PBS's Strong `American Experience'


It's easy to be factually correct, what is much more complicated is to be impressionistically correct.

- Judy Crichton, executive producer

WITHIN every national history are millions of stories, little histories that feed into the river of time that makes up a people's tradition. American history, though relatively short, is particularly complex because American society is so wildly heterogeneous. One TV documentary series has been aiming to capture the essence of "The American Experience" for five years, telling some of those individual stories.

Take "Last Stand at Little Big Horn," which airs tomorrow night on PBS (check local listings). The battle in 1875 won by Lakota and Cheyenne warriors over General George Armstrong Custer's forces has been known for over a hundred years as "Custer's Last Stand."

It's said that there were no survivors because Custer and his entire company were wiped out, but there were hundreds - all Indians, of course.

That battle may have been won by the Indians, but the US Cavalry won the war. Little Big Horn was the beginning of the end of Indian freedom on the plains. "The American Experience" re-examines that moment of history from both the native American and white perspectives. Written by Blackfeet novelist James Welch with director Paul Stekler, "Last Stand" recounts the events and profiles the characters, from Custer to Crazy Horse.

It is an eminently balanced account, describing how the Sioux drove out many tribes (the Crow and the Kiowa suffered particularly) from the territory before the whites drove out the Sioux themselves. Native Americans and descendants of Custer's Crow scouts provide the Indian side of the story, illustrating it with vivid anecdotes, artwork from the period, and some exquisite scenic photography. Pulitzer Prize-winning native American author N. Scott Momaday narrates the details of the Indian struggle.

There is no mistaking whose tragedy this is. Custer is sketchily drawn, but he seems an unsavory character. The filmmakers do not outline atrocities (such as Custer's attack on the Washita River encampment) but we do see how the myth of "Yellow Hair" was created, the facts twisted by the cynical manipulations of unscrupulous politicians, as well as by business and newspaper men.

"Last Stand" is at least partly about white greed and ambition, because there is a definite moral perspective. But there is no preachy, politically correct rhetoric designed to manipulate the viewer's emotions - the whole film is free of hyperbole.

That balance and moral perception marks all the films I have seen in the series so far.

Each of the producers have walked a tightrope of discretion - balancing insight against hard facts, drawing the characters in each of these non-fiction dramas as human beings capable of superb virtues as well as poor judgment.

When the series has taken up such complicated and disgraceful facts of American history as segregation and institutionalized prejudice, it has done so without self-righteousness.

In the recent "Liberators - Fighting On Two Fronts in World War II," the plight of African-American soldiers coming home to the South after World II is made vivid and moving. At the same time the show does not indulge in race hatred, and several black soldiers recount moments of brotherhood with white soldiers.

When the 761st Tank Battalion (the first such battalion of black soldiers) liberated Buchenwald, the men reached a new understanding of the consequences of racism. Marvelous narration by Denzel Washington and Louis Gossett Jr. inspire reflection in the viewer. But the eye-witness accounts by African-American soldiers and the Jewish victims they liberated can change minds and hearts. It is the kind of film made to heal wounds rather than to inflict them.

The portraits of American presidents have been excellent, too. "The Kennedys" was an amazingly thorough overview of the family, their mystique, their influence for good and for ill, and their tragedy.

A more succinct film, "George Washington: The Man Who Wouldn't Be King," which premiered last week, painted an honest portrait of a flawed human being who nevertheless rose to the occasion as a soldier and as a statesman. It is the story of a man who was offered enormous power for himself but chose unselfishly and well.

`THE Quiz Show Scandal" (which repeats on Nov. 25) describes in detail the gradual corruption of those silly quiz shows like "The $64,000 Question" and "Dotto" that so captured the American imagination during the 1950s. Producers of some of these shows tell how they came to believe there was nothing wrong in the manipulation of contestants, or the rigging of the game, or misleading the public.

"The Quiz Show Scandal" is really about learning ethics in a new medium.

From its inception, "The American Experience" has striven for complexity without confusion.

Executive Producer Judy Crichton said in a phone interview, "Even though it may sound corny ... you really do not understand what is going on today if you don't understand the past.... I very much wanted to expand general understanding of history, but also to find the means to make it very accessible - to make people understand that history is much closer than we think... People remember stories, and I think if there is a mark of this series it is that we have used the story-telling form well."

The artistry lies in compressing the information so that it becomes almost like poetry, Ms. Crighton says, and the trick is to make each piece stand for something larger, to find the import of the story beyond the incidents themselves.

It is true that each of the shows is different in scope and feeling from the others. Yet the viewer feels the integrity and scholarship behind every segment. And even when you disagree with the moral of the story (and they all seem to have morals), you can see how the filmmakers came to their point of view.

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