PBS traces truth along westward trek TV review: 'In Search of the Oregon Trail' is a little bumpy but well worth the trip.

April 29, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

The thousands of Americans who emigrated to the West Coast along the Oregon Trail beginning in the 1840s were not dirt-poor farmers yearning for a new life or reckless adventurers willing to do anything for a thrill. They weren't attacked daily by Indians and they didn't travel in wagon trains a mile long. They didn't bravely go where no man had gone before.

That's all myth. The truth is even more fascinating.

Much of that truth is on display on "In Search of the Oregon Trail," a compelling, if flawed, documentary airing from 8 p.m.-11 p.m. tonight on MPT, Channels 22 and 67.

Most of the immigrants, for example, were at least middle class -- a family of four needed at least $1,000 to complete the 2,000-mile trek from Kansas City to Oregon, no small amount of money back then. And while the idea of walking that distance through largely uncharted lands might seem insane to us, it wasn't to some of our great-great-great-great-grandparents. The distance was far, but not unreasonable; the dangers real, but no more than those faced by most Americans in the mid-19th century.

The film uses contemporary art, some photographs (though not a lot; photography along the trail didn't become popular until after the Civil War, when much of the migration was over) and occasional re-enactments to convey a sense of what it was like to make the journey.

And it wasn't fun. Because the trail was used so heavily, piles of garbage and human and animal waste often made the walk offensive as well as arduous. While much of the route hugged close to rivers and streams, ensuring a steady supply of water, mountain and desert crossings often meant days, if not weeks, without the life-giving liquid. And the window during which one could successfully make the six-month journey was perilously narrow: You had to leave late enough in the spring that there was grass for the animals to eat, early enough that you'd cross the mountains before the snows.

That explains what happened to the infamous Donner Party, which had set out from Springfield, Ill., in 1847, but ended up getting stuck in the mountains, where they had to resort to cannibalism to survive.

The film also makes the point that the Indians weren't nearly the menace Hollywood once portrayed them as being. In fact, given that thousands of Europeans were running roughshod over their land, they were amazingly hospitable. Many encounters between the Indians and the white men were, in fact, simply demands by the people who already lived there that they be paid a toll for allowing settlers across their lands -- hardly unreasonable, given the circumstances.

Narrated by Stacy Keach, the film suffers from a narrative that's broken into too many sections and a failure to find any one unifying element -- as Ken Burns did in "The Civil War," following Confederate Sam Watkins and Union soldier Elisha Hunt Rhodes throughout the war. "In Search of the Oregon Trail" quotes extensively from diaries and other written media, but no one character emerges as a dominant figure.

Plus, it would have been nice if "In Search of the Oregon Trail" had explained more about where people can still see remnants of the trail, still feel the ruts carved in the soil by thousands upon thousands of wagon wheels. Such places are shown in the film; in fact, one of the most arresting images is of a would-be settlers' solitary grave, his tombstone preserved in the shadow of a modern factory. But rarely is it said just where they are.

But saying the filmmakers don't have Mr. Burns' storytelling skills is like saying an actor is no Olivier. Few are, but that doesn't mean they can't do a good job. And "In Search of the Oregon Trail" is a good job.

Pub Date: 4/29/96

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