I have had a strong love-hate relationship with Ken Burns' "The West" ever since I first saw it, perhaps having more mixed feelings about it than any other documentary I've ever seen. There is so much good in it, and there is so much bad in it. I sometimes remember parts of it fondly when coming into contact with the history that it covers, but I also remember an overall negative impression that I received from much of the series. This is one of those series where political correctness is taken to levels that are a bit on the extreme side, which is strong enough to detract from the quality of some parts of it. Some parts of it are also quite good, which makes it hard for me to reject it outright; but my overall impression of this series has been generally negative since first watching it. It has much of value in it, but my memory of this series has tended to be negative.
First, some things of value in it - the series has an interesting depiction of parts of the Spanish Conquest, when white men first set foot in this region. The Spanish Conquest had remarkable importance for the history of the West, and their coverage of men like Coronado and Cortés is both interesting and (appropriately) unsympathetic. The many crimes of the Conquistadors are presented very directly, and there is no attempt to apologize for the conquerors' brutality. They also have good (although brief) coverage of Lewis and Clark as well, and they mention many other important events for the West's history as well.
Lewis and Clark
The problems come when they present relations between Americans and the region's Indians after Lewis and Clark - after the friendly policies of the earlier American explorers were betrayed and abandoned. Don't get me wrong, there's a need to talk about the many crimes that white Americans committed - about the broken treaties, wars of aggression, and forced re-locations (among other things) - but one gets tired of the repetitive focus on the white man's crimes against Native Americans, and gets the feeling that things were over-simplified - that there were no whites to be found who opposed these crimes, or who spoke out against the harsh treatment of native peoples. It's possible, though, that at least some of my negative reaction comes from the depressing nature of much of this content, and the often graphic nature of the series' descriptions. This series has more than its share of massacres, and they do not hesitate to give levels of detail that challenge the stomach as well as the heart. I consider myself as having a reasonably strong stomach for war violence, but the one-sided nature of much of the slaughter - and its tendency to kill women and children indiscriminately - made much of this history singularly challenging to get through (and I've learned lots of gross history before).
Chief Sitting Bull
One problem in their coverage of Indian wars was the series' chronological focus on later events: it tended to skip over wide swaths of Indian relations before the 1840's. This is understandable, given that virtually all of this period was before the invention of photography, which presumably makes it more difficult to depict visually. Nonetheless, much had to be skipped over to get to the photography era; and one feels like even their detailed coverage of Indian relations is somewhat lacking in completeness. Much better is their coverage of the Indian wars of the 1870's, which may be the definitive coverage of this period's history. They take full advantage of the period's wealth of photographs, and their series' focus on the most famous period in the West's history has its upsides. (This is the period that most Hollywood Westerns have tended to focus on, and this series gives a good depiction of Custer's Last Stand, and the Battle of Little Big Horn.)
George Armstrong Custer
On other topics, though, one gets the feeling that many events are better covered elsewhere - such as the Lewis and Clark expedition (better covered by Ken Burns' in-depth film), the U.S.-Mexican War of the 1840's (covered extensively in another PBS film), the California Gold Rush (covered in-depth by still another PBS film), and the Transcontinental Railroad (covered in-depth by still another great PBS film). One learns some interesting things in "The West" series about how the Civil War affected the region (with some Western battles ignored by Ken Burns' famous history), so it's clear that this film may be the only television coverage out there for some of this material. Still, much of this material has been better done elsewhere since this time; so my praise of its content is going to remain somewhat limited on this account (at least for the time being).
One also gets the feeling that while they are rightly willing to regard Hispanics as among the victims of this time, and do not hold the crimes of their Conquistador ancestors against them; but they often seem to hold the crimes of the white Americans' ancestors against them. Perhaps this is just a perception on my part, perhaps I took it wrong; but it often seemed like they showed something of a double standard when covering these issues. I'm sure part of this is just political correctness rearing its ugly head; but this is among those subjects where the left is somewhat hypocritical, and their coverage is somewhat annoying in this regard.
Chinese workers on Transcontinental Railroad
In depicting the complex ethnic mix of the West, they also focus on Chinese immigrants and African Americans, and focus on the respective discrimination against their peoples as well. Another important part of this region is Utah, so the series is forced to cover Mormon history as well (which they probably do somewhat reluctantly). I should note that I am a practicing Mormon myself, so I am not much satisfied with their coverage of Mormon history; as it helps perpetuate a number of myths that have always circulated about Mormons. (Nothing against the filmmakers personally - I think they probably believe it, and I'm sure they can find sources that appear to both be reputable and substantiate their claims. Nonetheless, I'm not entirely satisfied with their coverage, for a few reasons:
Painting of Joseph Smith
For one, the era's polygamy is understandably rather alien to the filmmakers (as it is to me); although even here, they acknowledge that my church has not practiced polygamy since the year 1890 - something which is sometimes forgotten by people outside the church. For another, the core Mormon beliefs - such as God appearing to Joseph Smith, the translation of the Book of Mormon from gold plates, and other religious events that my faith believes happened - are presented somewhat unsympathetically here as well. They don't say outright that they believe these things are false, but they don't go out of their way to present it sympathetically, either. They would presumably be more sympathetic if covering core beliefs of Judaism, Islam, or Buddhism; no matter how outlandish some of their beliefs might seem to outsiders - and every religion has beliefs of this kind, no matter what it is. And to their credit, they do show commendable sympathy for Native American religious beliefs in their depiction of this subject. Nonetheless, I would presume that someone outside the church would not come away with an understanding of why Mormons believe as they do, or any understanding of Mormon culture; as they would with traditional Indian beliefs and cultures shown here; causing their depiction of Mormon history to be somewhat unsatisfactory in my opinion. I don't know that I'd say it's a deliberate hatchet job, but it's not very sympathetic, either.
Lilburn W. Boggs, then-Governor of Missouri
Two major things need to be said, though, for their coverage of Mormon history. One is that to their credit, they do present anti-Mormon persecutions in a negative light, which is something that many have forgotten to mention when covering the history of the West. (For example, there was an infamous Extermination Order against Mormons by then-Governor Lilburn W. Boggs of Missouri, and the forced expulsion of our people from one part of the frontier after another is comparable to the way Native Americans were treated at this time.) This persecution is presented accurately, with no whitewashing of its brutality (or its rank unconstitutionality). I do want to thank the filmmakers for remembering to mention this part of our history.
Photograph of Brigham Young
The other major thing to be said for their coverage of this history is that they remember to mention the fact that Utah was among the first states to give women the vote; and only removed it when the federal government refused to grant them statehood in any other way (effectively forcing them to do so). This strikes many people as strange, given the popular perception of the era's polygamy; and the film's narration even labels Brigham Young an "unlikely champion" of women's suffrage. I'm sure that that is how they really view him; but we who practice the Mormon faith are not surprised to hear this. To us, this seems entirely likely; and Brigham Young's support for women's rights is exactly what we'd expect from an understanding of our faith. Whatever the film's other flaws in covering Mormons, they are mostly fair in portraying this; and I was much satisfied that they made sure to mention this part of our history.
So Ken Burns' "The West" is something of a mixed bag, with many good things and many bad things; and it's impossible to give a simple summary of the series' merits. Overall, though, my impression of the series is negative; and I have never watched the series since first watching it years ago. I won't say I'll never view it again, but it doesn't seem likely that I'll do it anytime soon.
DVD at Amazon
If you liked this post, you might also like:
Lewis and Clark program (Ken Burns)
U.S.-Mexican War 1846-1848 (PBS)
California Gold Rush program (PBS)
Civil War miniseries (Ken Burns)
Transcontinental Railroad program (PBS)