Show & tell Three historical series this month on television raise the question about whether the emotive images of TV can teach history as well as the reasoned arguments of books.

November 02, 1997|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

It starts in Boston Harbor, fights its way west through the Rocky Mountains to the mighty Pacific and ends in a flurry of napalm bombs and discordant Jimi Hendrix electric-guitar chords in the jungles of Vietnam.

We are talking about the span of three major historical series arriving this month on television. The series are Ken Burns' eagerly awaited "Lewis & Clark -- The Journey of the Corps of Discovery" (Tuesday and Wednesday on PBS), "Liberty -- The American Revolution" (starting Nov. 23 on PBS), and "The Fifties," eight hours from the History Channel based on David Halberstam's book about the 1950s (starting Nov. 30).

Taken together, the trio covers nothing less than the entire upward arc of American expansionist history -- some 200 years -- all of it neatly packaged for prime-time viewing during a sweeps ratings month.

History is stories, and television has become the principal American storyteller. So it shouldn't be surprising that much of what we know about our past now comes from television.

But what kind of knowledge is it? Television talks in a language of pictures that evoke visceral responses. Are such feelings knowledge?

A lot of words are left out when history moves from book to screen. The script for the four-hour "Lewis & Clark" is 62 pages long, according to Dayton Duncan, writer and co-producer. Each of the books on which it draws -- Duncan's "Out West" and Steven E. Ambrose's best-selling "Undaunted Courage" -- runs to nearly 500 pages.

In the words of historian Robert Rosenstone of the California Institute of Technology: "Can history on film be good for us?"

The answer, many filmmakers and historians agree, is that the dominance of image doesn't necessarily make TV history worse. In fact, it has the potential to be richer.

Television has been doing more quality history in recent years, and the good work is not limited to a handful of rightfully celebrated PBS producers like Burns, Henry Hampton ("Eyes on the Prize") or Judy Crichton ("The American Experience" series with David McCullough).

On cable, the Discovery Channel has become a consistent provider of superb documentaries, such as "The Fall of Saigon," "The Promised Land," "Watergate" and "The CIA: America's Secret Warriors." Ted Turner's TBS channel chronicled the space race as well as anyone with "Moon Shot."

The History Channel has yet to produce such quality, but "The Fifties" is a step in the right direction. And the channel is committed to major productions on the Great Depression, the Mississippi River and the Ku Klux Klan, according to Abbe Raven, senior vice president of programming.

"Television can do good history, but there are distinctions and differences that need to be made," says Ronald Walters, professor of history at the Johns Hopkins University and former chairman of the Organization of American Historians' committee that annually grants the prestigious Erik Barnouw Award for excellence in historical film-making.

The first distinction comes in not thinking of television history as monolithic. Not all television history is created equal, and the three big-ticket series this month are an excellent example.

Vintage Burns

"Lewis & Clark" is vintage Burns, with meticulous attention to music, photography, analysis from historians, narration by Hal Holbrook, and readings by such actors as Adam Arkin and Sam Waterston from the journals of Meriwether Lewis, William Clark and several of the members of their expedition.

Burns and Duncan made a number of daring choices, and most of them paid off. One of the biggest involved taking on a project with virtually no visual history of photographs or even paintings.

"This is the classic thing of making lemonade [out of lemons]," Burns says. "There's no archive of pictures. There's one painting of Lewis, one painting of Clark, and no photographs, obviously, because it's before the invention. So you have only a couple of relevant contemporary paintings.

"We took poetic license with paintings and photographs from a later generation, but mostly we had to force ourselves to retrace their steps," Burns says, explaining why he, Duncan, Ambrose and a film crew made the same journey Lewis and Clark did in 1804.

"We did it, because instead of being able to look into the eyes and empathize with the protagonists [as viewers did in "The Civil War" and "Baseball"], we had to put our audience in the protagonists' shoes so they could look out of their eyes to the journey unfolding."

But, while Burns will likely be hailed for most of the choices he made in telling the story of Lewis and Clark, the producers of "Liberty," a six-hour dramatic documentary, are going to be criticized for at least one of their choices: the heavy use of actors and re-enactors to tell the story of the American Revolution.

"It's hugely risky, because no one has done it quite this way," acknowledges Muffie Meyer, co-producer-director of the series.

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