New Perspectives on THE WEST
In a conversation with us several years ago, the Kiowa poet N. Scott Momaday remarked that the American West "is a place that has to be seen to be believed, and it may have to be believed in order to be seen." For five years we have travelled that landscape, photographed its vistas, talked to its people, sought out its history, all as part of our production of THE WEST, an eight-part documentary series for public television.
Now -- 100,000 air-miles and 72 filmed interviews and 74 visits to archives and collections and more than 250 hours of film later -- we have begun to understand at least something of what Momaday meant.
In the West, everything seems somehow larger, grander, than life, and we now can see why so many different peoples have come to consider their own most innermost lives inextricably linked with it. Over the centuries, the West has been the repository of the dreams of an astonishing variety of people -- and it has been on the long, dusty roads of the West that these dreams have crisscrossed and collided, transforming all who travelled along them, rewarding some while disappointing others.
The story of the West was once told as an unbroken series of triumphs -- the victory of "civilization" over "barbarism," a relentlessly inspirational epic in which greed and cruelty were often glossed over as enterprise and courage. Later, that epic would be turned upside down by some, so that the story of the West became another -- equally misleading -- morality tale, one in which the crimes of conquest and dispossession were allowed to overshadow everything else that ever happened beyond the Mississippi. The truth about the West is far more complicated, and much more compelling.
America without the West is unthinkable now. Yet there was nothing inevitable about our taking it. Others had prior claim to its vastness, after all, and we could quite easily have remained forever huddled east of the Mississippi. In resolving to move west and become a continental nation we would exact a fearful price from those already living on the land. But we also became a different people, and it is no accident that that turbulent history -- and the myths that have grown up around it -- have made the West the most potent symbol of the nation as a whole, overseas as well as in our own hearts.
If course, no film series can ever encompass the whole story of the West. There are as many valid approaches to telling it as there are able historians willing to try. We believe that history is really biography, and have chosen to focus on the experiences of individual men and women, many of whom tell their own stories in their own words, through diaries and letters and autobiographical accounts.
Our cast is deliberately diverse, including some celebrated figures and some who will be new to most viewers. None plays the stereotyped part that one or another of the West's contradictory myths dictates. All were selected because they seemed to us both to illuminate the times through which they lived and to tell us something important about the West, as well.
Our subjects were chosen, too, to demonstrate that in the often stirring story of the West, a human price was paid for every gain. The stories we've tried to tell at least suggest, we hope, the outlines of a more inclusive story of the West than is conventionally told; a story that is more frank about our failures and more clear-eyed about the cost of even our greatest successes than the old one, but also a story in which each of us can find a place and all can take pardonable pride.
The story of the American West, we believe, is at once the story of a unique part of the country and a metaphor for the country as a whole. With all its heroism and inequity, exploitation and adventure, sober realities and bright myths, it is the story of all of us, no matter where on the continent we happen to live, no matter how recently our ancestors arrived on its shores.
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© 2001 THE WEST FILM PROJECT and WETA