The life and death of the great ruler, scholar, and astronomer Ulugh Beg is an especially compelling tale of a driven scientist who helped form the modern world as we know it by uncovering mysteries well-ahead of his time.
Mirza Muhammad Taraghay bin Shahrukh, known more commonly as Ulugh Beg, was born in 1394 in the Timurid Empire, which was ruled by his grandfather. (This territory includes present-day Uzbekistan and much of Central Asia.) A unique life was his for the taking from the get-go – his grandfather was already a legend, and Ulugh himself became a sovereign ruler at the age of 18. But the young man was not content to merely govern – in fact he even risked his spot on the throne for his passion: a love of the stars. In addition to leading a kingdom, he also began a university (known as a madrasa) in his hometown, and he was the first known person to draw up a star catalogue based solely on what was available to the naked eye. (This document would later survive Beg’s untimely death, thanks to a quick-thinking student of his.)
His biggest achievements came from the sky he loved so much, including creating an observatory (two centuries before Galileo invented the telescope), and also correctly calculating the tilt of the Earth’s axis. He was a skilled mathematician as well, contributing heavily to trigonometry, which rolled over into his ability to create architecture. (I have a Master’s degree in Psychology, and I am feeling extremely lazy compared to Ulugh right about now!)
Interestingly, he also studied his horoscope – which may have been his only downfall, as readings predicted a violent end to his life. Unfortunately, his sign was not wrong – Beg was not a popular ruler and, after several heated fights with one of his sons, he was beheaded by an assassin (who was hired by said son).
Ulugh’s legacy was largely forgotten – his name only invoked by the most scholarly minds. But executive producers Lola Karimova-Tillyaeva and Timur Tillyaeva are aiming to change that with this compact documentary. (The offering is a mix of information, interviews with various professors and scientists, as well as reenactments of Beg’s life. The runtime is lean, coming in at approximately 40 minutes.) They also enlisted a heavy-hitter friend to help with P.R. – none other than Buzz Aldrin! (As you know, Aldrin and his mission commander, Neil Armstrong, were the first two humans to land on the Moon. Buzz believes in Ulugh’s message and, though he does not appear in the film, he does endorse it).
The short is obviously a labor of love in order to share the amazing knowledge Beg amassed in his lifetime. Thus far it has been awarded the Kineo Prize for Best Foreign Documentary at the 74th Venice International Film Festival, and is scheduled for future screenings at a number of other festivals. It is currently streaming on Amazon and is available for Prime members.
CGI is not cheap and it’s clear a fair amount of the budget went towards recreating the battle scenes, as well as securing the acting talents of Armand Assante (Gotti, American Gangster) as Beg and Vincent Cassel (Black Swan, Oceans 12 & 13, Shrek) as the narrator. Unfortunately, the CGI is part of the problem – the reenactments are on the cheesy side and they detract from the overall feel of the documentary. That said, there is no denying that Ulugh Beg was a man far, far beyond his time and his story deserves to be told. In this current climate of fudged facts and fake news, a person of this caliber who dedicated his life to the pursuit (and sharing) of hard-earned knowledge is more than welcome.
You know you have 40 minutes to spare, so put your AmazonPrime™ account to good use and learn about a life well-lived.
The Man Who Unlocked the Universe (2018) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for every battle scene.
Take a Drink: every time there’s an interview with an Ivy League professor.
Take a Drink: the mere presence of Vincent Cassel, a legend in his own time as well.
Do a Shot: for Beg’s duplicitous, murderous son. Damn, dude – that was harsh!