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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

'The West' Is Stunning History of a Magnificent, Bloody Land

September 13, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It appears that the manifest destiny of PBS is to be the nation's unofficial historian.

Where else on television, at least, are there so many historical documentaries covering the country's evolution, so many big-budget, thick, glossy slabs resembling posh picture books on coffee tables?

The newest of these is "The West," at 12 1/2 hours and spread-eagled across eight evenings, something of a nomadic, serpentine, far-traveling documentary of no return, yet mostly stunning from scene to shining scene.

The topography here is breathtaking, chunks of its history ugly.

We see mountains and mountain men, black hills and tepees silhouetted against orange skies, wild mustangs rumbling across the great plains.

We hear of friars and other Christian missionaries driven to deliver local American Indians from their "savage darkness." Hear of a seeming footnote called the Alamo where opposing forces converge as part of the ultimate formation of Texas. Hear of the 1849 California gold rush swelling San Francisco from a village of 2,000 to a bloated 35,000 in just one year. Hear how this discovery of gold, or "speck of the future," as historian J.S. Holliday calls it, was the catalyst for driving down California's Native American population 80% in just two decades. Hear of the Cherokees' calamitous "trail of tears" when forced westward from their traditional lands in the east despite complying with their vanquishers by converting to Christianity and trying to adopt white ways.

"The Cherokees are probably the most tragic instance of what could have succeeded in American Indian policy and didn't," historian Richard White says here. "They do everything you ask but one thing." And that one thing is what they can't change. "Ultimately they're Indian," White explains, "and in the end being Indian is what kills them."

Just where objective and subjective truths intersect in this five-years-in-the-making, prodigious effort is for historians to say. When it comes to spinning a great story and dusting off the past to make it accessible and alluring, though, producer-director Stephen Ives succeeds magnificently, delivering a lush work at once fully documented and fully entertaining in the now-familiar style of his famed collaborator and mentor, Ken Burns ("The Civil War," "Baseball"), who is executive producer here but not the hands-on filmmaker.

*

As you might suspect, this is not the dime-novel account. Part historian, part impresario, Burns has practically bronzed the documentary formula for bringing forth a lavish show from reliable scholarship, and Ives effectively adopts the same technique and tools: haunting original and vintage music . . . high-quality antique photos . . . gorgeous new footage . . . lively overviews from experts . . . celebrity voices persuasively speaking the words of diarists whose stories are enlisted as metaphors for a larger population . . . and a smartly written, superbly read narration (by Peter Coyote in this case).

All of this is fused seamlessly into something suitable for framing. Some may differ on interpretation, but no one could ask for better television--despite one minor quibble, the occasional use of footage of relatively contemporary American Indians to illustrate events taking place centuries ago. Otherwise, everything in this rewarding odyssey plays flawlessly.

The western United States is the region of choice among some PBS documentarians these days. Ives was preceded across this fruited plain by "The Way West," a 1995 six-parter from Ric Burns (Ken's brother), and "In Search of the Oregon Trail," last April's three-hour journey from Michael Farrell. And the area has also seen a number of non-PBS documentaries that trace the development of the Old West, a region so vast and diverse, yet our vision of it often so narrow. Well, no wonder, given a steady pounding through the years of pop culture depicting Native Americans, for example, as either irreversibly savage or inhumanly wise and noble until contaminated by white culture.

It's untrue that, before the arrival of whites, "the world here was perfect, that people lived in a paradise in which they were the most elegant, the most moral, the most elevated of all humanity," Native American archeologist Jo Allyn Archambault says in Part 1. "We were human beings, and we lived in our own societies, and we did things that all human beings do. And some of it was elevated and marvelous and admirable, and some of it was pretty horrible."

*

"The West" wastes no time in examining the rich panoramic spread of cultures that endured in this region for generations prior to the arrival of Europeans and the nationalities of the whites--they range from somewhat benevolent explorers to murderous, gold-seeking, pillaging conquerors--who encountered these Native Americans en route to their various agenda.

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