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Stephen Ives: Intersecting History

To tell the story of THE WEST, director/producer Stephen Ives trained a wide-angle lense on America's crossroads.

Stephen IvesI see the West as the four-way stop sign of American history, a place of surprising collisions of cultures," says Stephen Ives, director and co-producer of THE WEST, a "General Motors Mark of Excellence Presentation." Ken Burns is the executive producer and creative consultant of this new 8-part documentary that premiered on PBS stations nationwide in September 1996. "Those interactions create an often-ambivalent, sometimes unresolved, set of issues. Acknowledging that there doesnít have to be a Hollywood ending to every story is key to what weíve done in shaping THE WEST."

Ives has spent the past ten years as a filmmaker who provides context for complex subjects. Before devoting five years to THE WEST, he served as co-producer of Ken Burnsís THE CONGRESS and consulting producer on THE CIVIL WAR and BASEBALL. Most recently, he explored the turbulent life of Charles A. Lindbergh in LINDBERGH, an in-depth portrait of the reluctant hero that garnered critical acclaim on PBSí The American Experience series.

"Lindbergh struck me as such a quintessential American figure. I thought he would give people a glimpse into the American character," Ives says. "In many ways, THE WEST is the same kind of journey. I became convinced that it was the next large story that needed to be told after THE CIVIL WAR to help us all understand how this nation became a world power, and what price was paid for that. The myth of the West still plays a potent role in our consciousness today in how we define ourselves, and in the image we project to the world."

Dispelling Stereotypes, Revealing Possibilities

Central to Ivesís vision of the West is the "complicated and far more compelling middle-ground" between the two primary myths that have guided historical interpretation until now. The traditional one portrays Native Americans as "savages" swept aside by European progress. The more recent myth recasts European and American explorers as conquerors bent on oppression of native people and unbridled exploitation of the Westís environment.

"Those stereotypes turn history into simple black-and-white stories with simple outcomes enacted by simple characters," says Ives. "Obviously, history doesnít unfold that way, and what weíve tried to do is embrace the complexity of the West. Undeniably, this is a story of conquest. There were tragic casualties left in the wake of Manifest Destiny. But every nation has struggled with moral questions of conquest and I think America struggled with it as well as any nation has. I donít think the darker side of the Western experience should be allowed to totally obscure the accomplishments and achievements that are part of Americaís nation-building. Thatís been the struggle in making THE WEST; keeping the two ideas in the same frame."

Stephen Ives camera shotBut there is one myth the series celebrates rather than debunks. "The West has always been symbolic to Americans of the future, promising yet another place over the next horizon, another chance for a new beginning," Ives observes. "American myths are myths of possibility, and this Western myth has incredible power. Today, as our nation begins to feel a sense of limits, itís all the more important to understand where that ideal comes from."

"Inherent in knowing our history is the recognition of how many times in the course of this nationís existence weíve reached a place where we felt that possibilities had come to an end, and then broken through to another frontier. So if Asia is the next great window of development in the national economy, then the West may yet again be the place of opportunity, but it will be one that stretches beyond our continental boundaries."

Western Odyssey

Ives' love affair with the West began in Texas, where he lived for five years after studying American History at Harvard. "Thatís when I became fascinated with the myth and landscape and people of the West," Ives recalls. "It had always seemed to me to be a subject that was one of those essential elements of the American story."

To bring this story to life in THE WEST, Ives and his team -- including co-producers Jody Abramson and Michael Kantor, director of photography Buddy Squires, and associate producer/researcher Victoria Gohl -- took a series of pioneering Western journeys. They logged 100,000 air miles; filmed 72 interviews; shot over 250 hours of original footage; and waded through more than 70 archives and private photo collections. Finding interview subjects, and getting the flavor and candor they wanted to capture on-screen, was especially challenging.

"We found people by talking to other people, historians in particular," says Ives. But connecting with native peoples posed special problems. Although consultants often paved the way, "in many of the tribes we visited, we met a certain reticence about discussing the past. Making those conversations work took getting proper introductions from someone they trusted, and spending time with people without our cameras, so they would be comfortable with why we were there."

Stephen Ives wide angle camera shotTheir odyssey produced genuine Western adventures, like rugged overland hikes to remote locations; towing a rancher out of a mudhole as he led them to a buffalo herd; and jettisoning out of a helicopter at 13,000 feet after being spun around by vicious winds in the Big Horn Mountains. There were also extraordinary, uniquely Western moments. Ives recalls a day they were filming wild mustangs at dawn on a ranch in South Dakota. As the horses grazed in a misty field, a group of Canada geese appeared in the rose-colored sky, soaring into the shot. "If I had cued them with a Hollywood megaphone, the moment couldnít have been more perfect," he says.

But his fondest memory is of The Eureka, a wood-burning steam locomotive built in 1874 that Ives brought from Nevada to the Durango and Silverton Railroad in the Rockies. At the end of a long day of filming, he stood in the engine as the train traveled proudly down the mountain, and watched people stare at it each time the train reached a railroad crossing. "It was blowing its whistle and ringing its bell, and cinders shot from the smokestack, lighting up the sky like fireflies. As we entered the town of Durango, I felt like we were moving from the 19th into the 20th century."

A Healthy View of History

Ives credits Ken Burns with "inspiring my decision to go into historical filmmaking, because I admired his work and Iíve learned a great deal from watching and being part of his process." However, THE WESTís director enjoyed giving the project his own stamp. "There are subtle differences in our approach. I am perhaps more willing to embrace technical solutions to filmmaking challenges -- like step-printing newsreels and creating complex super-imposition sequences for maps. I also experimented with a more modern musical score, as well as other music that incorporates different instruments and styles."

In its finished form, THE WEST is a combination of scholarship and style that Ives hopes will successfully deliver the story of the West to viewers. "I hope theyíll come away with a clear-eyed sense of what it took for this country to become the United States we know today, both good and bad. I donít think we can ever look at the West without feeling what Tom Watkins, one of our commentators, describes as 'a mixture of both pride and shame;'. I think thatís a fundamentally healthy way to look at the history of our nation."


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