Cable programs chart some new territory

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National Geographic Explorer: Man-eaters of Kumaon WTBS/cable, Sunday, 8-10 p.m.; repeated Dec.1 and 6. Stars: Frederick Treves amd Anna Cropper. Writers: John Elliott and Martin Booth. Director: Alex Kirby. Producer: Peter Jones. A BBC-TV production in association with Homespun Pictures Ltd. and the National Geographic Society. Sword of Gideon HBO/pay cable, tomorrow, 8-10:30 p.m.; repeated Dec. 2, 7, 11, 16, and 19. Stars: Steven Bauer, Michael York, Rod Steiger, Colleen Dewhurst, Lino Ventura. Writer: Chris Bryant. Director: Michael Anderson. Producer: Robert Lantos. As commercial network television clings desperately to traditional programming formats, cable seems at last to be acting upon its longstanding mandate to find new directions.

An example last week: Showtime, a pay cable service reaching close to six million households in the United States, aired a two-part imaginary trial - ``On Trial: Lee Harvey Oswald'' - complete with judge, jury, and prosecutor.

The on-camera jury found Oswald guilty of assassinating John F. Kennedy, but 85 percent of the home viewers who joined an electronic jury by phoning in their verdicts (at a cost of 50 cents per call) ruled not guilty.

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Is this an indication of the distortion inherent in TV coverage or of the benefit of impartial observation from a home environment, or is it simply an indication that key evidence was missed by home viewers making periodic visits to kitchen or bathroom? It'll take some scientific research in the future to come to a definite conclusion.

Now, this weekend two cable channels strike out in new directions:

WTBS airs National Geographic's first attempt at a dramatized wildlife program - ``Man-eaters of Kumaon.''

And HBO presents a fictionalized, action-packed drama based on a purportedly factual book, depicting how Israel might have tracked down and punished the terrorists responsible for the massacre of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

Both programs reach out for truth utilizing the genre that used to be called ``docudrama.'' Docudrama, however, came into disrepute in many circles because it blurred the lines between fact and fiction. Today the preferred term is ``fact-based drama.''

Based upon Jim Corbett's book of the same name, ``Man-eaters'' uses mostly his own words and the words of his sister to document his growth from indiscriminate hunter of wild game in colonial India to wildlife conservationist.

Mr. Corbett, who describes himself in the drama as ``an old codger who is married to India,'' reveals his ambivalence about the man-eating tigers that plagued India during his days. He admires the beast and believes that ``if he is exterminated ... India will be the poorer by having lost the finest of her fauna.'' But he is also sympathetic to the villagers whose daily lives are endangered by the marauding man-eaters.

Corbett eventually resolves the ambivalence by deciding to kill only man-eaters, while at the same time campaigning for the protection of India's tigers.

This first National Geographic fact-based drama, presented as part of the fine family weekly documentary magazine, ``National Geographic Explorer,'' intersperses old archival footage of tiger hunts amidst its own glorious footage of Indian landscapes.

If the film seems a bit weak in the area of human drama, it may be because Corbett's life was devoted mostly to tigresses rather than their human counterparts.

It is to the film's credit that there has been little attempt to make it phoney. The film benefits from its low-key authenticity. ``Man-eaters'' is high in adventure, literate in style.

``Sword of Gideon,'' based on the book ``Vengeance,'' by George Jonas, is a fact-based blend of reality and fantasy that results in a slam-bang, no-holds-barred action-adventure.

The story, concerns a top-secret Israeli anti-terrorist unit formed to avenge the death of the Israeli athletes killed at the Munich Olympics.

How much is fact and how much is fiction is left for the viewer to decide, as was the case with the book on which this ``fictionalization'' is based.

Two things are certain: Most of the culprits involved in the original assault in Munich have died. And, although portions of the film were shot in Israel, there was no attempt on the part of the government to prevent the story from being told.

Steven Bauer portrays a young Israeli who joins the group but then has second thoughts about the morality of what he is doing.

It is a complex role that Mr. Bauer manages to play with a marvelous kind of macho delicacy.

Perhaps the most impressive acting in the show, however, comes in the scene where Golda Meir - as played with determined stength and utter believability by an unrecognizable Colleen Dewhurst - explains the mission.

But ``Gideon'' is not merely a mindless adventure film. It poses important questions: Is an anti-terrorist who kills without a trial less a terrorist than his target? Is vengeance an adequate response to barbarism?

As one of the anti-terrorists puts it: ``An eye for an eye? The whole world will soon be blind.'' The film explores the complexity of heroes who may also be viewed as villains.

``Gideon'' is a physically violent film, full of exploding bombs and quiet murders.

But perhaps it does most violence to any simplistic opinions that may lurk in the minds of those who watch it.

Can the world find ``a civilized response to acts of wanton savagery?'' the film asks in the end.

``Gideon'' doesn't have an easy answer, but it may prompt viewers to think more about what would really make for a solution.

Arthur Unger is the Monitor's television critic.

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