Continent-hopping overview of 1,000 years

If you already know that the groundbreaking technology used in the ill-fated Titanic was actually pioneered by wooden Chinese junks built in the15th century, then you can skip the first segment of the fifth episode of CNN's ambitious new 10-hour series "Millennium." But that's about all you should miss, because unless you are an avid student of every inch of the globe's history of the past 1,000 years, there will be something new to whet your intellectual fancy in this continent-hopping overview.

Coming on the heels of its whopping cold war program this past season, "Millennium" is Ted Turner's latest brain child. The series airs on consecutive Sundays, 10-11 p.m., Oct. 10-Dec. 12.

"While we were doing 'The Cold War,' even before we finished, Ted [Turner] had another big idea, which was 'let's tell the history of the last 1,000 years,' " says Pat Mitchell, president of CNN Productions and co-executive producer.

Ms. Mitchell laughs when she recalls that Mr. Turner was not ruffled by the obvious obstacles to creating a video record of the nine centuries preceding the development of photography. "He would not be deterred by the fact that for 900 of those years, there were no visual materials or eyewitnesses."

The series is remarkable not only for the sheer diversity of the stories it recounts, but also for its scant reliance on the usual standbys of paintings and historical documents that pepper even the best of most documentaries. The technique favored by the producers, led by Sir Jeremy Isaacs (best known for his award-winning "World at War" series), is real-life footage, newsreels, and reenactments.

For instance, instead of describing the marketplace of the 13th-century Mongols, we see a mesmeric line of camels and merchants wending its way across a vast desert and into a bustling marketplace teeming with life and commerce.

Many scenes begin with modern-day footage of countries like Turkey, Japan, India, and Italy, before segueing into either a full-scale historical recreation of an earlier era, such as the Mongol hordes pouring across the Asian steppes. Or, sometimes, as with the depiction of 12th-century Siena, they intersperse historical figures with modern-day life.

This last technique is playful yet effective. To see elaborately dressed courtiers from 800 years ago trotting on horseback alongside 20th-century shoppers on an Italian street is to understand that, underneath the clothing, people from different moments in time may not be all that different.

The series also uses computer re-creations to fabulous effect. One moment, a lone man stands amid the ruins of another time. Suddenly, thanks to the genius of today's computer simulations, he is transported to the splendor of the Calif's palace in Cordoba.

The team traveled more than 100,000 miles to 28 different countries to recount the most compelling stories. "How many of us know that in the 11th century, of all the great cities of Islam, the greatest was Cordoba in the south of Spain?" asks Sir Isaacs. "How many know that in the 12th century, Christians in Ethiopia carved churches out of solid rock?"

From the whirling dervishes - shown in their modern-day trances - nearly unchanged for hundreds of years to the Rus- sian fur collections to the fascinating discussion of Aboriginal dreamtime sand paintings, "Millennium" weaves the story of the past 1,000 years in just the right amounts of grand sweep and intimate close-up. Across continents and centuries, it concludes in the present with an eyeful, an earful, and just the right handful of information to enable us to feel at least aware of the past thousand years before we begin the next.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.