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"How do you sum up the life of a man in only four hours?"
"A lot better than you can in just two."

No doubt that if Samuel Clemens (otherwise referred to as Mark Twain) was to be asked this question in his own lifetime, I'm sure he would have answered it as above. Much has been heralded about this writer of simple words in which he encompasses such depth of wisdom and character, with a wit that is both humorous and sadly reflective of our own failings as human beings.

The story of Mark Twain is a true journey of discovery that should please both newcomers and avid Twain'ers alike about this talented American scribe. His life's story is thoroughly supplemented with many interviews from historians etc. For the sake of those who knew just as much as I did (i.e. nothing) about how Samuel Clemens lived his life, I will only transcribe the promotional blurb on this DVD.

He was considered, in his time, to be the funniest man on Earth. A popular humorist, philosopher and social satirist, Mark Twain was the well-known nom-de-plume of writer Samuel Clemens, the USA's first literary celebrity. Tracing Twain's rise from his humble birth in Missouri to his prosperous life in Connecticut as the nation's best-selling author, Mark Twain reveals a compelling portrait of the father of American literature.

Mark Twain
Nearly three years in the making and drawing from 63 hours of material, thousands of archival photographs and nearly 20 interviews with top writers and Twain scholars, Mark Twain is the story of an extraordinary life - one full of rollicking adventure, stupendous success and crushing defeat, hilarious comedy and unbearable tragedy. Told primarily through the words of Twain himself and narrated by Keith David (the voice of Jazz), viewers of all ages will be personally introduced to this compelling yet contradictory genius.

This American PBS Television production seeks to address the many facets of his life that affected his subsequent writings. His most famous books, Tom Sawyer and The Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn, have become almost as revered as Shakespeare's works. Both of these writers, though, saw the need to write in the common tongue of the day, mainly to appeal to the broadest cross-section of society. But behind Twain's alluring text was a desire to break down the walls of bigotry and intolerance.

If I had to compare Samuel Clemens to our own 20th Century derivative, I would begrudgingly nominate Billy Connolly as his equal. I say this with the utmost respect to both men since each of these "artists" had originated from the poorest of working class backgrounds. Similarly, their rise to fame inevitably led them to the trappings of wealth in which they were accused of ignoring their origins. Both are recognised the world over for their unique, if not honest view of the most confounding subject in the world; the human condition (with women coming in at an extremely close second on the ladder). Their observations on life also made them mega-celebrities in the public eye and sought after for their opinions on world events. Although they have not shared exactly the same tragedies in life, both have endured hardships that would have sent lesser men to an early grave; instead they proved to the world that when faced with overwhelming adversity, laughter indeed is the best medicine.

And as could be quoted by Billy Connolly: "To die poor is bad enough, to die poor whilst being famous is a fate worse than death". Even though Mark Twain died a wealthy man, there were many ill-fated turns within his personal life that made his material riches trifling. Mark Twain was as human as they come with fortune and failure, but he still took every opportunity to celebrate his triumphs and failings, which ultimately reflects on our own excesses and shortcomings in our quest to survive and empathise.

Mark Twain
The documentary is a fascinating insight and summary of what drove this most revered author to do what he did within his lifetime. The four one-hour long episodes on offer may seem like a marathon of information, however the deliberately minimalist exhibition of what is said works in its favour by allowing you to absorb more than you realise you are taking in. The slow-paced nature of its production makes it feel almost as though you are reading a book about the man, which actually contains much hidden sub-text within the passages being read aloud by Mark Twain himself (well, his voice-actor anyway). His life experiences have included, amongst other things, newspaper production, soldiering in a civil war that he had no belief in as well as becoming a well-paid Steamboat Captain. However it's the lives of those around him, particularly the African slaves he grew up with, that influenced him to portray them as actual human beings rather than the savages that White Man has painted them as. Indeed, he paints a damning picture of how White Man may indeed be the savage himself who imposes their own beliefs and rules onto another already developed culture.

Since I never knew two things to rub together about this remarkably flawed master of the scroll, I only wish that a similar production may be made about our own mythologised and much-confused legend of Australia, Ned Kelly. Speaking of which, I just saw two movies regarding this so-named Aussie hero - the more recent one starring Heath Ledger and a much older film helmed by none other than Mick Jagger of Rolling Stones fame (truly, he did this way back in 1970) - neither of these movies do the man justice.
Presented in its original 1.33:1 ratio, the image is more than acceptable, which was filmed and edited the old fashioned way with a traditional splicing system. However I believe that this PAL rendering is actually from an NTSC video source, which results in another generation loss for the picture. Despite this, the image remains as sharp and clear as is possible from the source material, although there is sometimes a noticeable amount of telecine wobble present because of the antiquated editing methods.

There are various sources of imagery involved with this lovingly crafted documentary, but for the most part we are treated to archival photographs of Samuel Clemens' life and work around him. These are almost always sepia in tone with many scratches and tears inherent in these now-ancient snapshots of the past, which are quite often panned across with the director's camera. We are also treated to recent colour filmings of his old house and other places of interest from Mark Twain's existence, such as the nicely rendered (colour) shots of the Mississippi River.

Mark Twain
Film artefacts are to be expected since all the negatives were to be handled by the editors, but they are too few and far between to be of any concern. Grain is remarkably absent with only the occasional recognition of its presence from some slightly troublesome MPEG encoding, but again the overall impact of these flaws is negligible. Black levels are as deep as each shot will allow without letting any unnecessary shadow detail to be lost in the process. In short, you won't miss out on anything important.

There is no DTS 6.1-EX soundtrack on offer, so this plain ol' vanilla Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo mix will just have to do. You can't get any more basic than this soundtrack with the dialogue easily interpretable along with the music and limited environmental sounds playing their parts with minimal ease.

The only supplemental material is found on disc two, which comprises of only two featurettes. Apparently (and illogically), our R4 package has these extras whereas the original R1 product does not.

The first is A Conversation With Ken Burns (7 mins) that delves into his experiences and attitudes whilst making this patiently produced documentary. The other is Making Of Mark Twain (20 mins) where the creation process is explained in more detail from the research and compilation of information and images, the rather quaint film-editing procedures and the final sound mixing to bring it all together.

Mark Twain
Even though Mark Twain was an American author, he still holds a place in the history of Western society for his contributions to literature in general. Not only do his unique written stylings symbolise the expressions and attitudes that Americans are so familiar with, it is also a literal mirror to those who have taken much for granted in his country if not in any other occupied land in the world. The last of these four episodes is indeed a sad view of not only the tragedies that befell Samuel Clemens, but how he provided a sobering view to all human beings of their inhumanity towards each other. Truly, his writings are just as relevant today as they were when black slavery was still rife in the late 19th century.

Although the price for this DVD set is much more than what you normally pay for one movie on two discs, the Mark Twain DVDs are truly of benefit to those who would like to learn (or teach) about his history rather than having to plod through an entire auto-biographical encyclopaedia. And as far as any direct correlation between Australia and Samuel Clemens is concerned, he actually went on a world lecture circuit tour that also included two stop-overs in Australian cities - so at least this is proof that America must have started to realise where kangaroos and koalas may have come from over a century ago.