I have seen a lot of great Westerns, but my favorite in the genre is not a Hollywood film at all, but a four-hour Ken Burns documentary called "Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery."
But you might be wondering: How interesting could a documentary film be if it has almost no visual re-enactments, and it's about a period that predates photography of any kind?
The answer is: It can be as epic and fascinating as any Hollywood movie.
Why? Because visually, it uses the few paintings that exist, moving the camera across the painting or zooming in and out to give it motion. It uses old sketches in the same way, as well as modern color location footage to fill in the gaps. It shows old documents, like the list of expedition members, and the map drawn by the explorers. And it uses period music and voiceover actors reading actual words from the time, including the diaries from the expedition members. Throw that all together with some masterful editing, and you have a storytelling style that works wonders.
Meriwether Lewis (left) and William Clark (right)
It also helps that the subject itself is among the most fascinating in American history. There is the epic length of the journey itself, which lasted over two years. There is the human interest element of the story, with interesting characters that you connect with. There is the drama of exploring new lands, surviving in the wilderness, being cut off from communication with home, making the first contact with foreign cultures, transacting diplomacy and trade, and studying animals and plants that have never before been described for science. And it has great significance for the American colonization of the West, and thus for American history at large. I highly recommend this movie to anyone interested in this country's history.
As a footnote to this blog post, I was inspired to read this book by Stephen Ambrose, which is also about the expedition. It's called "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson, and the Opening of the American West." Highly recommended to Lewis and Clark enthusiasts.
DVD at Amazon
Book at Amazon
Transcontinental Railroad movie