Posted: 05/25/2005


Into the West


by Ben Beard

Where the Buffalo Roamed . . Episode 1 premieres on TNT Friday, June 10.

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The Western, like the musical, has seen better days. The heyday is over. The great western directors have all made their masterpieces. It sits on the shelf near the back of the genre closet, like the West itself, largely a myth only half-remembered. Occasionally a director will revisit with some success (Eastwood’s Unforgiven, or Jarmusch’s Dead Man, to name two recent films), but fans, historians, and filmmakers alike sense in their bones that the Western has, like so many other worthwhile things, gone the way of the buffalo.

Which makes the TNT miniseries event, Into the West, a strange choice. Steven Spielberg fills the role of an executive producer for this epic story of the Wheeler clan—a family of wheelwrights who generation after generation become involved in some of the era’s biggest events. The narrative also follows a Lakota band of American Indians struggling to maintain a way of life quickly disappearing. Eventually the story will detail almost a century in the lives of the two families and their subsequent generations, a story that, by the promotional material promises to encapsulate the Western expansion in veracious glory.

It’s a shame, then, that a conceit as strong as this, a grand, unified retelling of America’s western expansion falls into the hands of meek television marketers of limited vision. Although the series grows stronger with each episode, it starts out schlocky, sentimental, and laden with cheesiness.

Episode 1: Wheel to the Stars (The saga begins)

Jacob Wheeler, seduced by the draw of adventure of the untamed West, leaves the family business in Virginia to join up with Jedediah Smith and his band of beaver trappers, taking one of his brothers, Nathan, with him. They split company in Saint Louis, leaving the young Jacob to fend for himself. Traveling across the U.S. in one of the first white coast-to-coast journeys, Jacob follows the band of cutthroats and scalawags (who somehow manage to appear vilely dangerous and utterly facile at the same time, The Wild Bunch meets the Brady Bunch) into Indian Territory, where they are eventually ambushed.

As a sort of hard-battling Forrest Gump, Jacob narrates the first three episodes, providing an earnest, even-handed point of view, the first major problem with the show. There were, of course, good men present in the West, but they were few and far between. And, good men or not, they still fell prey to the same prejudices of the day. There’s no room for a present-day mentality in recreating the past. The wholesale slaughter, the environmental disasters, the vicious disregard for all living things, rampant greed, and a sick, distorted set of values (this is the era of the scalp hunter): the period of Western Expansion stands as one of the foulest epochs on American history. In light of the era’s corrupted values, Jacob’s good-natured narration seems silly as best, at worst a base form of appeasement to the politically correct school of historical revision. Presenting people the way they were is not condoning their lifestyle, and de-clawing a story that should have teeth creates milquetoast and platitudes, not art nor entertainment, either.

Meanwhile, the American Indian scenes aren’t much better. Dog Star, Loved by the Buffalo, and Running Fox, three Lakota brothers, begin the process of fighting against the evil vision their tribal shaman has experienced, one of complete annihilation of the buffalo and therefore the Lakota tribe. Narrated by a heavy-handed, almost comical Native American, the Lakota’s lives are shown almost as a parody, replete with a faux-mysticism at odds with the shows dedication to the “truth.” Instead of building a picture of the Lakota way of life, the first episode settles for screaming and dancing and a one-dimensional view of a complex people.

Jacob Wheeler, stranded on the border where foreign traders and trackers live in drunken depravity, saves the life of a young squaw named Thunder Heart Woman, the sister of Running Fox and Dog Star. They fall in love, and soon Jacob decides to live with the Lakota and make a life for himself living alongside the American Indians.

Trying too hard, the first episode sinks in the mire of heavy-handed music (a jingoistic rip-off of Copeland) and the tendency to over-narrate. The lack of quiet moments, where the visuals are allowed to breathe, hurts the first installment, although admittedly there are plenty of fine landscapes. The storytelling, so far, isn’t up to the task, and the lack of visual acumen leaves the viewer with a sense that it’s all a colossal waste of talent and time.

The show does get better, however, and by episode’s end, Jacob Wheeler’s journey has piqued enough interest to keep watching.

Episode 2: Manifest Destiny (or, The Women Are Always Right)

In 1836, the Lakota tribe splits into two over how to interact with the white man. Running Fox decides to take a band of warriors from the tribe and stake out relations with the white man, to trade for guns and horses. His brother, Dog Star, refuses.

Jacob and his wife Thunder Heart Woman and their child Margaret leave the tribe to live with Jacob’s family in Virginia. There he and his wife encounter an icy racism from his family, and a house full of female cousins (including Felicity’s Keri Russell, back from college to bang out a trade.)

The love story between Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman happens between frames. In fact, Into the West isn’t really a story of relationships at all, and thus the personal drama often falls flat.

A larger narrative is emerging though. Like many men of the time, the pull of the West weighs on the domesticated Jacob as he once again plies his trade as a wheelwright. With the wagon trains heading periodically to California, Jacob takes his wife and children and cousins, and, with his brother Jethro, who refused to leave before, sets out across the Great Plains.

They join a wagon train led by oddball visionary Captain Hoxie (played by Beau Bridges) and begin the journey with a diverse group of settlers, including a freed African American family (who, with a one-sentence cliché, give voice but cannot capture the plight of their day).

The second episode, better than the first, succeeds in supplying some tension, even elements of wonder, as the Wheelers fight one natural disaster after another to stake a claim on the West Coast. Storms, Indian attacks, disease—deprivations of every kind begin to take their toll, as the body count of the secondary characters beings to mount. John Ford plots are crossed together to form a sort weird amalgamation of Stage Coach and The Searchers.

Running Dog and his band discover the cunning of the Indian traders, eventually duped into alcohol. Only a vision of his brother, Loved by the Buffalo, brings them back to their tribe.

Everyone gets a say here: American Indians, freed slaves, women, even the cowboys. The Mr. Rogers approach, where everyone’s point of view can be represented with equal aplomb, damages the integrity of the show. Occasionally falling prey to the same blathering, humorless, earnestness of Gods and Generals, the saccharine touch of death, Into the West chokes on multiculturalism. It isn’t that the creators’ hearts aren’t in the right place, but rather that they are content to play it safe, time and time again. For in making art, you cannot help but offend. Safety and compromise are for politics. One keeps wondering what other writers would have done with this material, given the chance.

Injured in an attack, Jacob is separated from his family, who leave him behind to die, the first of many inexplicable separations. Throughout the show, children are encouraged to leave their parents, husbands their wives and so on, this in the time when the family unit was sacrosanct. One of many anachronisms on display, here it leads to heady drama when Jethro and Thunder Heart woman marry, thinking Jacob has died.

Better than the first installment, the second episode ends with Jacob estranged from his family, his brother married to his wife, all three arriving in California a scant few years before the region’s defining event: the Gold Rush of 1849.

Episode 3: Dreams and Schemes (Memories of Gold Dust)

Easily the best episode so far, Dreams and Schemes follows Jacob’s brother, Jethro (played by Skeet Ulrich), as he slowly regresses through greed. Now married to Jacob’s wife, Thunder Heart Woman, Jethro is seduced by the gold rush happening just a few miles away in the creeks and rivers of California.

Jacob, a soldier under Captain Fremont during the Mexican American War and tormented by the butchery of the American soldiers, takes solace in the mountains, haunted by the knowledge that his family thinks he’s dead, and his wife has married his brother.

Focusing on Jethro, the third episode delivers the crucial element the other pieces have been missing: a flawed protagonist, driven to ruin by ambition and greed. Skeet Ulrich is a fine actor, understated, haunted, and suitably haggard. Stumbling into familiar Treasure of Sierra Madre territory, Jethro turns away from his family in pursuit of the easy buck. The predictable villains, alcohol and desire, lead Jethro down the dark path. But Ulrich handles the material with two-fisted gritty aplomb. Desperate and brooding, Jethro slowly unravels all the things his brother Jacob worked so hard to build. His decline resonates far longer than Jacob’s high-minded goodness.

Margaret, Jacob’s daughter, journeys to San Francisco in search of her father, who she is convinced is alive. Traveling through the 49er camps, a cesspool of whores, drunks, thieves, and price-gouging profiteers, she strives in vain to find her father amidst the misery. Here, at last, is danger, suspense, an ominous atmosphere befitting. Rousing, strong direction and strong acting provide a salve to the weaker moments. Even the music sounds better. And the Gold Rush, one of the largest immigration movements in history, is detailed in all its squalid glory: a relentless meat grinder that drove most prospectors into the poorhouse from grueling work with little pay.

Jethro’s drive for gold destroys his family. When a fortune-hunting cousin, David Wheeler (Balthasar Getty), appears, things grow worse. Getty, a charismatic, boisterous actor with a mischievous streak, plays Daniel to the hilt. He and Jethro hit it big, discovering a huge chunk of gold ala Steinbeck’s The Pearl, and things falls apart. Squabbling over the profits, Jethro and Daniel shoot it out on a cold, clear morning.

And once Jethro is gone, the story falls flat again.

How the West was Lost

The many varied factors that led to American expansion into the West spelled the end of both the Native American way of life and the lawless anything goes atmosphere of the early settlers. The “civilizing” forces of railroad, telegraph, and steam engine brought millions of immigrants to stake lands already occupied. They brought filth, pestilence, and disease with them, but also the eventual legal and moral codes that transformed the Wild West into U.S states. This wasn’t inherently evil. But population pressures, rampant racial prejudice, and cultural misunderstanding led to the extinction of tribes of people. It’s a hotly debated era, still, a complicated time when two competing ways of life clashed. It isn’t a simple story of the white man destroying the red. Like the crusades, it was a complex and long tale, a self-perpetuating myth with erratic battles but mostly a war of attrition.

Into the West builds a nice portrait of a time when the world was untamed, unmarked, and unbound. There are parallels today, with the vanishing open spaces, like the once mighty buffalo, slowly giving way to the encroaching suburbs, made all the sadder by their banal ubiquity. Focusing on two families, one American Indian, the other white, the series paints in broad strokes the momentous changes that forever altered the face of the continent. But, despite its strengths, the show isn’t up to the task.

Where are the big stories, the grand dreams? Television, like most films, prefers to be safe. The larger than life figures of the Western era are many: Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, General Custer, John Brown, Wild Bill Hickock. Looming men with fatal flaws—dreamers and killers and racists and robbers and oftentimes all of the above. Of course, it takes courage to humanize bad men, courage that television (besides most notably The Shield) mostly lacks. Into the West discards the many colorful (and still unused) cads and tricksters for the sprawling family drama. Sometimes it succeeds, sometimes it fails. Mostly, the villainy of evil men is ignored. Disease, random chance, greed—these are the only bad guys. So another sterilized made for TV production straddles the line, trying not to offend anybody.

The major problem in revisiting the Western is that as a genre it has been indelibly stamped by some of America’s best directors: John Ford, Anthony Mann, Howard Hawks, Sam Peckinpah. Those old westerns, despite their historical inaccuracies, were hugely entertaining, intriguing, as often as not, works of art. Considered by many to be one of the only original American art forms (alongside Film Noir and Jazz), the Western has symbolized many things for many people. Here, Spielberg and company focus on the family as homesteader, ignoring the casual violence that in many ways defined the period. Their scheme is grand, telling the story of a century of expansion by way of farmers, trackers, traders, and schemers.

In the final tally, the show isn’t bad, it just isn’t great either. It stays in that murky gray zone of mediocrity, where most of television lives. ‘Tis a pity: the dead and the living deserve better.

Episode Four: Hell on Wheels

The story of multiple generations of the Wheeler family continues in the fourth episode of TNT’s big summer mini-series. This episode follows the disparate characters through the Indian wars in Wyoming and Colorado and the great railroad race between the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Rail lines. The show’s heart is in the right place—let’s respect other cultures with the hope that one day everyone on this planet can all get along—but, as a story, is it any good?

The Wheelers, a clan of wheelwrights living all over the country, serve as a sort of family of Forrest Gumps, present at all the big events of the century, fading in and out of the epoch’s seminal moments. Daniel Wheeler (played with some mustachioed gusto by B-movie paragon Lance Henriksen) parlays his wheelwright business into land speculation, gambling joints, and houses of ill repute. By staying ahead of the encroaching railroad, Daniel becomes a land baron through his unsavory business practices. This doesn’t sit well with his son, Robert, who continues to work for his father from familial obligation. But the main source of their generational dispute is Clara Wheeler, Daniel’s adopted cousin who escaped from a massacre in Kansas, the only to survive. Daniel dislikes the orphan, while Robert takes a liking to her.

The narrative shifts to Jacob Wheeler’s children, Margaret, who lives in the West with her photographer husband, Abe, who begins working on the railroad, befriending Chinese immigrants, and Jacob, Jr., who finds himself a scout to George Armstrong Custer.

A lot happens in the following two hours: Margaret is kidnapped by the Cheyenne and then decides to live with them, following the peaceful maxims of their leader, Black Kettle; Abe witnesses firsthand the excesses of human cruelty and greed while blowing up mountains with Chinese dynamite; Clara opens a dress shop on the frontier; Crazy Horse begins his hit and run campaign in Wyoming; and there’s a few massacres thrown in for good cheer.

Tom Berenger plays a hard-nosed Colorado colonel intent on purging the territory of Indian presence. The racist screed often employed at the time is smoothed over, but the viewer gets the idea. There is no room for the American Indian in the new way of life. The subsequent massacre at Sand Creek—a diabolical attack on peaceful, agrarian American Indians—is detailed here in symbolic, albeit too heavy, aplomb. The surreality of Jodorowsky or Cormac McCarthy is replaced with no frills slow motion agony. Sand Creek leaves a crimson stain on our country’s memory, and deserves a better than this. It isn’t bad, it just isn’t good enough.

By the mid-1860s, the U.S. government was a war machine. Recently victorious in the Civil War, the Union army, a professional, well-trained, and well populated entity, needed something to do. The U.S. unleashed this army on the West, in a “civilizing” plan that was nothing more than a vast land grab akin to genocide. The American Indians, many dirt farmers uprooted from more fertile lands, were in a sad, disorganized state. With the new influx of settlers and military men, the American Indians once again realized they would not be left alone and new leaders, such as Red Cloud and Crazy Horse, arose.

The show’s detailing of this offers no real hint of anything other than the inevitably defeat of the American Indian tribes. Which highlights one of the show’s biggest failings: a twelve-hour miniseries should be able to build a scene and deliver some suspense. But there is little danger here. The show isn’t really a story so much as a visual exposition of some nameless high school textbook.

Instead of a narrative drawing upon human courage, frailty, or ambition, Into the West instead sacrifices the individual pieces in its attempt to create a vast map of history. Too many stories dead end. And the few interesting pieces aren’t given enough time. Yet no real overview of the sequence of historical events is provided. The narration as often as not delivers bits of information about the different characters. As a tool for learning, it’s almost useless. The stories of the Wheelers and their American Indian counterparts are what matter, and they are as often than not misused.

Case in point: Daniel Wheeler opens a boomtown in Wyoming, and taking a page out of HBO’s Deadwood, the show follows the hustlers and opportunists in the makeshift huckster town. It’s a nice-looking section—here are people who sweat, drink, stink, steal, and maybe even copulate. While Robert and Clara tip toe through their fledgling romance, the dregs of humanity fall into drunkenness and depravity around them. But the show shifts back to another story just as this reeking, squalid eyesore begins to emerge as a real place. The frontier town, with its lawless and rowdy salaciousness, offers a rich landscape for great stories but also a nice metaphor for the robber baron tactics of the era’s (both then and now) banking elite.

Custer, one of America’s most controversial legends, is portrayed here as a harsh, uncompromising Indian killer. Perhaps this is true, perhaps not. Abe Wheeler, the half-Indian scout who helps him, is shown as a man of conflicted conscience. There is little subtlety or nuance in either performance; they are not written to be artful. Instead Custer is another example of the white man’s unchecked greed. More ambitious writers would try to portray Custer as madman and visionary, sinner and saint, killer and hero. Whether he is good or bad doesn’t matter. Taking a page out of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

It’s the story and its characters that count.

The disparate subplots all come together in a nice scene at promontory point, where the two train lines met to finish the trans-American railroad. The convergence of the different characters, many who don’t know each other, is handled nicely with elegance and skill. Too bad the scene is so short. The show is as ambitious as any that has ever hit American television (the BBC, with miniseries like I, Claudius, has us beat by far), and for this alone perhaps should be commended.

One view of American history is our young country’s relationship to its oppressed peoples: immigrants, poor laborers, Blacks, and Indians. It is a relevant and now populat approach to the seminal events in America’s creation. With this as your gauge, every U.S. victory, including World War II, is tainted with hypocrisy, greed, and exploitation. Into the West follows this paradigm of history closely, although with a sliver of white pride to make sure every viewer remains happy. By not offending anyone, however, the show promised to annoy almost everyone.

There are some nice moments, though, of beauty and tragedy. But the overall feeling is how this show almost, but not quite, accomplished something worth watching.

Ben Beard is a film and music critic living in Chicago.

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