'500 Nations' is not good history and not good TV

April 20, 1995|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

"500 Nations" is one of those television productions about which everybody tries to say nice things, but almost no one watches.

The four-part, eight-hour documentary on Native Americans, which begins at 8 tonight on CBS (WJZ, Channel 13), features Kevin Costner as host and co-producer. The actor says the project grew out of his involvement in the Academy Award-winning feature film "Dances With Wolves."

Costner and co-producer Jim Wilson do bring a big-screen feel, as well as a strong sense of storytelling, to "500 Nations." But eight hours dominated by ink drawings of battles and computer-generated re-creations of Mayan villages? On a commercial network in prime-time, opposite such shows as "Mad About You" and "Seinfeld"? Come on.

It's not hard to figure out that the struggling CBS bought this project based on the marquee power of Costner's name. But while some viewers will surely tune in to see the aging all-American boy do his politically correct introductions, lots more will probably tune out once they realize it's a production better suited for cable's History Channel or TBS. In fact, Ted Turner's TBS has already covered most of the same ground in its deservedly praised "Native Americans" documentary series.

"My knowledge of history has been limited by what I was taught," Costner says in tonight's opening. "As far as I was concerned, the history of the continent started 500 years ago when Columbus discovered the New World. But we know that's not true.

"There were people here. So how is it that we know so little about the human history of America? Could it be that we don't think it worthy of mention the way history has remembered the ancient civilizations of Greece, Rome, Egypt or China?

"The truth is we have a story worth talking about. . . . Long before the first Europeans arrived here, there were some 500 nations already in North America. . . . In the coming hours, '500 Nations' looks back on these ancient cultures."

Following that introduction, the documentary begins with its final chapter -- the slaughter of Indian men, women and children by U.S. soldiers at Wounded Knee in 1890. It's a great storytelling choice by Wilson and Costner -- this bit of front-loading -- because it is easily the most compelling segment of the eight hours. But it's mainly a downhill journey from there for the next 7 1/2 .

Part two of the series airs at 8 p.m. tomorrow. The last two parts have not been scheduled.

The first stop among the ancients tonight is the Anasazi, ancestors of the Hopi who lived in the deserts of the American Southwest around A.D. 900, according to this report. From there, "500 Nations" moves to the Mayans in Central America and the Aztecs in Mexico. The Anasazi and Mayan civilizations get pretty short shrift compared with the Aztecs. The reason appears to be that the Aztec story is the first to include a big, bloody encounter with the Europeans. Most of tonight's last hour is a chronicle of Cortez and his Spanish conquistadors arriving in the New World and ultimately butchering the Aztecs. It's not a bad story, even without the film or still photographs that we have come to expect in our video culture.

But what's so maddening, even dangerous, about "500 Nations" is that Costner and Wilson don't seem to understand that their presentation is only a story. They utter the word "truth" in this documentary with a certainty that would only be used by people who have never seriously studied history.

History consists of conflicting and contested narratives of past events. Traditionally, the story favored by the group in power was the one anointed as 'history' and wrapped in the mantle of truth. But, in post-modern times, we've done a 180-degree turn, and the narratives of those not in power have come to be celebrated as the truth.

As hard as it is for zealots on both sides of the culture wars to admit, neither is the total truth. TBS' "Native Americans" recognized this and told viewers it was presenting the continent's history through the eyes and memories of Native American people, as a counterbalance to the dominant culture's version of events.

Costner and Wilson bring great energy and much naive zeal to "500 Nations." But, in the end, it's neither fish nor fowl.

It's not very good prime-time network entertainment, and it's even worse history.

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