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Unique, amazing, massive project thoroughly documenting the expansion of the United States into the vast territories of the American WEST. Brutally honest, sympathetic insight into the fall of the many Native American peoples... some of the material is painful, sometimes bleak, but an absolute MUST SEE for any feeling person with even a passing interest in the history of America. Outstanding photography and the classic Ken Burns look & feel (executive & senior producer), but with director Stephen Ives' own insightful point-of-view. This series ranks right along side Burns' "Civil War" in scope and depth, IMHO. See it anyway you can, then demand the set on DVD! (DVD not available at this writing).
Burns and Ives combine to produce a work that's very much up to Ken
Burns' standards. As a viewing experience, it's everything you'd
And then there's the content.
Much has been made about the supposed bias of Burns' presentation of the history of the west. A lot of time was spent on the way the US treated the indigenous populations, on the crimes of the US military, on the theft of lands, and the systematic attempts to eradicate native cultures. The loss of the age before white settlement is lamented.
Is this a balanced perspective? Maybe not, although I don't think it's as biased as other reviews would have you believe. The triumphs of the west are told as well as the losses. Not all whites are painted as evil, nor are all natives painted as innocent. Events are often just told as they happened, and the viewer is left to draw their own conclusions. A lot of the content doesn't concern native Americans at all.
More important that all of that, however, is that it's a story that needs telling. Americans have been indoctrinated with romantic fictions about the west for over a century. Giving Burns a chance to tell the other side of the story doesn't seem too much to ask. A few Hollywood movies that paint the indigenous people of America before westward expansion as noble savages - also a pleasant fiction, incidentally - does not make up for a century of bias, misinformation, and outright lies taught to American schoolchildren. What's worse is that for the most part, these fictions are still taught to American schoolchildren.
At nearly nine hours, The West is an experience that will take up several of your evenings, but it's nine hours that may change the way you think about American history.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Stephen Ives directs this mammoth undertaking of the history of the
West in America produced by Ken Burns. The film is mammoth in its
length, at over 12 hours, but, more importantly, it makes a
considerable effort to construct a balanced portrait of the West and
its inhabitants: Europeans as well as Native Americans, Blacks,
Mexicans, Chinese, etc. The film uses many actors and writers in voice
overs to tell its astonishing stories, some familiar and some not so
The series focuses on the many famous and not so famous individuals, who played a significant role in the development of the West in some way. Lewis and Clark, Kit Carson, Levi Strauss, Brigham Young, John Brown, William Quantrill, Mark Twain, Custer, Charles Goodnight, Black Kettle, Sitting Bull, Chief Joseph, Benjamin Singleton, Theodore Roosevelt, Frank Hamilton Cushing, William F. Cody, and Erskine Woods are just some of the many individuals touched upon that had some role in the gradual transformation of the West. Instead of just stories on each individual, Ives weaves in the many significant landmark events that the individuals either affected or took part in.
The film explores virtually every major event of the 19th Century that even remotely had anything to do with the West. The film highlights the Lewis and Clark expedition, wagon trains, the California Gold Rush, the founding of San Francisco, the Mormons, the Sand Creek Massacre, Custer's Last Stand, the Transcontinental Railroad, the great buffalo herds and their dramatic disappearance, the origins of cattle drives and their transformation of the western economy, European Immigration, the origins of cowboys and cow towns, the Freedom Trail/Thieves Road, Little Big Horn and the necessity of using the U.S. Cavalry for protecting settlements, the western migration of Blacks, the Great Oklahoma Land Rush, and Wounded Knee as well as the history of specific Native Americans, such as the Lakotas and the Nez Perce.
The film uses these individuals and events, as well as many others, to piece together a cohesive narrative that tells us a history that too few history books in schools contain. It is nothing less than the systematic assertion of one culture at the expense of others, specifically Native Americans. For instance, the population of Native Americans dropped from 150,000 to just 30,000 in 20 years from 1850-1870. By 1877, Indians were outnumbered by 40 to 1 in the West. Proportionally, the Indians lost over 100,000,000 acres of land to white settlers during this period. It illustrates how Native American genocide was directly proportional to American Government edicts, such as the Homestead Act and the Dawes Act, which denigrated Native American cultures, tribal ownership, and structure. This Act transformed many Native American communities into Americanized individuals. However, the film does not choose to present its views in a sentimental or even subjective manner, which makes its points about history and ultimately ourselves all the more poignant.
There are several incidents that the film uses that lead up to the Native American disappearance, including the ethnic strife already present among miners during the Gold Rush. The American cultural browbeating of Mormons, Blacks, Mexicans, and Chinese occurs simultaneously during the American development and expansion of the West. The vignettes about the Carlyle Indian Industrial School in Pennsylvania and Frank Hamilton Cushing's infiltration into the Zuni Indians of the Southwest as an anthropologist and ethnologist suggest just how complete our intent was in living above Native Americans rather than with them. This intent was based more on our cultural ignorance than on any hate.
Native Americans lived in community groups and we lived more as individuals, which is why it's no surprise that a mythic individual played more of a role in relegating Native Americans to second class status, however inadvertent, than any collective group of Americans, at least in popular culture and entertainment: William F. Cody. William F. Cody was Buffalo Bill, a shrewd businessman, who developed a touring wild west show to entertain the white American masses. The shows came complete with cowboy and Indian battles with the Americans always coming out on top. The film suggests that this is where the historical myth of whites being victimized by Indians originated, later carrying over to dime novels and movies. Likewise, William F. Cody reinvented himself in a role as Buffalo Bill and inhabited it, blurring myth and reality. Buffalo Bill becomes a metaphor for the U.S. Government's treatment of Native Americans, and coming at the end of the 19th Century, he's a metaphor for how America treated all other minority groups in its development of the West as well. Perhaps he's a metaphor for how we treat others even today.
The film concludes with a vignette called "The Gift" about Chief Joseph, still another powerful example of how we misunderstood Native American culture. The film informs us, moves us, and teaches us in ways few history books can. The voice-overs are very interesting and moving at times. The cinematography is breathtaking and the musical bridges are wonderful, some of them (I believe) are authentic Native American songs. This is a towering achievement on a grand scale, yet with much to say to individuals with conscience. It is history as it should be told, uncompromisingly painful but truthful. It should be required viewing in every high school classroom. **** of 4 stars.
* Note: Watch the silent film Tumbleweeds (1925) for one of the greatest action scenes of the silent era, the Oklahoma Land Rush scene.
This documentary directed by Steven Ives (not Ken Burns, as several of
the reviews in this thread inaccurately state) is a sweeping epic that
showcases the salient moments in the settlement of the American West.
Using historical documents, academic narratives, scenes of stunning
natural beauty, and original photos and documents, "The West" is a
gripping and historically accurate overview of this great (and, at
times, terrible) period in American history.
The reviews that complain that this series is somehow anti-American suffer from two flaws. The first is selection bias. Parts of "The West" feature cruelty and brutality, usually at the hands of white settlers. But to focus on this as the only distinguishing feature of the film ignores the numerous instances in which white people--e.g., Sam Houston, Brigham Young, Joseph Meek, just to take a few--are portrayed quite deservingly as heroes. Nor are all Native Americans portrayed in a positive light; the film also makes the point that the Lakota Sioux's claims to the Black Hills territory as their ancestral lands are somewhat ironic because the Lakota conquered the Kiowa and other tribes, driving them out of that area in conquests very similar to the Americans' accession of the West.
The second error is simple oversensitivity. The history of the West is both a great and terrible story. It's great because it epitomizes the expansive American spirit that binds us together as a nation. It's terrible because in acquiring the West, we (Americans, that is) more or less decimated an entire people. I think those who refer to this process as genocidal are wrong, but not by much. The history of the West is thus not a story of good or evil, but a story of both, and the film "The West" shows this dialectic unflinchingly. If you have too delicate a constitution to accept that brutality and suffering are the flip side of manifest destiny's glory, you should not watch this documentary. "The West" does not seek to spare anyone's feelings, but rather only to tell the truth about this period in all its great and awful reality.
In response to the ludicrous comments of the aforegoing jingoistic
'type': The writers of The West must have had more than a few facets of
their mammoth piece right in order to elicit such a typically moronic
right-wing-styled response in its appeal to nationalistic myth,
grand-narrative delusion and brazen stereotype positing. Not to mention
- the ironic circumstance of contending that 'we' as the Caucasiatic
race are being slighted in some way, in order to showcase the
romanticised moanings of other races. The series does no such thing...
in fact it habitually (and necessarily) DOES turn about much of the
essential Ameri-myths of Frontier and Manifest Destiny (and sundry
others), which have been/are so central to your much lauded and
generalised "natioanl consciousness". The series, in the main, does NOT
disparage these! - nor is there essentially any need to - since they're
not altogether bad, of course.
So, once you're finished waving your flag about, and - somewhat ironically - prattling on about the reductive "black and white", perhaps consider that an expansive narrative like The West MUST contain motifs and themes... it cannot present a comprehensive or 'complete' history (there is no such thing)... and is perfectly entitled to present perspectives that don't accord with someone-or-other's ideal of a 'balanced' account. 'Balance' is NO objective reality, and shouldn't be thought of as 'existing' as a universal truth awaiting insertion into subjectively-conceived narratives - not even quality history docos such as The West. As far as I could ascertain, The West does NOT prefigure or predetermine to depict white settlement as inherently disastrous in any event. It is celebrated as much or as far its nasty consequences are elucidated. And, the perspectives of native peoples OUGHT factor decisively anyway - it is no narrative flaw of The West to present this perspective... especially when facts abound to corroborate.
Also, to the aforementioned 'patriot' who seems fond of collectivising white America concerning all that overstated 'swell'stuff like "fighting communism" and "winning two World Wars" ... you're okay with maintaining the 'we' for all the OTHER stuff too, right?
The West does present narrative, production and continuity issues for me also, but I'm loathe to be allied to a K.P. such as thee.
There was a million and one things happening in the old west, and for 8 hours this documentary ignores all of them except the Mormons, Blacks,natives, and Asians. sure they had their role but come on... Lets not write history in terms of race because in so doing it is incredibly racist. I found the series mind numbingly biased presenting little facts, or background on what was going on in the new frontier. We need a documentary showing the old west, this is not the one to do it. I found events and story lines I was hoping for missing completely. Where was the 'Wild West?' The gunslingers, the train robbers? So many criminals not even mentioned. Butch Cassidey, Sundance Kid, Jesse James, Doc Holiday. That list could go on forever. Also the only focused on two Indians: Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph. How about Geronimo? Crazy Horse gets barely a mention. So many events just glossed over and the viewer is left with mostly boring stories. Donner party barely gets a mention also. Oil is never even mentioned!
This series could have been so much more. Instead it seemed like they
focused on the same story line (strife between settlers and native
Americans) and drug it out for 9 episodes. Sure that deserves a lot of
attention, but I found events and story lines I was hoping for missing
completely. Where was the 'Wild West?' The gunslingers, the train
robbers? So many criminals not even mentioned. Butch Cassidey, Sundance
Kid, Jesse James, Doc Holiday. That list could go on forever. Also the
only focused on two Indians: Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph. How about
Geronimo? Crazy Horse gets barely a mention. So many events just
glossed over and the viewer is left with mostly boring stories. Donner
party barely gets a mention also. Oil is never even mentioned!
I lost all interest after the railroad episode. Love letters? Mormons? I kept holding out for stories I wanted to hear about but soon realized we were into the 1880's and they passed over most of what I wanted to hear.
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.
I had looked forward to the series as coming from a master of the
documentary form. After all, Burns set in motion several documentary
devices that have been widely copied since, such as first-person
voice-over narration and having the narrator sign off each spoken part
with his or her name. The Civil War series was truly an achievement.
This thing, however--
It amounts to a chapters-long indictment of Europeans that verges on racism. It emerges after a while that the only good whites are dead whites. It's true that there was much brutality in white settlement of the west, and that horrible crimes were committed, usually unthinkingly, and many of them by whites. But is there really nothing more to the story than white-folks-bad/red-folks good? With a little effort, Ken Burns might have found, oh, I don't know, at least one good white person. Or, rather, one good white person who wasn't immediately tarred and feathered by his redneck fellows.
It's as if you were to tell the story of World War II and focus on nothing but the fact that the American armed forces were rigidly segregated at the time. Oh, wait, that one's probably Ken Burns' next.
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