Posted: 08/04/2009


The Shape of the World


by Jef Burnham

Now available in a 3-disc DVD set from Athena.

Film Monthly Home
Wayne Case
Steve Anderson
The Rant
Short Takes (Archived)
Small Screen Monthly
Behind the Scenes
New on DVD
The Indies
Film Noir
Coming Soon
Now Playing
Books on Film
What's Hot at the Movies This Week
Interviews TV

Patrick Stewart narrates this ambitious 6-part documentary series seen on PBS in 1991. The Shape of the World traces the history of mapmaking from the earliest mapping of tribal territories to the 20th Century, when mapmaking technology progressed from strapping cameras to pigeons to the satellite imaging of today.

The series opens on a tribe of people whose religious ceremonies culminate in the unveiling of an ancient parchment map of their ancestors’ territory, setting the stage for a series that is just as much about the effects of maps on mankind as it is the history of maps. One rarely considers the sacrifices made for man to have been able to map the globe; and it is an intriguingly complex story of misconception, death and espionage that resulted in the globes in our children’s classrooms.

One of the most interesting and surprising stories in The Shape of the World is that of Eratosthenes, who, in the 3rd Century B.C., using a pole, a well and some sheep, determined the circumference of the Earth within 200 miles of the measurement we know to be true today. Yet Christendom would later maintain that the world was flat.

The final episode focuses on modern technologies (circa 1990) and shows how maps might be used to for the benefit or detriment of man and the world. Using the techniques revolutionized by John Snow in the 19th Century to quell a cholera outbreak, epidemiologists in the Bronx, track the spread of AIDS, while maps of the Amazon have been used by businessmen to strip the land of minerals and leave the once lush land of the rainforests infertile.

The series’ greatest flaw is that Stewart’s narration about historical events is often accompanied on screen by incongruent modern scenes, making it hard to keep dates straight. For instance, in one episode, Stewart is relating the arrest of a person some 300-500 years ago, and we see a police car race down a cobblestone street, sirens blaring.

Special features are sparse, including “The Chartbusters,” a series of text write-ups on various pioneers of the industry; a text interview with Patrick Stewart; and textual biographies of Stewart and the series’ editor, Simon Berthorn. As interesting as the interview with Stewart is, I would have preferred a video interview as a DVD special feature. The set’s best extra is a 17-page booklet featuring highlights from each episode, questions to consider, a suggested reading list, descriptions of the tools of the mapmaking trade, a bit of a math lesson describing how mapmakers used triangles to map large areas, and a couple pages on fabled creatures and kingdoms that appeared on old maps.

Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of

Got a problem? E-mail us at