, brilliant, and determined to make his name in history by capturing the fabled city. You have the legendary Genoese soldier Giovanni Giustiniani, commander of the land wall, fighting gallantly in defense of Constantinople. You have the enigmatic Scotsman John Grant, military engineer extraordinaire, who could have only arrived in Constantinople after countless adventures the nature of which we can only guess at. You have the ruthless Ottoman commander Zagan Pasha, who showed no mercy to the Christians. You have the Ottoman Grand Vizier Halil Pasha, who constantly counseled caution to Mehmed and may have been playing both sides.
This is a story crying out to be made into a dramatic mini-series.
3. The Indian Mutiny of 1857
This story is utterly fascinating and enthralling and involves so many issues with which we are still dealing in the early 21st Century. Not even a decade after the end of the Sikh Wars solidified British control over the Indian Subcontinent, a significant portion of the British Indian Army revolted against its colonial masters. Because the soldiers were known as "sepoys" the conflict became known as the Sepoy Mutiny.
The setting could scarcely be more exotic or fascinating. India is perhaps the most ethnically, religiously, and linguistically diverse country in the world, with Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, and others not very harmoniously living together. Into this cultural mix, the British had come crashing a hundred years before. The Indian Mutiny of 1857 represented the greatest threat to the British Empire in India before its actual independence was achieved in 1947.
It's a story of terror and massacre, as both sides inflicted horrific atrocities upon the other. It's also a story filled with dramatic battles and sieges, narrow escapes, and astounding characters. You have the desperate British assault on the walls of Delhi in September, the men knowing full well that the British Empire in India would collapse if they failed and that their own deaths were also virtually certain. You have the Relief of Lucknow, a story so astonishing that one can scarcely believe it really happened.
For characters, you have Bahadur Shah II, dignified yet aging and uncertain, the last of the line of great Mughal Emperors stretching back to Babur in the early 16th Century. You have the brutal yet courageous British soldier and spymaster William Hodson, hero or villain depending on how one chooses to look at him. You have John Nicholson, British political agent and soldier without fear, whose forceful personality was such that a religious cult built around his memory persisted along the Afghan-Pakistani border into the 1980s. You have Rani of Jhansi, the warrior queen who courageously defied the British until the end. As with the other historical episodes we've discussed, the cast of characters in this drama is more extraordinary than the most imaginative creations of any novelist or screenwriter.
4. The Second Punic War
This conflict was the national epic of the Roman Republic and Roman Empire. It you took the American Revolution, the Civil War, and America's involvement with the Second World War and wrapped them all together, it would mean to America what the Second Punic War meant to the ancient Romans. And for good reason. It was a conflict of epic proportions.
There is drama aplenty here. The famous crossing of the Alps by Hannibal's army. The Battle of Lake Trasimene, the most successful ambush in military history. The Battle of Cannae, still regarding as the classic example of a double envelopment and battle of annihilation, bar none. The defeat and death of Hannibal's brother Hasdrubal at the Battle of the Metaurus, and the hurling of his head into Hannibal's camp by the Roman cavalry. The epic achievements of Scipio Africanus in Spain and his final defeat of Hannibal at the Battle of Zama.
Hannibal himself is a character screaming out to be put onto the big screen in a major way. He was one of history's great captains and most fascinating personalities, sworn by his father to destroy Rome in a terrifying religious ceremony when he was a little boy. Scipio Africanus was no less of a genius and their meeting at Zama was one of the few times in military history that two genuine military geniuses confronted one another on the same battlefield. You also have the careful, cautious and unperturable Roman leader Fabius Maximus, known as the "Delayer", who gave his name to the military strategy of avoiding battle and seeking to wear your enemy down through attrition and the denial of supplies.
HBO already took the story of the collapse of the Roman Republic in the late 1st Century BC and turned it into a magnificent mini-series. The Second Punic War is rich with potential for a similar epic.
5. Isaac Newton vs. Robert Hooke
This story would not feature epic military engagements, yet it would be no less dramatic if done correctly. Isaac Newton was the greatest scientist who ever lived and, aside from Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammed, the most influential human being of all time. All educated people have heard the story of the falling apple and how it inspired the thinking in his ferociously brilliant mind that eventually led to be development of the universal laws of gravitation. He also is formulated calculus, invented the reflecting telescope, and discovered the underlying laws of optics. Despite his undoubted genius, Newton was not an attractive personality. He was vengeful and vindictive, obsessively secretive, seemingly driven by forces and governed by concerns unknown to ordinary mortals.
Newton's great adversary was a man named Robert Hooke. Today, he is largely unknown, yet he was a giant in his time. A Renaissance Man in the truest sense, he comes across to us as England's answer to Leonardo da Vinci. He was an architect, surveyor, inventor, pioneering paleontologist, and scientist of great renown in his age. Hooke should be known as one of the great figures of the Scientific Revolution. Instead, he wallows in historical oblivion.
Perhaps the primary reason for his obscurity is Isaac Newton. The hatred between Newton and Hooke was ferocious and fiery. Newton accused Hooke of falsely claiming credit for his discoveries; Hooke accused Newton of doing the same thing. Each tried to turn the members of the Royal Society against the other. Their rivalry hovered above the English scientific community of the late 17th Century like threatening storm, which erupted into ferocious storms on more than one occasion. In the end, Newton won their personal war and tried to systematically excise Hooke from the Royal Society. To date, no portrait of Hooke has ever been found and rumors have persisted over the centuries that Newton had them destroyed.
In addition to Newton and Hooke themselves, either of whom is a more interesting character than ever graced the pages of a work of fiction, such a mini-series as this would feature other great men of the Scientific Revolution. Men like Edmund Halley, the astronomer whose name now graces the most famous comet in the Solar System. Or Christopher Wren, the greatest architect of the day and builder of St. Paul's Cathedral. Or Christiaan Huygens, the brilliant Dutch astronomer and inventor who influenced and was influenced by both Newton and Hooke. The great political philosopher John Locke, one of Newton's few genuine friends, might walk on for a cameo. Giants walked the Earth in those days.
A story of scientific discovery, flawed human beings, and fervent hatred, the rivalry between Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke would make for an outstanding television drama.
Any of these five historical episodes would make an outstanding cable mini-series and they're only the first five that popped into my head as I sat down at my desk to write this blog entry. If I really put my mind to it, I'm sure I could come up with dozens more. I'm even more sure that there are countless other historical episodes which would make great televisions dramas of which I am totally unaware.
Get to work, cable networks.