Saturday Matinee: Ancient Black Ops (UK, TV, 2014)

Here’s a recommendation from the Blogbrother that, after watching one episode, we’re bouncing to you: Ancient Black Ops, a British series that reaches worldwide for experts and conducts some grimly low-budget reenactments in order to get across the latest thinking on elite forces of the distant past.

It’s been available on several TV channels in the UK, and here in the States is visible on Netflix or on Dailymotion.com. It only ran for one season (2014) and is not available on DVD.

ABA - Spartan Phalanx

Series 1, Episode 2 dealt with familiar ground — the Greek defense at Thermopylae. Several tiers of ancient Greek elite forces were involved. First, you could argue that the Spartans themselves were an elite — the only standing army maintained by a Greek city-state. Second, Leonidas could not get authority to march the whole army (in Sparta’s unique political arrangement, he was only a co-king). So he took only the troops he could mobilize himself: his own bodyguard, the famous 300. Finally, within these two elites was another, smaller elite called the krypteia.

Acting and Production

ABA - Spartan HelmetThe actors in the reenactment segments seem to be more from the reenactor end of the pool, than from the professional actor end. To be sure, they are not asked to deliver Shakespearean dialogue or rise to particular thespian challenges; they’re perfectly good for what they must do.

The experts, on the other hand, are on the top of their craft. Series 01 Episode 02 relied heavily on the most interesting and readable scholar on ancient Greek military tactics, weapons and operational art, Australia’s Christopher Matthew, author of A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite in ActionBeyond the Gates of Fire: New Perspectives on the Battle of Thermopylae (co-written with Matthew Trundel), a new, annotated edition of Aelian’s Tactica for the first time in five centuries, and the forthcoming An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic Pike Phalanx in Action. Matthew not only commands the sources, he actually strapped on armor and helmet, and took up shield and spear, and drilled until he knew the phalanx like no historian before him. In other words, on the Spartan phalanx, the producers didn’t just go get a guy; they got the guy.

The other experts are equally informative. British officer cadets were drilled in basic phalanx skills by   ________ Nolan, a soft-spoken, confident Briton identified as a weapons expert, and two modern veterans — SAS  and SEAL Don Mann, himself author of many books including SEAL Team Six (and still visibly fit long after retirement; good for him) tie the elite force of the past to the ethos of today’s special operations forces.

What the production doesn’t have is Hollywood money. They do the best with what they have, but the pitiful few extras they can muster make for a rather short phalanx, which they get around by framing shots in tight close-up of a hoplite or two, and they seem to reuse snippets of tape multiple times.

At least they resisted the siren’s call of cheap, bad CGI. Perhaps if the show had been a success, they’d have had a bigger budget for following seasons; but it looks like the ten episodes kicking around Netflix and the net are all you’ve got. Sorry ’bout that.

Accuracy and Weapons

If you really want to know about the panoply of the Spartan citizen-at-arms, you really need to read Matthew, who draws on such disparate sources as found weapons from graves and battle sites, depictions of weapons in contemporary art, and descriptions of weapons and their use in contemporary literature. On-screen, the Bronze Age warriors may have gleaming steel swords and armor — good-looking, but anachronistic.

There are also a few forays down the garden path that starts, “What might have happened is…”, including an attack on the Persian king, Xerxes, by the krypteia. But the show is kept from going too far off the track by the presence of Matthew and Nolan, who know what was practice and what is practically possible.

The bottom line

We enjoyed the show a great deal and plan to watch the rest of the episodes soon.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film. (As you’ll see, we found — or the Blogbro did — a pretty obscure series, this time.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (none):
  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3905852/

  • IMFDB page (none)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (none)
  • Wikipedia  page: (none)

 

3 thoughts on “Saturday Matinee: Ancient Black Ops (UK, TV, 2014)

  1. Red

    Sounds pretty interesting, I’ll have to add it to the list.

    It seems you’ve imbedded the links and video for The Mountain Road instead.

  2. Dave

    Saw this on Netflix last night and started the Spartans episode, but I couldn’t watch for more than a minute or so. Low production value content (which seems to make up the lion’s share of the Netflix library these days) is so hard to watch when I can pick up a good book or watch some football.

    So when I saw the title of this post I figured it wouldn’t be a glowing review. I’ll give it another shot.

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