I can’t remember exactly how much time was actually covered in history class about the journey of Lewis and Clark to explore the land purchased from Napoleon and France by President Thomas Jefferson in 1803. I know it was discussed, but essentially it was glossed over in the textbook and given a paragraph or two. The magnitude of what they did, especially in those times, was never presented.
Thankfully, the Ken Burns documentary production of Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery rectifies this. Burns makes the case that the journey of Lewis & Clark is at least as important as the journey to the moon – if not more important. When they set out, the United States was a collection of former British Colonies on the Atlantic Ocean. By the time they returned, the nation stretched from sea to shining sea. In addition to exploring the land purchased, they also explored the disputed Oregon Territory, came back with details of many new species of plant and wildlife, forged relationships with Native Americans along the way, and provided confirmation that the mythical Northwest Passage, searched for by so many for so long, didn’t exist.
The history behind the two men who led the expedition is in itself somewhat astonishing. Merriweather Lewis was Thomas Jefferson’s personal secretary. Only twenty-eight years old, he was an unlikely selection. He had been an army officer and was considered to be skilled on the frontier. It had been noted he was prone to depression and sometimes he drank too much. The depression seems evident at times when there are no entries in his journal. Burns focuses on these bouts of depression quite a bit, as they resulted in the suicide of Lewis a few years after the expedition returned.
William Clark was a frontiersman, having spent time on what was then the western frontier – Kentucky and Ohio. He didn’t have the same education as Lewis but had the knowledge and temperament. In the end, he would be the one to tell the stories and details of the expedition as Lewis died without ever forming a manuscript from the journals they kept along the way. Luckily, the journals themselves did survive.
The trip itself was treacherous. The budget was just $2,500. In addition to the fact that they spent most of it going upstream against the currents of the muddy Missouri River, there were the usual dangers of frontier life and exploration: wild animals, disease, lack of food, and weather. In addition, the men had no idea of where they were going or what they would encounter along the way. While the astronauts could look up and see the moon (and remain in contact with their base back here in Houston) Lewis & Clark were on their own, venturing to places they could never have imagined. There were no photographs or descriptions of the Great Plains or the Rocky Mountains. In addition, they could never be certain of how the Native American population would react to them along the way.
Burns tells the tale in a beautiful and reverent manner. He’s shot all along the route the Corps of Discovery took; beautiful shots of prairie and mountain, of sunrises and snowstorms, of river and ocean. The cinematography is stunning all the way through. The trademark moving soundtrack – present in all of Burns’ productions – is here too, evoking emotions and setting the tone for what’s happening. Even though we know what happened in history, it’s handled here in such a way that at times there is suspense, as there is also hope.
Largely narrated by Hal Holbrook, with commentary by various writers, the story of the journey is told based on the journals that Lewis & Clark kept, plus a few letters penned by other members of the expedition which were preserved. Burns brings in other characters’ points of view by having the narration switch to different actors, such as Adam Arkin, Matthew Broderick, and Sam Waterston.
Points are clearly made throughout the documentary as well. Clark brought one of his slaves with him, and throughout the journey was treated as an equal – even being allowed to vote at one point. Indeed, Lewis & Clark, although the leaders, took votes from time to time among their men to decide issues such as where to spend the winter. They ran the expedition much like the democracy Jefferson had helped to build.
Burns also accents how the Native Americans were treated along the way. Lewis & Clark tried to broker agreements and trade with the tribes. The point is made that they honestly believed in what they were doing and believed the United States government would honor and stand behind the agreements and promises being delivered to the tribes. It’s a sad bit of history in light of what would take place over the next hundred years.
What was also interesting is that Native Americans were brought in for commentary and they could recount the stories of the Corps of Discovery arriving at their villages. It was fascinating to see how the stories had been passed down through the years and so much of the detail still remained.
This DVD should be shown in schools, although I have the feeling many classes would grow restless. At about four hours in length, it could seem tedious to some. I was enthralled the whole way through watching the scenery of parts of the country I’d never seen. Burns somehow captures it in unmarred beauty, something I doubt many of us will ever have the chance to see. Watch it and learn more about this expedition than the few paragraphs in your high school history book ever taught you.
• Interview with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan – taken from The Charlie Rose Show
• Interview with Stephen Ambrose – also taken from The Charlie Rose Show
• The Making of Lewis & Clark
• Ken Burns: Making History
• A Conversation with Ken Burns