Like its subject, “The West” is about as big and unwieldy as all outdoors. It sweeps its way from the 16th century conquistadors to the early 1900s with the speed of a wagon train trying to climb the Rockies.
Ken Burns presents a film by Stephen Ives, a co-production of Insignia Films and WETA-TV/Washington in association with Florentine Films and Time-Life Video & Television. Executive producer, Ken Burns; producers, Stephen Ives, Jody Abramson, Michael Kantor; director, Ives; writers, Geoffrey C. Ward, Dayton Duncan; cinematographer, Buddy Squires, Allen Moore; supervising You can say this about Ken Burns: America’s most praised documentarian certainly isn’t timid. He’s attracted by epic subjects and epic themes, and then , like Homer, bends his formulas to tell epic stories. With “The West,” the Burns formula has finally taken over overtaken, actually the storytelling.
Burns cast such large shadows with “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” his two celluloid monuments, that he’s now precariously close to approaching monument status himself. Thus “The West” raises an enigma: When is a Ken Burns film a Ken Burns film? And its corollary: Can the work stand alone?
Though Burns appears to have signed onto this project as an eminence gris it was produced and directed by Stephen Ives, who has a fine documentary on Charles A. Lindberghto his credit, and receives possessory credit above the title here every frame of “The West” bears Burns’ unmistakable fingerprints. There are the themes of prejudice and persecution; the mixture of history and biography; the extensive use of primary-source materials such as diaries and letters offered through celebrity voiceovers; the expert interpreters filmed in medium to tight close-up; the measured narration; the textured archival photos; black-and-white title cards; and, of course, the doleful fiddle and piano music that swims constantly underneath. It is all so familiar and familiarity has a knack for breeding complacency in a creator, no matter whose name tops the creation.
Still, this is far from an unworthy enterprise, even if its length and leadenness may prove difficult to stick with all the way. The subject is great, and another attempt by the Burnsian stable co-writer Geoffrey C. Ward worked on “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” as did others involved here to explore and explain what America is and who we are as a people, where we are grand, where we stray, what was real, what was myth, and what myths do we need to hold onto, and which do we need to explode. Grand stuff, to be sure.
But it’s the very grandeur of the exploration that leads “The West” into the thicket from which it never quite emerges. Both “The Civil War” and “Baseball,” which had the added advantage of a treasure trove of historical film footage, had the unity of their subjects working for them. Intent on being comprehensive, “The West” only tantalizes in the areas it doesn’t exhaust.
Among the corners that it does choose to explore in detail, much of the navigating is affecting and, often, heartbreakingly passionate. The sad stories of the proud Indian leaders Sitting Bull and Chief Joseph are tragically lyrical; their own words in the telling are unforgettably beautiful. Indeed, the stories of America’s willful steamrolling of anything and anyone Indians, Mexicans, Mormons that stood between its perceived manifest destiny in the ineffable march to the sea are presented movingly, again and again and again.
The stories of the gold rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad are carefully and complexly woven, full of expansive spirit and horrible inhumanity. The stories of Texas and California statehood are filled with interesting detail and anecdotes. Finally, the story of a Wyoming sheep farmer and his family that threads through the final two hours is lovingly crafted; it puts a human face to the enterprise.
Ironically, with hundreds of photos of faces, it’s the human face that “The West” lacks. Whole lives were skillfully painted in “The Civil War,” and yet too many are just given outlines here. And while many familiar faces George Custer, Buffalo Bill, Sam Houston are held up to history’s mirror, many equally familiar ones Billy the Kid, Jesse James, Wyatt Earp aren’t reflected on at all.
Indian novelist and poet N. Scott Momaday is the one face, and voice, that haunts the entire film. He is a wonderful character, with wonderful stories and insights: the West, he tells us, is a landscape that had to be believed to be seen. “The West” also puts to good use former Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and Texas Gov. Ann Richards – her chicken story is priceless.
The well of historians from which “The West” draws, however, is problematic. It’s not the historians themselves, but the identifications. What is their expertise? Why were these particular experts chosen? Many of the Native American witnesses are just identified by tribe; are they leaders, historians, what?
In the end, despite the wealth of information, the magnificent photography of nature, the faces that manage to emerge, and the themes that are mined, “The West” never manages to cross the canyon into anything that feels new and different.
What it does feel is stiflingly worthy; every moment whispers that this is important television to be held on a pedestal with “The Civil War” and “Baseball” as a monument to the genre as a whole and Burns’ immense contribution to it. Perhaps, like Peter Pan, Ken Burns might benefit by losing his shadow for awhile.