Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery (1997)

TV Special  |   |  Documentary, Adventure, Biography
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The story of the most important American exploration expedition in American history and the participants in it.



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Credited cast:
John Logan Allen ...
Himself - Geographer
Stephen Ambrose ...
Himself - Historian (as Stephen E. Ambrose)
Gerard Baker ...
Himself - Mandan-Hidatsa
John Ordway (voice)
Tim Clark ...
Patrick Gass (voice)
Dayton Duncan ...
Himself - Writer
Erica Funkhouser ...
Herself - Writer
Murphy Guyer ...
William Clark (voice)
Ken Little Hawk ...
William Least Heat-Moon ...
Himself - Writer
Narrator (voice)
Joseph Whitehouse (voice)


This film documents the exploration expedition led by Meriwether Lewis William Clark into the interior of North America in the early 19th century. We follow the Corps of Discovery as they winded their way across the unknown territory gained in the Louisana Purchase by the United States in their futile search for the legendary Northwest Passage. Along the way, they discovered wonderous new things as they depended on the aid of Native Americans like their adept guide, Sacagawea, as they conducted the most important exploration mission in American history. Written by Kenneth Chisholm <kchishol@home.com>

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Release Date:

4 November 1997 (USA)  »

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1.33 : 1
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User Reviews

Lewis and Clark 101
24 January 2003 | by (Berkeley CA) – See all my reviews

If you have a love of history and the wilderness, and adhere to a certain code, the Lewis and Clark saga can get way under your skin. It certainly got under mine. In fact, it's still there although it doesn't itch quite as much as it once did. If you doubt me, watch writer/commenter Dayton Duncan fight back tears as he recounts Meriwether Lewis' heartbreaking demise in Ken Burns' PBS special on Lewis and Clark. The journey of the Corps of Discovery, as the expedition was entitled, occupies the emotional center of the history of the West in the same way that the Civil War occupies the specific history of the South. More than a few people now living would be tempted to sell their souls for the chance to jump back to 1804 and push off up the Missouri River with the Corps. Only the infected will understand.

Actually, I have Dayton Duncan to blame for my infection. I picked up his book, `Out West', a chronicle of his attempt to retrace some of the Lewis and Clark Trail (in a VW bus) at a yard sale and acquired the bug. From then on, any Lewis and Clark site had to be seriously out of the way from me to not attempt a visit. When I stood at Lewis' grave in rural Tennessee, reputedly on the spot where he died, I can't lie. I was moved. (I still want to see the site of the Two Medicine Fight, in which Lewis and his detachment, which had split off from the main party on the return journey, had been forced to kill two Blackfoot warriors; the only two Native Americans to die at the expedition's hands. It was an act for which the stratospherically-principled Lewis paid in kind (he was accidentally shot and severly wounded by one of his own men while hunting not long after the fight (unmentioned in the series); a pity as this sub-expedition was largely unnecessary.)

Despite its suave production, enchanting music track and heartfelt commentary by various historians including the late Stephen Ambrose, Ken Burns' rendering of the Lewis and Clark tale is just adequate historically. This is not to say I didn't like it. I thoroughly enjoyed it, both my initial viewing and a recent repeat broadcast. But there is so much more meat on the bones of this great adventure than the series was able to bite off. Anyone coming away from it with a case of the bug should definitely learn more. Allow me to suggest a course of action.

Much information resides on the Web but will often not tell you much more than the PBS production. Still, these sites can be fun. But don't be afraid to go analog as well. Find a good book or two on the subject.They're out there and will serve up more details. My favorite (out of print but still findable in a good bookstore or library) is `Lewis and Clark: Partners in Discovery' by John Bakeless. Here, you'll acquire a detailed, sensitive account of not only the expedition itself, but of the childhood and coming of age of Lewis and Clark, their experience as army officers on the frontier (then in Ohio) that laid their foundation as incomparable woodsmen, how the expedition was planned and outfitted, and what became of the many of its members after the return. Bakeless also makes a haunting and persuasive case for the possibility that Lewis did not commit suicide but may have been murdered; something I have always thought possible, certainly along the Natchez Trace, which in 1809 was probably the most dangerous place in North America. (This excellent book really should be re-printed for the bicentennial.)

Another interesting book (also out of print) is `Two Captains West' by Albert and Jane Salisbury. Not as scholarly as the Bakeless, it's still a worthy read and filled with photos of many actual Lewis and Clark sites, including some that are less well-known and, thereby, even more interesting to buffs. Once you've acquired a workable overview of the expedition, take the plunge into the actual journals that were compiled along the way by the Captains. At least two editions are extant, the most accessible being the abridged version by Bernard DeVoto, based on the original, complete journals (seven volumes and maps) published by Reuben Gold Thwaites in the early 1900's. At first, you may find the language challenging but eventually it will charm you. Then, go back to the PBS production for dessert. However, if you have not visited at least a couple of sites, I'm not sure we can call you a true buff. But once you're through DeVoto, your application for membership will be considered. And don't forget the aforementioned Dayton Duncan book.You'll like it.

A few months back, some soulless MBA-type did an article for the equally soulless e-zine, Slate, in which he disclaimed the importance of Lewis and Clark because they failed to find the Northwest Passage. This is rubbish, of course. The Passage was never there. How could the expedition have failed by not finding it? The importance of the Corps of Discovery lies not what it did, (which is still remarkable, Lexus Boy), but in what it symbolizes, what it says about the enormous promise that America once embodied, and the tough, resourceful people we once were. It speaks to a time when it was still not too late to rationally and humanely inhabit a world of profound beauty and natural harmony; a world in which the civil and hospitable Mandans, the incredibly noble Nez Perce, and even those pesky Teton Sioux and Blackfeet, all with knowledge to impart, had a place. We have actually fallen far, only to make temporary soft landings in our Lincoln Navigators. Lewis and Clark were geniuses, not of academia but in how they, and their command, manifested intelligence, compassion, and courage, often in the face of hardship we can barely imagine.

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