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Harriman Expedition Retraced

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The Documentary Film
The Documentary Film


Producers and Crew
Producers and Crew

Program Preview
Program Preview

Alaskan Perspective
The Alaskan Perspective

On Location
On Location

Filming History
Filming History

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Filming History

by documentary film director Larry Hott


Making a documentary film out of The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced seems almost as daunting for me as organizing the original voyage itself. In fact, the indomitable Mr. Harriman gathered his crew, launched his ship, completed his voyage and published the first two volumes of his findings in far less time than it is taking us to make a film about his expedition. What's more, Harriman didn't have modern communications and modes of travel at his disposal. He did have, of course, money and power and charisma -- an unbeatable combination at any time.

In spite of Harriman's considerable assets, he may have been overwhelmed by the challenges of turning history into a good television documentary. What do you show when you want to tell the biography of a 19th century scientist, like William Healey Dall or Charles Palache, when only one or two fuzzy photographs exist? How do you hold the viewers' attention when the events you are retelling -- the near capsizing of Edward Curtis's canoe in Glacier Bay, for example -- were never captured on motion picture film? What voices do you use for the characters, when no recordings of their speech were ever made?

The Wilderness Idea

Gifford Pinchot

Gifford Pinchot, forester and first director of the U.S. Forest Service.
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A few years back we produced a two-part series about environmental history that presented all of these problems and then some. The first film, The Wilderness Idea, told the story of John Muir, Gifford Pinchot and the first great battle for wilderness: the fight over flooding the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park. John Muir, not surprisingly, was one of the most famous scientists on Harriman's boat. Pinchot, who was at one time Muir's friend but was to become a bitter enemy, was the protege of Bernard Fernow, the forester on the 1899 Alaska expedition. Luckily for us, both men had been photographed extensively, but the sound of their voices was lost to time. A few frames of a motion picture of Pinchot existed, but none at all for Muir. What we did have were both men's diaries and memoirs; an advantage shared by the Harriman film project as well. The actual writings of the protagonists allowed us to weave together their life stories into a dramatic narrative.


John Muir

John Muir, wilderness advocate, at his desk in Martinez, California.
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To enliven the story we used professional actors to read their words. Ken Drury, a well-known Scottish performer, added charm to Muir's already irrepressible energy. Philip Bosco, a Broadway star, added just the right patrician touch to Pinchot's well-bred tones. Both Muir and Pinchot truly loved the American wilderness, and that was the film's salvation; wilderness by definition changes little and wilderness landscapes today stand in quite well for those of the 19th century. Archival footage added historical context to the men's biographies.

bikes on mountain

Americans on bicycles, ca. 1890, part of the late 19th century wilderness craze.
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Wild by Law

Biography was also at the heart of the second film in the series, Wild By Law: Bob Marshall, Aldo Leopold, Howard Zahniser and the Wilderness Act of 1964. Here we had the problem of telling the story of three men whose lives barely overlapped; they were really relay runners handing off the baton of wilderness preservation. Here, too, we had few motion picture images and no sound recordings. But now the men's lives unfolded in the 20th century against a backdrop of Hollywood movies, commercials, and advertisements. This energetic material helped us develop an underlying dramatic tension: would Congress pass the Wilderness Act and save the country's wild lands from development?

Aldo Leopold

Aldo Leopold, writer and ecologist.
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Bob Marshall

Bob Marshall, founder of the Wilderness Society, with Alaska Natives from the Brooks Range.
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Howard Zahniser

Howard Zahniser, the lobbyist responsible for the passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964.
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The Harriman Alaska Expedition Retraced allows us to use some of the same techniques -- diary readings, archival photographs, and stunning original cinematography. Each scientist, writer and artist on the boat has a compelling biography, giving us sidebars and stories to accompany the main events: the voyage of 1899 and the retracing in 2001. A film is, at heart, story telling with pictures, and with Harriman we have one grand story to tell.


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For information on the Harriman Retraced Expedition e-mail: harriman2001@science.smith.edu

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