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Teddy Roosevelt Documentary's Rough Ride To Abc


Here is the story of Harrison and Marilyn Engle's seven-year itch.

In 1979, Engle decided to make a documentary about Theodore Roosevelt, the nation's 26th President. It took almost three years to get it funded, a little more than a year to get it made, another two years to secure a national TV outlet, almost another year to get it on the air.

And now, finally, happily, thank goodness, "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt" arrives at 7 p.m. Sunday on ABC (Channels 3, 7, 10 and 42), sweeping into your home the way the roughest of the Rough Riders swept up San Juan Hill.

The two-hour program is a stunner on two levels.

For one thing, it marks a rare network acquisition of a full-length documentary from an outside source. The persistent Engle, best known for his film tributes to honorary Academy Award winners on Oscar telecasts, and his wife, Marilyn, are independent producers. So bully for ABC.

For another thing, this affectionate, scintillating lesson in history and humanity is something of a video curio. It's a robust, big stick of a program in an era when the rich prose of long-form documentaries is being supplanted by the shorthand of electronic magazines.

Beyond all that, though, "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt" is simply TV's equivalent of a great read and shouldn't be missed. It's the product of inspired direction by Harrison Engle, an eloquent script by Theodore Strauss and remarkably modernized old footage (interwoven with John Philip Sousa's music) that narrows the gap between today and yesteryear.

You feel Roosevelt's energy and spirit almost as if he were in the room with you, partially because many of his issues--women's rights, conservation, Latin America and physical fitness--are today's issues.

There is the action-adventurist Roosevelt and the politician ascending to the White House through the fatal shooting of President William McKinley in 1901. And there is also the more human, lower-profile Roosevelt, a tribute to Engle's intense desire to strip back the militarist caricature and reveal a less public side of one of America's most storied Presidents.

Engle has no talking heads, no Spanish-American War veterans or Rooseveltians clogging the program with dim recollections. He does use actors to re-create some scenes. They are clearly identifiable and speak no dialogue, however, merely serving to plug video gaps where no newsreel record of Roosevelt exists.

This is not docudrama. Engle's label is "dramatic documentary."

It's the old footage that is most dramatic, though, with Engle employing rarely used techniques to provide a more contemporary, slower look and eliminate the blotchy, jerky, twitchy quality of old footage where everyone appears to walk like a mincing Charlie Chaplin.

This makes everything on the screen visually accessible, creating unusual textures for an historical documentary. The background joins the foreground. You can see the whites of eyes. A man in a crowd suddenly stares at the camera. A reporter on a train looks through his window. News photographers rush ahead of the President to get better angles, just as they do today. A child twirls his cap.

"We're seeing this in T.R.'s time, but, I mean, that could be my child," Marilyn Engle said this week in the Engles' West Hollywood home. "That's real. That's history."

"For once, we're not looking down on the past and devaluing it," Harrison Engle said.

"You would open some of those old cans of film and the middle of it would be powder," his wife said. "Some of that film had shrunken so badly, it hadn't been on a machine in decades. We had film from 1898, trying to thread it on new equipment."

Why Roosevelt?

In 1979, the Engles happened to be looking at some newsreel footage of Roosevelt campaigning in the 1912 presidential election and were struck by the quality of the man and the film. Harrison, a film archivist himself, discovered there was much more film of Roosevelt buried in archives, and the Engles were off.

"It seemed appropriate . . . the nation was ripe for rediscovery in 1979," he said. "The country was looking to express its patriotic feeling."

If the nation was ready for Roosevelt, TV financiers weren't. The lives of most struggling independent producers are punctuated by endless closed doors, and it wasn't until late 1981 that the Engles found a source with money.

The video wing of the Gannett communications conglomerate said yes immediately, Engle recalled, agreeing even to his conditions that the program run longer than an hour and have a narrator speaking off camera. There would be no spectacled, grinning celebrity dressed as a Rough Rider. Gannett also didn't flinch when the program's original $200,000 budget had to be expanded to accommodate the fee of George C. Scott as the off-camera narrator.

Production was completed in 14 months. So far, so good.

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