Review: PBS' straight-shooting tour of the Old West lays it out in a 12 1/2 -hour documentary that neither romanticizes nor wallows in guilt.


September 14, 1996|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

Like the land it chronicles, PBS's "The West" is a vast, sprawling, complex, polyglot mass, filled with little bits of everything -- some joyous, some tragic, all fascinating.

The series, debuting tomorrow, is a six-night, 12 1/2 -hour commitment of time you owe it to yourself to make.

But be forewarned: this latest opus from executive producer Ken Burns (who must have spent a lot of time whispering suggestions into the ear of director Stephen Ives) is not the most uplifting television experience.

Burns' "The Civil War" left viewers feeling ennobled, believing both North and South fought valiantly and the U.S. emerged from the war a better country. Burns' "Baseball" left fans scouring their closets for that old fielder's glove and looking for the nearest sandlot. "The West," however, will leave you wincing how abhorrently we treated people to make this country stretch from Atlantic to Pacific.

That reality should make us pause once in a while. Yet "The West," to its great benefit, doesn't expect us to spend the whole two weeks feeling guilty about Manifest Destiny -- the 19th-century notion that God meant for this country to stretch from coast to coast. Rather, it treats it as one component of U.S history, the tragic, but perhaps inevitable, result of clashes between civilizations. One side wins, the other loses.

There's so much more to the settling of the West than guilt,

however, and "The West" manages to touch on nearly all of it. There's the excitement of discovery, the bravery of people striking out on their own, the ingenuity of workers accomplishing the impossible, the nobility of men and women rising above their prejudices and fears, the bombast of showmen turning the conquest of the West into a peculiarly American entertainment.

More than anything, however, "The West" is the story of people. Wisely, the series largely ignores many of the big names: Daniel Boone, Billy the Kid, Calamity Jane, Geronimo, the Earps, Wild Bill Hickock.

The stars of "The West" are names you've probably never heard of: William Swain, a 27-year-old New Yorker who left his wife and daughter behind to head for the California gold mines in the spring of 1849, convinced he would make his fortune; Maj. John Shippington, who almost single-handedly prevented California from falling into Confederate hands during the Civil War, then later led an Indian slaughter so cold-blooded that even the U.S. Army condemned it; Chung Sun, a Chinese immigrant who came to this country to work, then left when Congress passed a law making that impossible.

In fact, tomorrow night's opening episode, "The People," begins with the tale of one such man, Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, a Spanish explorer shipwrecked with his men on Galveston Island in the 16th century. His story, although sadly atypical, suggests what could have been, if only men had been able to ignore their baser natures: saved and nurtured by the native Coco Indians, Cabeza de Vaca and his men befriended them, learning their customs and their language.

Years later, when Cabeza de Vaca was reunited with his Spanish brethren in Mexico, he urged similar treatment of all native peoples. Surely, he believed, there's room enough for all in this land. But the Spaniards, instead, followed the lead of conquistadors like Francisco Vasquez de Coronado, who burned Zuni Indians at the stake as a way of persuading the rest of them to convert to Christianity.

"The People" traces the region's history through the expedition of William Lewis and Meriwether Clark, who were sent by President Thomas Jefferson to explore the vast territory he had just bought from Napoleon -- a piece of land so huge that Jefferson estimated it would take Americans 100 generations to colonize it. Again, hints of what could have been: Lewis and Clark would have died, and their expedition failed, had not the Nez Perce Indians agreed to feed them and show them a way across the mountains to the Pacific.

Fur trappers

Monday, "Empire Upon the Trails" traces the West's history from 1806 to 1848, a period that began with fur trappers prospering in the Rockies (at least until European tastes turned from fur to silk hats) and ended with Texas winning its independence from Mexico on the San Jacinto battlefield.

Tuesday's "The Speck of the Future" looks at the California Gold Rush and the resultant population explosion, as people flocked to the West from all over the world.

On Wednesday, "Death Runs Riot" looks at the period from 1856 to 1888, during which sectional conflict over slavery, the Civil War and the Indian Wars left the region a bloody and often lawless mess.

Thursday, "The Grandest Enterprise Under God" introduces the 1,775-mile Transcontinental Railroad, an engineering marvel that many believed could never be accomplished -- and may never have been completed without the help of thousands of Chinese immigrants, who were rewarded with lousy pay, dangerous working conditions and laws that would later make it impossible for them to earn a living.

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