Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery

I have long been a fan of documentaries, and even when I was a kid I remember my dad watching the famous Ken Burns multi-part exploration of The Civil War.  I could not, nor can not, accurately describe just why Burns’ film was so compelling, but somehow he was able to transfix my ten-year-old mind regardless of the sheer weight of the historical record being presented, never minding the lack of any original video footage, fancy special effects, or other trappings of modern Hollywood.  No, the tale that Burns recounted was one of real people, whose words came to life through their original letters and other writings, who participated in one of the darkest and bloodiest chapters in our nation’s history.  His slow, controlled pans and zooms over grainy black-and-white photographs, his depiction of rich green countrysides where so many had died so long ago, and his hearty respect for the subject matter left an indellible impression on me for many years to come.

Lewis and Clark showcases Ken Burns’ talents as a masterful documentarian, and intricately details one of the most grand adventures in history.  It continues the tradition he set forth years prior with The Civil War, and I am eager to see his other films about baseball and World War II.  What I found most remarkable about Lewis and Clark was how intricately Mr. Burns detailed so many aspects of their historic journey into the wild unknown, mostly through the use of narrated selections from their letters and journals.  The majesty of the great prairies, the intensity of the summer heat and bitter winter cold, the interactions with both friendly and adversarial Natives, the desperation the Corps faced as they stared at the Rockies with no forseeable way to cross before winter…it’s all captured in this film in a very real and personal way that is rare among documentaries.

Youth is often said to be wasted on the young, and one might add classroom history lessons to that maxim as well.  This is the kind of film that, had I been witness to it in my primary schooling days, would have soon found me asleep at my desk or staring out the window.  Unlike the Civil War, the Journey of the Corps of Discovery was much more tame, and the conflicts of man and nature would probably have not been as compelling to me as the brother-against-brother battles in the Civil War.  But the triumphs, despairs, and adulations of the Corps are more inspiring to me than they have ever been before–thanks to this masterwork from Ken Burns.  The added commentaries from noted historians such as Stephen Ambrose and William Least Heat-Moon, a descendant of the Nez Perce, the friendly tribe with whom Lewis and Clark traded after their journey across the Rockies, add another layer of richness to this documentary that I greatly appreciated.

While this film is not perfect (some parts do tend to drag on, and I would have liked more information on the rest of the Corps rather than just Lewis, Clark, and a handful of others), it is a wonderful showcase of two true American heroes and their journey of courage, hope, and discovery.

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