Miniseries worth the time

In `Into the West,' Indians win a seat at the table

TV Preview

June 09, 2005|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Into the West, cable channel TNT's 12-hour epic about life on the 19th-century frontier, is American mythology retold in the voice of multiculturalism.

Re-imagining the national past is a tall order, but who better to take it on than Steven Spielberg, the filmmaker and producer who helped craft new narratives about World War II heroism (Band of Brothers) and the righteousness of some European gentiles during the Holocaust (Schindler's List)?

Spielberg is the executive producer of this sprawling, panoramic miniseries about the collision of cultures that took place in the American Eden, west of the Mississippi. The film's reach wildly exceeds what it is able to grab hold of, and its leading characters tend to be one-dimensional repositories of national virtues rather than believable human beings.

But that's the way it is in the action-adventure language of hero quests and journeys of passage. The energy of the saga comes from the larger-than-life archetypal images it presents and the way in which they tap into shared memory and the collective unconscious. Into the West consistently goes for that deeper psychic connection with the audience and achieves it often enough to promise one of the more elevated viewing experiences of the summer.

The story opens in 1825 in [See West, 5c] the Lakota Nation. An aged medicine man, Growling Bear (Gordon Tootoosis), is telling the elders of the tribe about a dark vision he had in which the buffalo, considered the very source of life by the Lakota, disappear back into the earth. It is a vision of abandonment and doom for the tribe, and, in many ways, it drives the 12 hours that follow.

A boy named Loved by the Buffalo (Simon Baker) hears of the vision and visits Growling Bear on his deathbed. The old man gives the boy an amulet symbolizing the Lakota medicine wheel, a sacred circle of life, and Loved by the Buffalo is set on the road to becoming a Lakota holy man.

Meanwhile, east of the Mississippi in a wheelwright's barn in Virginia, another young man is being called to a hero quest. Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle) reads accounts of life on the frontier and dreams of heading west. When a trapper (Will Patton) offers Wheeler the possibility of signing on with a legendary mountain man, Jedediah Smith (Josh Brolin), Wheeler leaves his community in a flash.

Along the way in Part 1, Wheeler will help save a runaway slave, travel all the way to the Pacific with Smith's band of mountain men, survive an Indian attack that kills everyone but him and Smith, be imprisoned by Spaniards in California, and fight in mortal hand-to-hand combat with another mountain man to free a Native American woman from the auction block.

The Native American woman whom he frees and then marries, Thunder Heart Woman (Tonantzin Carmelo), happens to be the sister of Loved by the Buffalo, which is where the two journeys and master narratives of Into the West intersect: "We had a wheel that takes you from here to there," Wheeler says in voiceover of the wagon wheels he once made. "But they [the Lakota] have a wheel [the sacred medicine wheel] that takes you to the stars."

What follows is not so much a synthesis of the opposing historical points of view of settlers and Native Americans as it is a rewriting of the Eurocentric history of the West told since the 19th century by the white conquerors.

By opening the miniseries with the Lakota, Spielberg signals his intention of foregrounding the Native American narrative. He knows that the nation has come too far along the path of diversity to resonate with the old Eurocentric saga.

Twelve hours across six weeks is a lot of time to commit to a miniseries these days. And stories that challenge the version of history with which many viewers feel comfortable can be prone to instant tune-out. But those who make the commitment and give Into the West a chance to make its case are in for a grand, mythic ride.

Into the West

When: Tomorrow night at 8

Where: TNT

In Brief: Mythic, multicultural retelling of frontier history

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