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Egon Endrenyi, Starz
"Pillars of the Earth" is filled with bloody battle scenes.

If you decide to watch "Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth," you've really got to sit down and watch it.

This four-part, eight-hour miniseries is not something you can sort of watch while you're doing something else. It's too big, too broad, too full of too many characters, too many plots and too much politics.

If you don't pay attention, you'll be totally confused.

Which would be unfortunate, because — with a little bit of effort on your part — "The Pillars of the Earth" is pretty good viewing. It's the sort of expansive miniseries that we never see on network television anymore. And rarely see elsewhere.

The pay channel Starz has acquired this $40 million, Canadian-German co-production executive produced by Tony and Ridley Scott. It was shot on location in Austria and Hungary and features some big-name actors, an award-winning director (Sergio Mimica-Gezzan), big-time production values and a cast of hundreds, if not thousands.

And dozens of them have speaking parts.

It's based on Follett's best-selling novel, which was itself loosely based on history. Very loosely.

It's a 12th-century adventure built around the Anarchy — a bloody, decades-long struggle between the daughter of King Henry I, Maude (Alison Pill), and her cousin, Stephen (Tony Curran), for the English throne. The war was precipitated by the death of Henry I's son in a shipwreck — a historical fact.

But Follett postulated that the shipwreck was sabotage, setting the stage for this story.

Royalty plays a major part in the narrative, but it really revolves around a few lesser folks. Most notable is Tom Builder (Rufus Sewell), who undertakes the building of a cathedral for Prior Philip (Matthew Macfadyen) in the fictional town of Kingsbridge.

Philip is a sincere man of God, but lurking behind the intrigue and skullduggery is Bishop Waleran (Ian McShane), who clearly is not.

Tom's adventures lead him to Ellen (Natalia Worner), a renegade nun/witch, and her mysterious son, Jack (Eddie Redmayne).

And mixed into all of this is the good Earl of Shiring (Donald Sutherland), who tries to do what's right and suffers for it. His children, Aliena (Hayley Atwell) and Richard (Sam Claflin), will spend years trying to reclaim what is theirs.

The first hour or so is rather tough on viewers. There's so much going on and so many characters to keep straight that it certainly isn't easy.

But as it settles in, "The Pillars of the Earth" reaches out and grabs you.

Yes, it's been condensed from the novel. You've got to expect that — the novel is 1,000 pages long.

While it's not a history text, it's plausible as a romantic adventure. Which is what counts.

4 comments on this story

And this is not a show for the entire family. Twelfth-century England was not an easy place to live, and parts of this production are just brutal. Not only are there bloody battles, but there are violent murders, torture and the occasional sex and nudity.

("The Pillars of the Earth" is rated TV-MA, the TV equivalent of an R-rated movie.)

If you watch…

What: "Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth"

When: The first two hours debut Friday at 11 p.m.; hours three through seven air on successive Fridays at 11 p.m.; the two-hour finale airs Friday, Aug. 27 at 11 p.m. (with multiple repeats of each installment)

Channel: Starz

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com