Television isn't known for its history lessons, but occasionally it can offer up a tasty popcorn drama starring history's great icons - and if some sense of a historical period lingers, that's gravy, so to speak.
This is the spirit in which USA Network's four-hour epic on one of the baddest guys the Western world ever faced, "Attila the Hun" (Jan. 30 and 31, 9-11 p.m.), should be taken.
Filmed in Lithuania on a 65-day schedule (akin to a feature film), with more than 4,000 horses and 10,000 extras, the lavish production aspires to a sort of historical accuracy through sheer excess of period detail.
A tony cast of British, South African, and American actors swathed in evocative costumes stalk through one elaborate set after another, muttering in high dudgeon about the fate of the Western world.
Just watching the costume changes is worth the time if nothing else interests you about this imaginary tale of how the West was saved - and came to speak Latin-based languages, not Asian.
According to the script, loosely based on the few known historical facts about Attila from the 4th century, the dramatic turning point of Western civilization came when Attila emerged from the marauding Hun people as a great leader, interested in more than merely pillaging his neighbor's huts.
A Roman general, Flavius Aetius, obsessed with extending what history would record as the final years of Rome's great empire, recognized that the barbarian aspired to the same world domination that Rome had enjoyed for many centuries. The mini- series revolves around the dramatic face-off between these two men, with a detour or two for romance and palace intrigue.
A few of the more engaging plots, such as who won and how Attila died, turn out to have significant foundation in recorded fact. History records that the Battle of Chalons, where Attila and Aetius have their final showdown, ends in a draw that weakens both sides so significantly that, had Attila not died of causes unrelated to the battlefield, it is possible that Western civilization could have taken an entirely different course.
Documented facts show that Attila died on a wedding night (he had numerous wives). Whether he was poisoned by his young bride, as the miniseries depicts, or the victim of his own drunken excesses, as the history books say, is up to the viewer to decide.
"History was written by his enemies," says series author Robert Cochran. "You have to filter it through that."
The show is really about the details that make up a good story - high-stakes conflict, romance, and intrigue. And of course, cool costumes and lots of horseback riding over the exotically lush Lithuanian landscape.
"I'm portraying one of the most famous and one of the most barbaric - written about as barbaric - men in history," says Scottish actor Gerard Butler of his role as Attila. "I thought I was very funny," he says with a laugh about his approach to the part. "It's the kind of thing you can certainly have tried to be [barbaric] and have a lot of fun doing it."
For the most part, though, the production takes itself seriously enough - and succeeds enough in its intent - that the viewer can laugh with, and not at, this "Attila."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society