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Focus : Westward, Ho! : NEW DOCUMENTARY, 'THE WILD WEST,' FOLLOWS SUCCESSFUL BLUEPRINT USED FOR 'THE CIVIL WAR'

March 21, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The Old West has spawned so many legends and myths, the truth has often been lost in the shuffle. A new 10-hour documentary, "The Wild West," attempts to tell how the West was really won.

"The Wild West" premieres Monday on the commercial Prime Time Entertainment Network, a conglomerate of independent TV stations, including KCOP, around the country that are owned by Chris-Craft Industries.

Like "The Civil War," Ken Burns' acclaimed 1990 PBS documentary series, "The Wild West" features vintage photographs from the period, excerpts from diaries and letters read by well-known actors, interviews with historians and music from the era. Jack Lemmon is the narrator.

Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which is distributing the series, says the success of "The Civil War" and ABC's recent four-hour documentary "Lincoln " proved that the public can find documentaries appealing.

"There's a recipe for success by taking the actual words people wrote during that period of time, and then re-creating them through the voices of famous actors over original photographs," Robertson says. "What that does, it connects you in an emotional way to this history, rather than being sort of preached to and lectured to. It is regular everyday people and the lives that they lived."

Putting together the documentary series was a vast undertaking for its producers. Given a timetable of 14 months in which to complete the project, executive producer Doug Netter ("The Sacketts") and producer John Copland decided to narrow their focus to the 30-year period after the Civil War. Because they were novices in the documentary field, they brought in co-producer Jamie Smith, a 15-year veteran.

"Assisting Jamie were four full-time researchers," Netter says. "We divided all the museums and historical societies into four sections. We simultaneously put in a new visual data base which could receive photographs in the data base and catalogue them. There are over 12,000 photographs in that data base."

More than 3,500 photographs were used in the documentary, which is divided into such topics as "Cowboys," "Settlers," "Gunfighters," "Indians" and "Soldiers."

" 'The Civil War' used 1,200 images for all of their 10 hours," Copland says. "They repeated a lot of images. Soldiers look like soldiers, but in dealing with 30 years of history, we knew we were going to be a lot broader."

In order to personalize the stories, Netter says, "we tried to access as many of the letters, diaries, anything of the written word, that we could find so we could attempt in every instance to personalize the story."

Netter didn't want to take the romance out the West: "I love all of those John Wayne movies. But at the same time, we tried to separate fact from fiction."

More than 400 historical societies and museums were involved in "The Wild West." Netter says the production had no problem getting cooperation, despite the fact that Ken Burns is making his own PBS documentary on the West. Burns announced his project a few months after "Wild West" went into production.

"We were there first," Smith says. "We were doing the bulk of the work ahead of him. We were kind of the big gorilla."

In order to expedite the project, subjects were assigned to teams of writers and producers. "Our staff came from a wide background, but a lot of them came from news," Smith says. "They knew how to work fairly, accurately and quickly. We didn't have the luxury of time."

Besides the short production schedule, the filmmakers were confronted with a creative challenge. "This series was going out to a commercial audience, not necessarily an audience who is familiar with a lot of documentaries," Smith says. "I think as producers, to hold true to our material and be authentic and be accurate and tell the best possible stories in the most entertaining fashion, it was always kind of a challenge. That was tough because docs are easy to do in a dry fashion."

Oscar-winner Jack Lemmon was Netter's first choice to narrate the series. The two had worked together on "How to Murder Your Wife" and "The April Fools."

"He is such a fine actor," Netter says. "Also so American, so smart. I felt he could give an interpretation of the narration that we might not get from anyone else. He is a real student of American history. He would read the scripts thoroughly. He always gave his interpretation."

Because the series is being telecast on commercial stations, the producers knew they had to keep the attention of the audience every hour or run the chance of losing viewers to other programming. So they decided to interweave various themes, such as the roles of women and ethnic groups, throughout every hour. "Among all the threads, we tried to do the common human experience of life, death and the struggle to survive," Copland says. "We tried to make each act compelling and intriguing to people."

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