The West: Stephen Ives unreels a complex saga of glory, shame and all the rest

Originally published in Current, June 17, 1996

By Karen Everhart Bedford

As promised, Ken Burns and Stephen Ives have delivered a film series about the West that is unlike any other.

The West, an eight-night series scheduled to begin Sept. 15 [1996], covers a vast expanse of history--literally from the beginning of time, when Native Americans inhabited the land that inspires their creation myths, to early in this century, when the Indians had been brutally conquered, the land settled, and the United States rapidly transformed into the continent-spanning nation envisioned by Thomas Jefferson.

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Filmmaker Stephen Ives, right, with cinematographer Buddy Squires, shoot over the edge of Arizona's Canyon de Chelly.

The series attempts to portray Native Americans not simply as victims, but as people who struggled through and survived a tragic upheaval of their world.

And it brings to the screen the stories of women, Hispanics, blacks and Asians, all of whom brought their own dreams and lent their own experiences to a story that, in popular media at least, usually overlooks them.

"In addition to the length of time it covers, what's fresh about it is the broad coverage of as many kinds of people as we could manage--not because it's politically correct, but because it's historically correct,'' says Geoffrey Ward, principal writer for The West, which Burns and Ives will present with great fanfare at the public TV annual meeting next weekend. "It includes neither heroes nor villains, but human beings.''

"The scope is very, very sweeping,'' says Richard White, a historian who advised the producers and appears as a prominent expert within the series. The filmmakers tried to find new ways of telling the stories of the West that go beyond "whites invaded the continent and took it away from the Indians.''

"It's a much more complicated story of how Indian people themselves try to adapt and how there were divisions between the two sides.''

"The history of the West has traditionally been seen as a simplified morality tale of the conquest of civilization over barbarism,'' says Stephen Ives, director and coproducer of The West. That stereotype recently has been "turned on its ear'' into a "catalogue of cruelty, an unending trail of exploitation and oppression. Neither of them come close to the real historical experience of the West.''

"We've struggled to tell a story between those two extremes. Once you explore it, it's infinitely more complicated and infinitely more compelling.''

The filmmakers were challenged to treat the stories of the West in new ways, not only by the historians who advised them, but by a plethora of competing television productions on the same subject. Since Burns and Ives announced their project in 1991, "there's probably been 10 series about the West'' that have aired on various channels. In addition, Ric Burns, brother to Ken, produced The Way West, an American Experience series that PBS aired last year.

But The West proceeded uninhibited by how others treated the subject, according to Ives. He made a point of not watching Ric Burns' series, despite his respect for his work. "I was intrigued by how [Ric] would deal with some of the stories,'' Ives acknowledges. "Ultimately, I knew we were going to do our own treatment, and, in the end, I tried hard not to be influenced by others.''

"If we tried to adjust what we did to tailor the film from what others were doing, we would have been chasing our tails,'' Ives adds. "It was hard enough to tell the history of the West, [much less to worry about what] everyone else was doing."

Burns as foster parent

Even before his first blockbuster public TV series, The Civil War, Ken Burns had wanted to do a series on the history of the American West. But his time was already booked with producing Baseball, and he "rather greedily'' did not want to give up his prerogative on the immensely rich historical topic. "I had to find someone to be in the trenches doing day-to-day production,'' he explains. "I became the executive producer.''

The "someone'' he found was Stephen Ives, son of David Ives, the former president of WGBH, Boston. The 36-year-old filmmaker recalls growing up in Lincoln, Mass., in a household where watching Masterpiece Theatre was a "religious experience.''

"The experience of following history through those superb programs had a really profound influence on the direction of my work,'' he recalls. "It also made me as passionate a supporter of public television as you can find,'' although he acknowledges some frustration with the system's quirky inner workings.

"Ken was a mentor to this project and to me,'' says Ives. "I got into historical documentary films because of Ken.''

After contributing to The Civil War and Burns' film on Congress, and producing "Lindbergh'' for the American Experience with guidance from Burns, Ives had reached a stage where he needed to direct his own films.

With The West, "Ken was able to discover a different role for himself'' in their working relationship. For the first time, he ceded his claim on the series as "his own in terms of final authorship.''

As executive producer and creator of the series, Burns provided "broad oversight'' and was "intimately involved'' in scripting and editing, says Ives. "When he did spend a day in the editing room, he brought a tremendous perspective to our work.''

"I have been the backstop, to borrow a baseball metaphor,'' explains Burns. He felt "great anxiety'' about his ability to be a "foster parent after 20 years of making my own babies,'' but says his distance from the series gave him an objectivity that proved helpful during editing.

With his many filmmaking successes, Burns sees his primary challenges now as juggling many different projects at once. In addition to launching The West, he's involved in two other series further out in the pipeline: American Lives, an occasional series of historical profiles that debuts in January; and a "huge, mammoth'' history of jazz to air in 2000.

Burns says his tendency now is "to give some of this away,'' sharing his successful filmmaking enterprise with new talent. "I am working more and more with other people. It keeps me free of form and dogma.''

"It's been an interesting evolution for both of us,'' Ives adds. "We've had our disagreements and struggles with this series. Ultimately, I do believe it made for a creative chemistry that served the film well in the end.''

Someplace better than here

Both Ives and Burns describe the central theme of their series as a tension between two conflicting ideas of western history.

One is the "geography of hope,'' a phrase attributed to the late Wallace Stegner, a novelist and writer of Western history who had been an adviser to the project until he was killed in a car accident, according to cowriter Dayton Duncan.

The expression, "geography of hope,'' encapsulates the things that drew settlers to the West, the notion that "there was always a place over the next horizon that was better than the place you were,'' explained Ives.

"It brought with it a tremendous cost for the people who already lived in the West, as evidenced by the violence that occurred in collisions between cultures,'' he adds.

Another emotional motif for the western saga comes from N. Scott Momaday, a Kiowa poet and one of the series' most compelling contemporary commentators. He describes the annihilation of the buffalo as a "wound in the heart.''

"It was a wonderful way to describe the price paid for settlement of the West,'' says Ives. "The tension between the 'geography of hope' and the 'wound in the heart,' is a dichotomy that has appealed to us as a way of seeing the western experience.''

"It is our intention to breathe in the 'geography of hope' and exhale the 'wound in the heart,' '' says Burns.

"Petticoated astonishments"

The third episode of The West and the only one available for preview at present, illustrates much about how the filmmakers' deal with this dichotomy of optimism and grievous pain.

It deals primarily with the Gold Rush and, in the classic Burns style, offers the story of William Swain as an archetype for the 49ers' experience. Swain, a comfortable farmer and father of an infant girl, leaves his family for the riches of California, "only to find nothing except what he would remember as the greatest adventure of his life.''

His diary and letters to and from loved ones advance the story and provide first-person perspective on the lives of miners, but tell only part of the history. The film also describes experiences of Chinese miners, prostitutes, "petticoated astonishments'' (women who were not prostitutes), a wealthy landowner who descended from Spanish settlers, and, most tragically, California Indians.

The Native Americans of California were sickened by cholera and unable to feed themselves because miners depleted the region's hunting and fishing stocks. When they began stealing, settlers came to view them as public nuisances. Whites enslaved them, a newspaper editorial called for a "war of extermination,'' and the atrocities worsened.

The film elaborates somewhat, recounting a few factual horrors: Indian children's heads being split open, bounties being offered for Indian scalps and heads, a population of 150,000 Indians before the Gold Rush dropping to 30,000 by the time it ended. "It was the worst slaughter of Indian people in U.S. history,'' says the narrator, actor Peter Coyote.

"It's not really a long segment, but you really feel it,'' says Duncan, who also served as consulting producer. "There had been longer versions of that,'' but continuing descriptions of "yet another atrocity almost make you feel like they're piling on. The key was to make it so you can feel how horrible it was.''

"You have to tell these things unflinchingly,'' comments Burns. "You can't make it unrelenting horrors. What I began to insist on in the editing room is breath.''

Much of the excitement and color of the Gold Rush allows viewers to breathe in "hope'' and breathe out "wound,'' as Burns wants them to do, but sometimes the transition feels like a roller-coaster ride. In a parallel story about Native Americans' delicate relations with the U.S. government, the program recounts how a "minor incident over a cow,'' as described by White on camera, erupted into fierce brutality.

Acting on the order of a hot-headed officer, American soldiers killed a mediating Lakota chief, and in turn were massacred by enraged Lakotas. The event "becomes a sign to the Lakota--how can you trust these people?,'' White comments.

The segment ends and rolls directly into a wealthy Sonoma Valley landowner's description of Americans. "The Yankees are a wonderful people, wonderful,'' declares a voice for Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. "Wherever they go, they make improvements.'' He imagines that if large numbers immigrated to hell, they would "irrigate it, plant trees and flower gardens ... and make everything beautiful and pleasant.''

The profile of Vallejo that follows moves less abruptly into an account of how Americans later become suspicious and jealous of foreigners participating in the Gold Rush, and sought to force them out of their claims. Even Vallejo was betrayed when lawsuits and squatters' claims reduced his vast estate to less than 300 acres. He bitterly curses "swollen torrents of shysters from Missouri and other states'' as "legal thieves'' without scruple.

"There's a tremendous amount of emotion and feeling of uplift,'' says T.H. Watkins, a historian for the Wilderness Society and adviser to the series. "It's the greatest adventure story of mankind. ... There are points in the film when you will drop to your knees in tears. It's powerful, powerful stuff.''



To Current's home page

Earlier news: Ric Burns' earlier series The Way West.

Current Briefing about the telling of history on public TV.


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