`Horatio' takes us on a ride

Ken Burns' light tale of cross-country trip

October 06, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

The last image to appear in Ken Burns' two-hour documentary, Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip is that of a goofy bulldog wearing road-racer goggles. The last sound viewers hear as the final credits roll is a hearty "woof-woof.

This is not The Civil War, or Jazz or Baseball - those monumental, multi-night epics that Burns created while re-inventing the documentary for mainstream television audiences. And, as splendid as those mammoth works were, this smaller, less self-important film is more fun to watch and not one whit less historically sound.

Call it Ken Burns Lite, if you wish. What I see is one of America's finest historians reaching a point in his career at which he has the confidence to let his work relax and breathe a bit. This is a mature artist enjoying the story as he tells it; and his passion for American history is contagious.

The Horatio named in the title is Horatio Nelson Jackson, a 31-year-old, independently wealthy doctor from Vermont. One night in 1903 while passing through San Francisco, he stopped at the University Club and became engaged in a heated discussion about the future of the "horseless carriage." He wound up making a $50 bet that night that he could drive an automobile from San Francisco to New York in less than three months.

The wager seemed crazy at a time when only 8,000 automobiles were owned in America - compared to 14 million horses. According to the 1900 census, there were 150 miles of paved roads in the country, all within city limits. Most Americans rarely traveled more than 12 miles from home.

Crazier still was that four days after making the bet, Jackson was ready to roll in a 1903, cherry-red Winton touring car, purchased on the recommendation of a 22-year-old San Francisco bicycle repairman named Sewall K. Crocker. The car, which was a month old, already had over 1,000 miles on it - and Jackson paid $500 over sticker price. Yet he was so impressed with Crocker that he hired him as mechanic for the trip.

Weeks later, in Nebraska, they would add the third and final member of their team, the bulldog named Bud. The dog wore the goggles because the car had no windshield or roof, and the dust they encountered as they slogged across the Great Plains was blinding. And, as newspaper photographs from the time show, Bud insisted on riding shotgun.

Not that they ever traveled on anything we today would consider a road. Jackson and Crocker repeatedly used a block-and-tackle device to hoist the two-cylinder vehicle up rocky mountain paths while crossing the mountains of California and Oregon. Rain often turned Nebraska into "buffalo hollows" of water and mud. On one day alone, the two men used the block-and-tackle device 18 times. And all the while, two teams of professional drivers - backed by automobile companies - were racing them to New York.

As fabulous and colorful as the facts of the journey are, it is the first-rate historical research and clever television production done by co-producer Dayton Duncan and Burns that make the film so compelling. This is Burns' film, but research kudos also belong to Duncan and his wife, Dianne, who visited and contacted local historical societies and newspapers in each of the towns through which Jackson passed, seeking first-hand accounts of the journey.

Furthermore, by searching obituaries, death certificates and funeral records, they tracked down two of Jackson's granddaughters. And, eureka, the granddaughters had letters and telegrams Jackson sent to his wife, Bertha, while on his cross-country journey.

The letters are not as moving as those Burns used in The Civil War - letters often written on the eve of battle by men facing possible death. But what could be? What Jackson's letters do capture wonderfully is the can-do American spirit - a spirit that seems so much more alive in 1903 than it does today.

The letters, read by Tom Hanks, bring this man to life. Jackson's catchphrase, "just watch me now," often written to his wife following one disaster or another on the road, is the very last statement sounded in the film.

It is ironic that as we increasingly become a visual culture, our greatest documentary filmmaker continues to find extraordinary power in the written word. But Burns also understands that one doesn't reach a mass audience today without playing to the eye.

For this aspect of the film, Burns and Duncan retraced Jackson's 10,000-mile journey to find the dirt tracks and old trails he traveled. They photographed them by strapping cinematographer Allen Moore to the hood of an SUV and using a canvas sling to capture the jarring, bone-rattling look and feel of riding in a car without a windshield or today's advanced forms of suspension. (In the credits, the images are credited to their "Horatio-cam.")

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