Lewis & Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery
Director: Ken Burns
Narrator: Hal Holbrook
Released: 1997; PBS Gold Edition DVD released 2001
Even if you're not a history buff, you can be fascinated by the pure adventure-into-the-unknown quality of the Lewis and Clark story. This Ken Burns production, first broadcast on PBS in the late 1990s and now available on DVD, is an outstanding example of the filmmakers' storytelling craft. Even when we know the outcome, we're carried along by the carefully unfolding narrative, the beautiful landscapes, and the elegant photography.
If you're not familiar with the films of Ken Burns, the Lewis and Clark epic offers a very accessible entry point. If you're a Ken Burns fan, this film probably ranks as one of your favorites. A Burns' trademark is visualizing historical information through sweeping camera movements and close-ups of original documents, photographs, and artifacts whenever possible. Here, Burns not only examines the personalities of the title characters, he also retraces the actual journey of the Corps of Discovery, showing us exactly what faced this hardy band as they ventured into lands that, while so familiar to us today, were, at the beginning of the 1800s, completely unknown to white populations in the eastern United States.
Both the Lewis and Clark story and the Ken Burns film of it work on many levels. First, the story itself is amazing. Not only do we have educated travelers who eloquently chronicle their journey and their discoveries, we have the bewildering assignment by President Thomas Jefferson to explore and map a completely unknown territory. As Burns tells the story, he shows us the thoughts, fears, and triumphs of the captains of the expedition, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. And we get to know those who accompanied these decorated Civil War heroes: the men — and the key woman, Sacagawea, a Shoshone not much more than a child herself, who brought along her infant son and would serve as their most trusted guide through the unknown territories.
While Lewis and Clark did not find the Northwest Passage to the Pacific Ocean they sought, they traversed and mapped a section of our continent that holds many of our most precious natural wonders. As a photographer, I travel to that area of the United States as often as possible to watch what happens to it, to search for my own unspoiled wilderness, and to capture those images on film. I'm always fascinated by the stories Ken Burns' films manage to unearth from the mounds of historical documents he and his team research before production. And I'm helped as a storyteller, a photographer, a media producer, and as a citizen of the United States, whenever I accompany Burns on an adventure.