When Alexander the Great set out to conquer the known world some 2,300 years ago, he did more than simply fight his way across Asia, southern Europe and northern Africa. He introduced civilizations to one another, opening the door for trade - both commercial and cultural - between regions that barely acknowledged one another's existence.
Michael Wood is no Alexander, and he's not looking to conquer anyone, but his BBC- and Maryland Public Television-produced TV series, "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great," does much the same. The four-part series (airing Monday and Tuesday, 9 p.m.-11 p.m., on MPT, channels 22 and 67) takes viewers into such little-seen (by Westerners, at least) areas of the world as Iran, northern Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I hope [viewers] take away from this series ... the thrill of the journey to these fascinating places," Wood, 49, says over the phone from his London
office. "Even though our goal is Alexander the Great, in the process you see things about Iran, for instance, that you've never seen on TV."
Wood, an Oxford-educated scholar and former journalist, is an old hand at historical documentaries. His other works include "Legacy," a history of the world as seen through its dominant civilizations; "In Search of the Trojan War"; "In Search of the Dark Ages"; and "Shakespeare in Perspective."
This time, Wood says, he wanted to concentrate less on the history of Alexander and more on the incredible journey that, over 10 years, took the legendary Macedonian and his armies across more than 22,000 miles of nearly impenetrable mountain ranges, vast deserts and open seas.
"Alexander was ready-made for TV, it seemed to me. It's a great story. ... It's one of the greatest journeys on Earth, and he's one of history's most enigmatic figures. It's a simple format, one that should work very well for TV."
"Footsteps" introduces us to Alexander as a youngster. Placed on the throne at age 19, after his father's murder, Alexander quickly decided on a mission: to exact revenge upon the hated Persians, who had invaded and devastated Greece 150 years earlier. In 334 B.C., he set out to repay the favor.
Within three years, Alexander had defeated the Persian army, under Darius. Soon, Darius would be removed from power and killed. Alexander's victory seemed complete, but he wasn't satisfied. Instead of heading home and taking his exhausted troops with him, he went after the man who had killed Darius and declared himself king.
Over the next six years, Alexander's quest for power would take him through Afghanistan, the southern reaches of the former Soviet Union, Pakistan and India. Alexander died on June 10, 323 B.C. He was 32 and ruler of most of the known world.
Wood spent the better part of two years, from summer 1995 to summer 1997, retracing Alexander's journey. Using cars, donkeys, camels, helicopters, boats, Land Rovers and plenty of shoe leather, he and his crew contended with the sorts of obstacles a warrior like Alexander would have appreciated.
Filming in Iraq was limited to the northern part of the country, where rebel forces are battling Saddam Hussein's army. In Afghanistan, where civil war still rages, Wood and his crew had to improvise as they went along, dealing with local warlords.
What emerges from "In the Footsteps of Alexander the Great" is not simply a portrait of the man and his incredible feats, but also a reminder that history is written by the victors and clouded by their perceptions.
What does Wood think? Was Alexander saint or sinner?
"I think that being in his company, when you were on his side and swept along with [events], could be incredibly exhilarating. He could be charming, charismatic, utterly exciting. ...
"But he could also be unpredictable, malevolent, frightening. I think the legend is probably true that he got more tyrannical as he got more and more absolute in his power. Absolute power corrupted him absolutely, in the end."
Pub Date: 5/03/98