'Wild West' follows blueprint used for 'Civil War'

March 21, 1993|By Susan King | Susan King,Los Angeles Times

The Old West has spawned so many legends and myths, the truth has often been lost in the shuffle. A new 10-hour documentary, "The Wild West," attempts to tell how the West was really won.

"The Wild West" premieres Monday at 8 p.m. on Channel 54.

Like "The Civil War," Ken Burns' acclaimed 1990 PBS documentary series, "The Wild West" features vintage photographs from the period, excerpts from diaries and letters read by well-known actors, interviews with historians and music from the era. Jack Lemmon is the narrator.

Dick Robertson, president of Warner Bros. Domestic Television Distribution, which is distributing the series, says the success of "The Civil War" and ABC's recent four-hour documentary "Lincoln " proved that the public can find documentaries appealing.

"There's a recipe for success by taking the actual words people wrote during that period of time, and then re-creating them through the voices of famous actors over original photographs," Mr. Robertson says. "What that does, it connects you in an emotional way to this history, rather than being sort of preached to and lectured to. It is regular, everyday people and the lives that they lived."

Putting together the documentary series was a vast undertaking for its producers. Given a timetable of 14 months in which to complete the project, executive producer Doug Netter ("The Sacketts") and producer John Copland decided to narrow their focus to the 30-year period after the Civil War. Because they were novices in the documentary field, they brought in co-producer Jamie Smith, a 15-year veteran.

"Assisting Jamie were four full-time researchers," Mr. Netter says. "We divided all the museums and historical societies into ,, four sections. We simultaneously put in a new visual data base which could receive photographs in the data base and catalog them. There are over 12,000 photographs in that data base."

More than 3,500 photographs were used in the documentary, which is divided into such topics as "Cowboys," "Settlers," "Gunfighters," "Indians" and "Soldiers."

" 'The Civil War' used 1,200 images for all of their 10 hours," Mr. Copland says. "They repeated a lot of images. Soldiers look like soldiers, but in dealing with 30 years of history, we knew we were going to be a lot broader."

In order to personalize the stories, Mr. Netter says, "we tried to access as many of the letters, diaries -- anything of the written word that we could find, so we could attempt in every instance to personalize the story."

Mr. Netter did not want to take the romance out the West: "I love all of those John Wayne movies. But at the same time, we tried to separate fact from fiction."

More than 400 historical societies and museums were involved in "The Wild West." Mr. Netter says the production had no problem getting cooperation, despite the fact that Ken Burns is making his own PBS documentary on the West. Mr. Burns announced his project a few months after "Wild West" went into production.

"We were there first," Jamie Smith says. "We were doing the bulk of the work ahead of him. We were kind of the big gorilla."

Oscar-winner Jack Lemmon was Mr. Netter's first choice to narrate the series. The two had worked together on "How to Murder Your Wife" and "The April Fools."

Because the series is being telecast on commercial stations, the producers knew they had to keep the attention of the audience every hour or run the chance of losing viewers to other programming. So they decided to interweave various themes, such as the roles of women and ethnic groups, throughout every hour. "Among all the threads, we tried to do the common human experience of life, death and the struggle to survive," Mr. Copland says. "We tried to make each act compelling"

Though the format is similar, Mr. Netter hopes audiences will find "The Wild West" vastly different from "The Civil War" or "Lincoln," because "you know the scenario [of those documentaries] pretty well. ['The Civil War'] is down material. All of these thousands and thousands of Americans killing each other. And Lincoln -- you know what is going to happen. But in ours, the scenarios are not known. We are dealing with a very positive people. The expansion of the West was one of the most exciting periods in our history, and maybe the history of the world."

The stations carrying the "Wild West" are committed to repeating it in December. Warner Home Video is releasing the series on cassette, and Time-Life Books is publishing a companion coffee-table book featuring the photographs from the documentary.

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