Once Upon a Time…Man

Age Levels targeted:

Once upon a time…Man is better known by its original French title Il était une fois… l’homme. An animated series, it was produced by Albert Barillé.in 1978 and is without a doubt one of the most thorough and engaging reviews of western history I have ever seen. I say this speaking as someone who believes very strongly that kids knowledge of their national history ought to be further rounded out by a broader knowledge of world history. While the fact that the show is presented in an animated form to better engage children’s interest might cause one to be dismissive at first, the content is anything but abridged as the series methodically traces the history of western civilization from its earliest eastern origins through its expansion westward. It is thereby not only completely suitable for adults but even recommended.
Admittedly there does appear to be a strong Eurocentric focus (this is French made after all) to the series but without a bias in favor of any specific country (which is impressive considering that the show was produced long before the existence of the EU which might be presumed to have influence in such a show produced today. Moreover, despite the considerable amount of time spent on Europe there is a great deal of attention paid elsewhere as well when showing the shows roots and to be fair much of the development of Western civilization, both positive and negative did happen in Europe. The series doesn’t, as one might expect, end in our age but actually goes on to project what the future will likely be like based on present developments and trends and deals with such issues as ecological decimation, space travel, wars, and disappearing resources.
Overview of the show:
The show’s two minute opening segment is backed by a rendition of the Toccata and Fugue in D minor by J.S. Bach. The segment’s finale, the earth’s destruction is timed to coincide with the Tocata’s striking ending.

The show then proceeds to cover a broad spectrum of events taking place around the globe in a temporally linear and geographically western direction. The events are shown through the point of view of a collection of characters who appear repeatedly throughout the series, taking on relevantly archetypal roles in different times and places. This achieves two things. Firstly it allows us to get to know the characters throughout the series, even if on some level they’re also meant to be different people living at a different time. Secondly it enables the creators to suggest that even as things change in the world in many basic ways they remain the same with the same types of people undergoing variations of the same types of experiences, trials and tribulations from one generation and geographic location to the next. The events portrayed are those that would later have proven to have had major effects on the world’s history. The events are covered on a year by year basis, thereby promoting a broad understanding of what the world was like at this time and what social, political, religious, scientific and other event shaping currents were affecting the world at any given time.

The series covers the various events from a highly objective point of view. It takes into account both scientific and religious developments without making a judgment in favor of either side. Beginning with the Big Bang, we’re taken through the scientifically posited stages of evolution, and prehistoric times, on through the early days of civilizations with its religious beliefs, rituals and figures. Although there were countries that had problems with the shows representations (primarily those where the church was strong and took exception to both evolution and the depictions of the church in the Middle Ages) both evolution and religion are handled sensitively throughout. Muhammad, for example, is always portrayed from behind out of respect for the Islamic belief that it is sacrilegious to draw pictures of him. Evolution is presented as part of the historical matrix without dwelling on its scientific basis while the religious events are also handled from a purely historical point of view. Events such as the birth of Jesus and Muhammad’s ascension in the Arab world being looked at from the point of view of how those events affected geopolitical events and not in terms of Xmas celebrations or final prophets. The series then moves westward and onward until finally it is looking into the future and forecasting mankind’s fate as time marches on.

The Main Characters
As mentioned in the overview (above), Once Upon a Time… Man features a set collection of archetypal characters that repeat their existences in different places and settings throughout time. This technique is common to History series, and we can see a similar use of it in the humorous educational series Histeria!, which I plan on discussing in another piece, the idea presumably being that every age has its archetypal figures that assume the same or similar relationship towards the events being portrayed. The main figures in Once Upon a Time… Man are:
• Maestro – He is portrayed as a elderly wise man with a beard so long he frequently hides objects in it or takes objects out from it. He has long white hair that almost completely covers him. He generally holds a position of power or influence without being the main power holder (after all these are meant to be archetypal figures of centrality but the actuial positions of power were held in every age by real recorded historical figures). He generally serves in a religious, royal court or other political position.

He is also often to be found in a teaching role, instructing the young in a variety of subjects.
• Le Gros (Jumbo) – Jumbo is a strong redheaded young fellow whose best friend is Peter (see below). A hulk of a person, with tremendous strength, albeit a bit on the clumsy side, Jumbo frequently is called upon to help defend Peter and Pierrette from the evildoers in the community.
• Pierre (Peter) – Peter is a good looking and brave fellow, the archetype of the good person.
• Young Jumbo and Young Peter – the characters mentioned above occasionally have younger versions of themselves that appear at times in the series in order to follow typical maturation process of a person of the era being dealt with as we see them grow from children to teens. Young Jumbo and Pierrot are cousins and young Jumbo is his cousin’s guardian against bullies.
• Nabot (The Dwarf) – Nabot, the dwarf with the evil little laugh, is ‘The Pest’s friend and fellow bully. He is weaker than The Pest but more intelligent and calculating. One can count on the two of them to ignite an argument among the kids.
• Le Teigneux (The Pest) – ‘The Dwarf”s friend, this big powerful bully always likes to attack and pick on others. Luckily, he is offset by Jumbo who is stronger than he is and provides a counterforce to his behavior. The Pest and the Dwarf always fill the roles of negative archetypal characters. At their best they’re provocateurs, naysayers or duplicitous. At their worst they portray the killers, plotters, treasonous louts or other similarly degenerate character types that have existed throughout history.
• Psi – Dark haired Psi is the archetypal nice, kind young girl. She generally fills the role of her male counterpart Peter’s girlfriend or wife.
• Pierrette – Blonde Pierrette is an archetypal nice, kind young woman. She is generally cast in the role of Jumbo’s wife or Peter’s mother.
• The Clock – The Clock appears to show the years as the events unfold. Generally it’s just a clock but at time it takes on anthropomorphic tendencies and adapts itself, taking an interest in the events being shown or expressing annoyance if too great a gap appears in the historical narrative.
In addition to the repeating characters, every generation has its actual major historical characters that are key players on the world scene for that generation. Sometimes the characters above play those figures, such as young Peter and Pest facing off as David and Goliath. At other times these historical figures have their own individual characters and appear only in their historical context.
What Your child can learn from the show:
Obviously the main thing your kids (and you) will learn from this show is history; specifically the history of Western civilization. In addition to this however, one also learns some geography simply as a result of seeing which countries are arguing over what borders. On the social side the use of a repeating cast of archetypal characters in each period makes the show a useful tool for parents to show how different people react to the same situation as well as how the same person reacts in different situations and to consider how times and circumstances affect people’s behavior.

Site review:
Once Upon a Time… Man is wonderful in that it lets you actually see history as it unfolds. Think of those “this year in review” type shows that news stations now routinely do at the end of December and then (while albeit shrinking the number of events you might see for a given year) expand that to include all of Western history from its early roots in the east to its expansion westward to Europe and the Americas.

Another impressive feature of this show, is its objective approach to history. Rather than taking a moral stand, as many historians are wont to do when reviewing events, the show carefully attempts to steer clear of judgment. Every set of countries, cultures and ethnicities display a set of prejudices and fears, and are motivated by goals and desires that are shown to be not that different from those of their (often constantly changing) enemies and friends. Rather than attempting to create some sort of polarized view of Western history the creators offer us a holistic view of the various periods and allow us to see the positive and negative inherent in the various events.

My kids review:
My kids have constantly watched and rewatched this series ever since their mother got it for them. This was actually a series that she had grown up with and that I was unfamiliar with until she brought home the DVDs. While this is a rare occurrence with us I was thrilled that thanks to her I discovered it at all. Once Upon a Time… Man wasn’t well known in the US (perhaps because of the Eurocentricism) and so I missed out on it in my youth. My older son who’s very into anything to do with history (and even if only for what it has given him I’m planning a review of Little House on the Prairie for this site somewhere down the road) especially took to it and made sure we got all the DVDs available. All the older kids especially liked the group of archetypal characters and discuss them in different situations amongst themselves, laughing at the amusing parts and saying things like “you remember when the big good guy did such and such.”


My son was so taken by the history series, that he naturally gravitated towards the medical series Once Upon a Time…Life put out by the same people in the same style. Instead of going to soccer or basketball camp, my little jock has been begging all year to go to “young doctors camp” this summer. When a talented athletic third grader begs to spend his summer doing things like dissecting pig’s hearts and lungs (yes they really did that among other things) you know that something’s made a strong impression on him. Clearly the producers of these series know how to capture a child’s imagination.

Similar shows
Once upon a time… life, Liberty’s Kids, This is America, Charlie Brown, Histeria!, Schoolhouse Rock