DVD Picks & Passes 08.10.2008

A History of Britain (2000)- Pick

Witness (1985)- Pick

Recently released in a new DVD edition, A History of Britain is a sprawling, engrossing tour of British history in the best tradition of the BBC and the History Channel, with celebrated historian Simon Schama as tour guide.

With 15 one-hour episodes plus bonus features, Schama has a chance to cover the terrain in some depth. Even so, it’s a whirlwind tour from Stone Age Britain to Winston Churchill, with single episodes devoted to subjects like the Black Death and the English Reformation.

Like the best tour guides, Schama aims to entertain as much as inform. He doesn’t just point out the sights and recite the history, but makes the tour into a story, dramatically evoking personalities and conflicts of the past and vividly creating a picture of life in past centuries.

Also, as with the best tour guides, Schama’s rendition should be taken for what it is: one version of the story, with a particular focus and spin, and peppered with occasional dubious or inaccurate statements.

On Catholic-Protestant history, Schama’s sympathies run both ways. When it comes to the story of Elizabeth and Mary of Scots, Schama’s sympathies are clearly with Elizabeth. On the other hand, Schama acknowledges the reality of anti-Catholic paranoia and persecutions in Protestant England.

The episode on the Reformation ends with a shot of the narrator climbing out of a priest hole, illustrating the persecution of the underground Church. The historic and cultural cost of Protestant iconoclasm is dramatized in a startling computer-aided sequence in which the bare white walls of a church in Long Melford are “restored” to their Catholic beauty.

Do you love the ’80s? Do you love ’80s movies? If so, you may want to avoid Paramount’s cheesy “I Love the 80’s” DVD marketing gimmick, which slaps a neon-colored frame onto the covers of movies that deserve better presentation.

Case in point: Peter Weir’s Witness, newly released in a two-disc “80’s” version, also available in a not-so-special one-disc “special collector’s edition.”

The film is indeed one of the high points of 1980s American cinema, with Harrison Ford at his best as Philadelphia detective John Book, who becomes involved in the lives of an Amish boy (Lukas Haas) and his widowed mother Rachel (Kelly McGillis) after the boy witnesses a murder in a train station.

A compelling thriller, a smoldering love story, a thoughtful study in comparative cultures, and a respectful exploration of religious community and nonviolence, Witness is a tour de force. So why does a film this good rate only a one-disc “special collector’s edition” and a crass promotional edition?

Content advisory A History of Britain: Frank treatment of violent and disturbing historical episodes (e.g., the Battle of Hastings, the Black Death, the execution of Mary of Scots) and discussion of adult themes (e.g., Henry VIII’s sins). Teens and up. Witness: Some deadly graphic violence; brief nudity and a sexual reference; some objectionable language. Mature viewing.