Americans are rediscovering two of their earliest, and most authentic, heroes: Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Stephen Ambrose's 1996 bestselling account, "Undaunted Courage: Meriwether Lewis, Thomas Jefferson and the Opening of the American West," sparked fresh interest in the pair. Now Ken Burns's film version of the tale (airing on PBS Nov. 4 and 5, 8-10 p.m., check local listings) promises to spread that interest into living rooms throughout the land.
This may be pretty tame fare for viewers used to action flicks that constantly assault the senses. The special effects in Burns's four-hour blending of still photography, voice, music, and reenactment vignettes come entirely from the viewer's imagination - imagining what it must have been like to confront grim-faced Lakota Sioux warriors, the endless Great Falls of the Missouri, or the jagged peaks of the Bitterroot Range.
The Corps of Discovery, as Jefferson named his troop of explorers, had nothing but their wits, their feet, and primitive means of transport on all these occasions. The "captains," as Lewis and Clark were called by their men, had to draw their maps as they went. The major geographic feature they sought, the fabled Northwest Passage to the West Coast, didn't exist (as they forlornly found out).
What did exist through most of their thousands of miles battling the Missouri's powerful current, scaling mountains, and coursing down the Columbia, was nation after nation of native Americans. Each tribe had its distinctive culture and language. Most, remarkably, befriended the Americans, who came prepared with trade trinkets and an official welcome to the American nation from the "great father" in Washington, President Jefferson. (Little did the tribes realize their lands were dealt away in the Louisiana Purchase.) The irony of these early, congenial meetings between red men and white men is touchingly explored by Burns.
Indians, in fact, made possible the successful conclusion of the journey. Sacagawea, the Shoshone woman married to one member of the corps, was, if anything, even more indispensable than most of us remember from grade school tellings of the story. The Mandans, Shoshone, and Nez Perc all helped the party survive crises of weather, near starvation, and puzzling geography.
True to what we've come to expect from him after "The Civil War" and "Baseball," Burns attains emotional intensity as well as visual brilliance. His commentators, including Ambrose and the film's coproducer and writer, Dayton Duncan, bring humor and their own (usually well-measured) sense of wonder to the subject. Duncan almost sheds a tear relating the sad final chapter of Lewis's life, his suicide within a couple of years of the expedition's completion.
This is a story sure to grip anyone with a taste for history, or an appreciation of the resilience of the human spirit and intellect. The main characters had their flaws, but they were exactly the right men for the huge task at hand: linking the young nation together, coast to coast.