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This documentary covers the history of the American West from the Native American tribes to their encounter with Europeans and how the Europeans conquered them and settled the land. In telling this story, the film takes into the account to both the viewpoints of Indians and other minorities to balance the white populations history. Written by
Kenneth Chisholm <email@example.com>
I'm sorry, but I have to bitch. Writer Terry Tempest Williams says in the last part of this huge series on the subject of the romanticized version given of the west in Hollywood westerns: "One of the dangers of looking at the American West - our past - is to paint everything in black and white" - and another scholar seconds this: "The true complexity of what was going on in the west has almost never been the subject of film in Hollywood". These statements, however, end 537 minutes of a documentary that insists on showing everything in black and white, or red and white, rather, and although the program faithfully records facts - on occasion - it keeps concluding that the west was peopled at the expense of a peace-loving red people who lived much purer, much nobler, than the white settlers who inundated America and stole the red man's land.
All the scholars quoted and interviewed seem to lament the settling of the west, since it ruined so much more than it built, and everyone seems to agree that the Native Americans have been treated harshly in Hollywood. Had this series been from the early sixties, they would have been right, but all through the 70s and on we have been subjected to idealized portrayals of Indians in films like "Little Big Man", "Soldier Blue" and "Dances with Wolves" - haven't they been to the movies since that? Millions of dollars have been spent to atone for the old Hollywood redskins, and in forgetting this fact, "The West" indulges in America's favorite pastime: flagellation, self-reproach. It joins the chorus of penitent sinners: Please forgive us for introducing democracy to the modern world, please forgive us for putting an end to two world wars, for fighting communist regimes that cost the lives of seventy million people, and so on.
If we keep seeing the West as another fall of man, the devastation of another Eden, we overlook the fact that people are rotten wherever. That the Indians spent a thousand years in various tribal wars, and that they were eventually beaten by other people who were better at that game. We also overlook the fact that the British before the American revolution actually paid Indian tribes to butcher peaceful white settlers , and that the Indians continued to do so, unpaid and willingly, because only vast expanses of land could support their lifestyle, while over-crowded Europe could no longer support its own. Thousands of poor Europeans who came over in modest search of a small plot of land perished at Indian hands.
Another group of glorified victims are the Mexicans, who got the raw end of the deal from the Texans. The series readily forgets, and never mentions, that these poor people were descendants of conquistadors, who butchered Aztecs, Mayas and Incas wholesale. As all the scholars agree: there can only be one villain: the white man. Does this ring a bell from the happy hippie days of the sixties? "The true complexities of the west", indeed!
This series is beautiful, truly, and the wonderful photo and film footage is breathtaking and catches the essence of the romantic west. It's too bad, really, that the material is only used to cement a romanticized, mock-documentary rehash of ideas that should have disappeared decades ago.
I bought the series because I believed Ken Burns made it. It turned out he's only the producer. For real documentary, I can recommend Burns' Civil War or his documentary on Mark Twain.
PS! Although it may be in poor style, I'd like to correct my Australian co-commentator Nospheratu (above): I'm not jingoistic, and if I should be waving any flag, it would not be the Stars & Stripes, since I'm not American either. I just hope that Americans will soon stop wallowing in guilt and bad conscience in endless series of apologetic documentaries, that's all. For a more balanced view on the Indian wars, I can recommend the documentary "The Great Indian Wars." A tacky, but historically far more objective production.
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