The other day, I was absent from school and I needed something for the sub to keep my classes occupied. Fortunately, I was about to start my unit on the Punic Wars and there is a movie available on Hannibal Barca. It is free on You Tube. Netflix is the greatest development as far as my blog is concerned, but second to it is You Tube. I have gone to You Tube to watch war movies that are not available on Netflix. For instance, last week I was able to finally watch “Alatriste”. Not only is You Tube great for watching obscure war movies, but it is the go-to site for documentaries. “Hannibal: Rome’s Worst Nightmare” is a combination of those. It was produced by the BBC in 2006. What sets it apart from your typical war movie or your typical documentary is it is a hybrid. It covers Hannibal’s career by way of acting it out. The cast includes some recognizable actors. Since it is admirably accurate, this makes it perfect for a Western Civilizations class that is about to cover the Second Punic War. Especially on a Friday when the teacher is out.
The movie opens with the famous moment where Hamilcar Barca has the young Hannibal swear never to be a friend to Rome. A narrator sets the theme by previewing that history will turn on a single decision that Hannibal will make later. The movie jumps about twenty years and Hannibal (Alexander Siddig) is now commander of the Carthaginian army in Spain. He meets with a Roman named Varro who tells him to lay off of Saguntum, a city in Hispania that is allied to Rome. Hannibal is uncowed and lays siege to the city, thus provoking war with Rome. Fabius Maximus (Ben Cross) leads a delegation to Carthage and gives the Carthaginian government the choice of turning over Hannibal or going to war. Carthage chooses war. On a table map, Hannibal shocks his subordinates with his proposal of crossing the Alps to invade Italy. The pros and cons are discussed, but Hannibal is set on the strategy. He says goodbye to his Spanish wife Imilce and sends her to Carthage for safety. Hannibal begins his famous campaign by heading for the Alps with an army that includes war elephants. It’s on to glory and an answer to the question: what single decision by Hannibal will change the course of history?
“Hannibal: Rome’s Worst Nightmare” is a near perfect docudrama if you are looking for a biography of the greatest general in history. It is as accurate as you could want. It does simplify events, but that fits the format well. You get the basics of his life and the greatest hits of his story. These include his swearing to his father, cracking the boulders blocking his army’s path in the Alps, having the prisoners fight, sparing Fabius’ estate, the Senators’ rings being emptied before the Carthaginian government, Hasdrubal’s head, the meeting with Scipio, etc. It’s an amazing life full of priceless anecdotes. The movie does his life justice while being informative and entertaining.
What makes the movie wonderful for a high school setting is the fact that Hannibal’s life is acted out by a competent cast. Alexander Siddig (“Game of Thrones” fans know him as Doran Martell) is excellent as Hannibal. Ben Cross is strong as the cautious Fabius. Shaun Dingwall does a good job as Scipio Africanus. The movie makes the logical decision to give Scipio his own arc. He goes from a young man who saves his father’s life in battle to a man who can stare down Hannibal before the Battle of Zama. Another key character is Hannibal’s cavalry commander Maharbal (Emilio Doorgasingh). The movie lays it on a bit thick by having him question every decision Hannibal makes. He is a whiner, but he does get to set the theme by questioning Hannibal’s decision to wimp out after the Battle of Cannae. While the movie acts out the biography without the intrusion of talking heads, it does use a narrator effectively to fill in historical details. Plus Siddig provides a voiceover so we get into Hannibal’s head. Maps are used to give some geographical framing. Given the nature of a made-for-TV production, the armies are small with limited use of CGI. The battles are basically melees and do not stand out. The showpiece is Cannae. The movie intercuts between the fighting and Hannibal outlining his strategy to his staff. The combat is fairly graphic, but simplistic. As usual the Roman reenactors do not use their pila, but you get the gist of the battle and a cool overhead CGI shot of a plain covered with bodies as the aftermath.
I’m not sure if I could justify using an entire class period to show a movie about Hannibal, but this movie was ideal for a day when I was absent. It is entertaining and informative, which is the most you can ask for. I doubt my students would stay awake for an hour and half documentary on anyone, even someone as fascinating as Hannibal Barca. I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants to know the basics of Hannibal’s career. Thank you You Tube for providing it for free.
GRADE = A
HISTORICAL ACCURACY: Most historians believe that the young Hannibal swore never to be a friend to Rome, so that was a good place to start the narrative. I don’t think Varro met with Hannibal before Saguntum, but the Roman government did warn him not to attack their ally. The movie does not make it clear that Saguntum was south of the Ebro, which meant it was in Carthage’s sphere of influence. The siege is dispensed with quickly, but it was actually a slog. We don’t know much about Imilce, but she was apparently a Spanish woman that he married for political purposes. Historians do think he sent her to Carthage. The crossing of the Alps is much too simplistic. There is no reference to trouble with the hostile natives. The hardships are downplayed. For some reason, the cracking of the boulders is done with wine, instead of vinegar, but that is a small quibble. The reluctance of the Gauls to join and their subsequent support is accurate. Scipio did rescue his father’s life, but this was not in a forest ambush, it happened at the Battle of Ticinus. The Battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene are only alluded to as ass-whippings, but that is accurate. The movie shows Hannibal loing sight in one eye, but does not explain why. In actuality, he led a march through a marsh and caught an eye disease. After Lake Trasimene, Rome did appoint Fabius Maximus as dictator and the movie does a fair job of outlining his strategy of avoiding battle. However, the movie insists on making him something of a villain and does not do justice to the success of his delaying tactics. The reference to Hannibal sparing his estate to sow dissension toward Fabius is accurate. The movie does do a good job of portraying how the Romans chafed at Fabius’ lack of aggression. Varro is a good representative of this mentality. The Battle of Cannae is well done although it would have needed a movie to itself. Maharbal’s questioning of Hannibal’s decision not to advance on Rome agrees with most historians, but the movie’s decision to have Hannibal claim that his reason is that the war is already over is not realistic. Hannibal may have been wrong about not at least attempting the attack, but his decision was most likely due to the exhaustion of his army and his lack of siege engines. (Most historians do not believe he could have taken Rome, so the central theme is flawed.) Fabius did return to power after Cannae, but the movie once again downplays his strategy’s frustration of Hannibal. Mago did return to Carthage with a bushel of rings and the government led by Hanno the Great did refuse to reward success and instead sent Mago to Spain. Scipio did go to Spain and capture New Carthage, although the movie does not show any details, sadly. The Romans did intercept a message from Hasdrubal to his brother Hannibal, but it does not even mention the Battle of Metaurus, where Hasdrubal was defeated and killed. The head-throwing incident was a nice way of implying the result of the battle. The movie does a fair job of showing the opposition of Fabius to Scipio’s proposed invasion of North Africa. The leadup to the Battle of Zama is a highlight. The incident involving Hannibal’s spies being given a tour of Scipio’s camp is well-played and the movie follows that with the famous meeting between the two generals. While it is unclear what exactly they discussed, most historians agree that Hannibal tried to avoid the battle, but the confident Scipio shot that down. The movie is out on a limb by having Scipio hammer the movie’s theme by taunting Hannibal for not attacking Rome after Cannae. The battle is disappointing as the movie is running out of gas at this point. It is a much too complicated a battle to be done justice in five minutes. The elephant attack and Scipio’s response is accurate, but the nature of the infantry and cavalry engagements is too hazy. And Scipio was not the type of general to fight in the ranks. Hannibal’s death by self-induced poison is nicely handled.