Television Reviews

Movie Review: Into The West – Into History

Written by Kirk Ellis, William Mastrosimone, Cyrus Nowrasteh, Craig Storper
Directed by Robert Dornhelm, Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, Jeremy Podeswa. Timothy Van Patten, Michael W. Watkins, Simon Wincer

When it comes to epic productions, one of the people in Hollywood who can generally get any project he wants green-lighted and find an outlet is Steven Spielberg. Into the West is a production for TNT that covered a sixty-year period that took the western United States from an untamed wilderness to a settled country traversed by railroads. This twelve-hour epic was Executive Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Tim Van Patten, among others. I doubt that anyone other than Spielberg would have had the clout to get something like this produced on such a grand scale.

Wheel to the Stars

1824 – The Bureau of Indian Affairs becomes part of the U.S. War Department.

1826 – Famed mountain man Jedediah Smith leads the first party to California, then Oregon

1830 – President Jackson signs the Indian Removal Act, which allows for the relocation of Native Americans to lands west of the Mississippi

1834 – Congress formally approves reserved areas to be known as Indian Territory, to which tribes will be forcibly relocated.

1838 – The Trail of Tears: Cherokees are forced out of Georgia and into Indian Territory. Around 4,000 Cherokees dies along the thousand-mile march.

Into the West tells the story of two families. One is white from West Virginia. The other is Lakota Indian. The two families intertwine throughout this period.

The story starts out in a Lakota Village in 1825. Growling Bear (portrayed by Gordon Tootoosis) has a vision of the buffalo disappearing and the Lakota living in square lodges. The high medicine man doubts the vision.

Back in Wheelerton, West Virginia, Jacob Wheeler (portrayed by Matthew Settle) is the third generation in a prosperous wheel-making family but longs for more excitement. He dreams of seeing the world west of the Mississippi. When James Fletcher (portrayed by Will Patton) comes to town, Jacob’s appetite is whetted all the more. Fletcher is on his way to join up with the legendary Jedediah Smith (portrayed by Josh Brolin) in St. Louis.

Jacob eventually leaves his family and the life expected of him behind and runs off to join them in St. Louis. It takes some doing, but James manages to convince Jedediah to take him along on their journey to California.

The Lakota, meanwhile, have had their own misfortune. However, one man of deep spirit has risen up during this. Loved by the Buffalo (portrayed by Simon Baker) was named when a herd of buffalo trampled all those he was with and only he survived.

Manifest Destiny

1841 – John Bidwell becomes the first recorded emigrant to use a trail to reach California, leading the Bidwell-Bartleston wagon train from Missouri.

1843 – Lt. John C. Fremont of the Army Topographical Corps publishes the result of his exploration along the Oregon Trail, creating a bestseller and a de facto travel guide for pioneers.

1845 – Troops clash over Texas at Palo Alto, the first battle of the Mexican-American War.

The story follows these two families as their lives diverge and intertwine across the western frontier. There are sides to the glamorized story of the settlement of the west not seen before: the way entire wagon trains of settlers virtually disappeared; the way the desire for gold got into men’s blood; alcoholism; domestic abuse; all of this was present on the frontier. It was no Bonanza. It was not Little House on the Prairie (television show).

The plight of the Native Americans has always been talked about but never brought home as to just how devastating the incursion of the settlers was. Just looking at the change within a generation of what the land they inhabited looked like is sobering. The way soldiers killed indiscriminately, not caring if the village they slaughtered was made up of the Natives they were looking for or not. Miscommunication and poor translations (or translators) meant that minor incidents blew up into something much more.

Dreams and Schemes

1848 – Gold is discovered near Coloma, California, bringing an estimated 80,000 fortune-seekers from around the world.

1850 – California enters the Union. Influx of 49ers deprives local tribes of food sources, creating clashes between Native Americans and mining towns.

1851 – Treaty of Fort Laramie signed to establish peace on the plains.

1853 – Lakota chief Conquering Bear is killed when U.S. come to arrest one of his braves for poaching. The Laramie Treaty is broken.

1857 – President Buchanan sends troops to Utah to impose federal law on the Mormons igniting a full rebellion in what became known as the Utah War.

1860 – Abraham Lincoln is elected President of the Untied States.

1861 – The Civil War begins.

By creating characters within two families, the tale becomes more real. There were times such as the devastating wagon-train journey when I didn’t think they would show the devastation and death as much as they did. After all, these were supposed to be characters we cared about. However, there was a great benefit to giving the audience an emotional investment in the characters and then putting them in peril, not afraid to kill one or all off.

The acting is stellar. From the familiar names like Gary Busey, Josh Brolin, Skeet Ulrich, Rachel Leigh Cook, Keri Russell, Will Patton, and more to lesser-known actors such as Tonantzin Carmelo, Matthew Settle, Michael Spears, and Sage Galesi the performances are on the mark. I would see an actor or actress that I know and think “Isn’t that….?” But then I would become immersed in their presence in the story and forget who I was watching. They do a fantastic job becoming the characters, and the structure of the production where the more well-known actors are relegated to mostly supporting roles serves it well. It keeps the distraction from the story being told to a minimum.

Hell on Wheels

1864 – Approximately 150 Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children are murdered by Colorado Militia troops in what becomes known as the Sand Creek Massacre

1865 – Robert E. Lee surrenders his forces at Appomattox Court House, VA., ending the Civil War.

1865 – The Civil War ends. Just days later, President Abraham Lincoln is assassinated.

1866 – The U.S. Military adopts a strategy to defeat Native Americans by exterminating the buffalo.

1866 – The Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroads build toward each other at top speed from Omaha and California, respectively.

1868 – The second Fort Laramie Treaty ends war along the Bozeman Trail.

The story of the transformation of this country over those sixty years is told with the right degree of respect for the story and gravity without becoming boring. The time periods move ahead nicely and advance the characters while history unfolds around them. Both families have integral parts in well-known events in history as well as some events that I hadn’t heard about prior to seeing them here. I didn’t know about the Lawrence Massacre in Kansas, despite the fact that I took AP American History in high school and passed with flying colors. Details such as this weren’t covered, and learning about it during this mini-series was an incredible bonus. It might stretch the bounds of reality a bit to believe that these two families were somehow involved in all of these different events and affected the way that they are, but the overall story it forms is a great way to educate as well as keep it interesting.

Something else I also hadn’t learned about before was how the children of the Native Americans were stripped of their native identity under the guise of educating them. This action was deplorable. I realize that those teaching them (and even the adults from the reservations who let them go) thought this was a good thing, but I was left horrified.

Casualties of War

1874 – Barbed wire patented.

1875 – Sitting Bull organizes greatest gathering of Indians on the northern plains to enforce the Laramie Treaty of ’68, threatened by a Senate commission seeking access for miners in Black Hills.

1876 – The U.S. government orders Lakota chiefs to report to their reservations or suffer the consequences. Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and others refuse.

1877 – Congress repeals the ’68 Laramie Treaty and takes back 40 million acres of Lakota land, including the Black Hills.

1883 – Northern Pacific Railroad connects the northwest states after 19 years of construction.

It cannot be helped that in the majority of Into the West, the white man comes off pretty poorly. In making the film, those who researched and crafted it stated that they tried to achieve balance by showing the good and bad; right and wrong on both sides. The irony was that they had a harder time finding the good “white people” in history than the good Native Americans. As I watched the re-enactment of the Sand Creek Massacre, all I could think of was “Who are the ‘savages’?”

The goal was also to show that it was different from the depiction of the west in Hollywood western films. History is a lot different and yet too many people have accepted Hollywood’s version as the truth and honestly believe that is accurate. The spaghetti westerns that comprise many people’s youth have distorted history, and yet many think the events contained in them are accurate. That speaks a lot more to the poor quality of our education system than anything else.

Ghost Dance

1886 – Congress passes the Dawes Severalty Act, imposing individual land allotments on the Native American tradition of communal land, fracturing the principle of tribal life and defrauding Indians out of millions of acres.

1890 – Sitting Bull is killed in a confrontation with Lakota policemen when they try to arrest him after performing the now illegal Ghost Dance.

1890 – The Seventh Calvary massacre Lakota chief Big Foot and 350 followers at Wounded Knee Creek.

1892 – Settlers claim millions of acres confiscated from the Crow and Cherokee tribal lands.

The production is not perfect. I had some problems following the story at times. It seemed as if some characters just disappeared with no explanation – I assume they died – and then I was trying to figure out the other characters. This was especially true when there were gaps between the different episodes of the series, and the actors were changed to show their aging.

The graphics are terrific. CGI has made it possible to show things such as hundreds of buffalo plunging off of a cliff and not have it look like a roadrunner cartoon. The sets and costuming are handled nicely. It doesn’t come off looking glamorous, but rather realistic for how the people were constrained at the time by society and what was available to them.

I can remember in high school having a social studies teacher use Gone With the Wind as the basis for studying the Civil War to make it more interesting to us. Into The West is a far better and more accurate production to use in this capacity. It’s a great resource to use as a jumping-off point to a more in-depth study of events, particularly when it prompts the audience to think about what took place in human terms. This is the best and most interesting depiction of the settlement of the west that I have seen.


” The Making of Into The West
” The Communication Gap
” The Cast of Into The West
World on Fire Music Video
” Promotional Material
” Photo Gallery
” Subtitles
” Credits

1 reply »

  1. Never knew that the BIA was initially part of the War Dept, rather than the Dept of the Interior: fits…

    and never heard of the Utah War at all…


    Thank you for this enlightening review, Patti.

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