Blu-ray review: “Into the West” (2005)

“Into the West” (2005)

Television Drama

Running Time: 552 minutes

Written by: William Mastrosimone, Cyrus Nowrasteh, Craig Storper and Kirk Ellis

Directed by: Robert Dornhelm, Simon Wincer, Sergio Mimica-Gezzan, Michael W. Watkins, Timothy Van Patten and Jeremy Podeswa

Featuring: Josh Brolin, Gary Busey, Michael Spears, Tonantzin Carmelo, Skeet Ulrich, Garrett Wang, Steve Reevis, Rachael Leigh Cook, Wes Studi, Irene Bedard, Alan Tudyk, Christian Kane, Russell Means, Jay Tavare, Keri Russell, Graham Greene, Sean Astin, Beau Bridges, Judge Reinhold, Zahn McClarnon, Tom Berenger, Gil Birmingham, David Paymer,  Raoul Trujillo, Eric Schweig, Lance Henriksen, Simon R. Baker, Tyler Christopher, Tatanka Means, Gordon Tootoosis, Sheila Tousey, Annabella Piugattuk and Will Patton

[Running Fox watches as Dog Star paints the winter count]

Running Fox: “Your paints always tell the same story. The whites become more plentiful and each year the earth grows a little smaller.”

Dog Star: “When they have found all the yellow metal they need, they will leave.”

[Running Fox shakes his head]

Running Fox: “You can’t even see what your eyes show you.”

Released recently on Blu-ray is the mid 2000s Western mini-series “Into the West” (2005) which attempted to create a different kind of narrative of the wild West following two families, one a European Family and the other a Native American Family all over almost one hundred years. This was all carried out under the auspices of Steven Spielberg, as producer but like many series in this genre it attempts to cater to a too wide an audience to be anything but a rehash of tropes as well as seemingly being too inoffensive to  a mass audience while making no real comment on Western Expansionism and colonisation. 

The miniseries begins in the 1820s and is told mainly through the third person narration of Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle) and Loved By the Buffalo (Joseph M. Marshall III), although episodes outside the direct observation of both protagonists are also shown. The plot follows the story of two families, one white American and one Native American, as their lives become mingled through the momentous events of American expansion. The story intertwines real and fictional characters and events spanning the period of expansion of the United States in the American frontier from 1825 to 1890.

“Into the West” is a super ambitious miniseries, with multiple directors including Simon Wincer, who was at the helm of some outstanding movies with the Western genre, some are Quigley Down Under (1990), Crossfire Trail (2001), Monte Walsh (2003), Lonesome Dove (1990) and Comanche Moon (2008).

The six episodes that make up “Into the West”cover much historical ground: the first expedition from the east to reach California, the Mexican-American War, the California gold rush, the Treaty of Fort Laramie, the Civil War, building the Transcontinental Railroad, the Sand Creek Massacre, the murder of Sitting Bull, the first ‘Indian School’, and the Wounded Knee Massacre, plus frontier hardships like smallpox and cholera. What is always great in modern television an film is the portrayal of First Nation people, not only are they becoming more accurate but as actors they are listened to by the people behind and the camera and of course there is now more inclusion in that area. What I would say about “Into the West” is that they are still being treated one way for narrative’s sake which would change in the coming years, which dates this production.

Some of the performances contained within “Into the West” especially by the European characters are a little earnest as well as some significant plot points that are a little obvious especially if as a viewer you have seen a genre movie or two. “Into the West” also suffers for being aimed at a general audience and that is because of the budget, it needs to appeal to the widest audience as possible. Not exactly the same but I could not help but think of Tyler Sheridan’s 1883 (2022) which is a Western series, only one season, that covers some of the same ground as “Into the West”, but it feels more realistic as well as appealing to an adult audience with representation not even a question. It tells a little story in terms of the plot and the narrative is still conventional with some actual surprises, also no character is safe from real events. I can’t help but wonder how “Into the West” would have been received if it had concentrated on a smaller cast with some real repercussions that felt more than just a paint by numbers miniseries.

Episodes

Wheel to the Stars: Growling Bear (Gordon Tootoosis), an elderly Lakota medicine man, has an apocalyptic vision that the buffalo his people rely upon will soon vanish from the prairie and the Lakota will live in square houses. His vision is controversial and his apprentice, Soaring Eagle (Gerald Auger), convinces most of the people to disregard Growling Bear’s dark vision. A young boy named White Feather (Chevez Ezaneh) overhears and seeks out the now discredited Growling Bear to learn more about his vision. Before he dies, Growling Bear gives White Feather a necklace symbolizing the Lakota medicine wheel. This necklace is passed on to various characters through the miniseries.

Manifest Destiny: After living among the Lakota people, Jacob decides to take his wife and daughter Margaret Light Shines east to Wheelerton, Virginia. Jacob’s family gives Thunder Heart Woman a much colder reception than her family gave him. After living in Wheelerton for a time, Jacob decides to take his family, now including a young son Abraham High Wolf, back west.

Dreams and Schemes: Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman remain together in California and a daughter, Corn Flower (Chantelle Webster), is born to them. While working at the Wheeler ranch, now dubbed Rancho Paradiso, Jethro encounters a 49er named Martin Jarrett (Sean Astin) who brings him the first news about the California gold rush. Jethro soon follows him to the nearby American River to prospect for gold, although he returns home each night. Jethro dreams of quick riches but all he finds are a few small grains. Undeterred, he begins to spend more and more time looking for gold. Without Jethro’s labor, the ranch begins to run into difficulties, with essential repairs being left undone. Jethro also takes to drinking heavily to counter the frigid waters of the river and becomes abusive towards Thunder Heart Woman and the children. After one too many arguments turn violent, Abe High Wolf Wheeler (Tyler Posey) decides to leave.

Hell on Wheels: In December 1863, Clara Wheeler makes her journey to Omaha and finds her cousins, Daniel Wheeler (Lance Henriksen), his wife Esther (Jane E. Goold) and his children Robert (Warren Kole), Jackson (Glen Powell Jr.), Thomas (Kurt Sorenson) and Lilly (Mia Stallard). Daniel is pursuing the family trade as a wheelwright. He is not happy to see Clara (in the previous episode Samson mentioned that he never was on good terms with Daniel, although the reason is never revealed) and intends to send her away to the war-raged East, but he is persuaded by his wife and his son Robert to take Clara in, on the condition that Robert takes the sole responsibility for Clara. The race is on as the Central Pacific and Union Pacific Railroads lay down tracks across the U.S., bringing East and West together. Jacob Wheeler’s son Abe joins the construction crew of the Central Pacific railroad, working east from Sacramento. Working conditions are hard, and many workers leave to prospect for gold in the Californian goldfields. Chinese workers (“Coolies”) are brought in from San Francisco to supplement the work crews. Abe meets and befriends Chow-Ping Yen (Garrett Wang), and they work in difficult conditions into and through the Sierra Nevada. Chow-Ping saves Abe’s life when he almost falls from a bosun’s chair while setting dynamite to construct a shelf along a cliff face.

Casualties of War: Gold is discovered in the Black Hills in 1874. The Black Hills are considered by the Lakota to be the axis mundi, or center of the world, and the 1868 Treaty of Fort Laramie granted the Indians ownership of the mountain range. Now, settlers trespass on their land to prospect for gold, and the U.S. Army moves in to take possession. Conflict over control of the region sparks the Black Hills War, the last major Indian War on the Great Plains. Red Cloud (Raoul Trujillo) continues to talk of peace with the whites at Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, but many young men leave to join Sitting Bull (Eric Schweig), including cousins White Bird (Kalani Queypo)—son of Sleeping Bear and grandson of Dog Star (Gil Birmingham)—and Red Lance (Eddie Spears)—grandson of Running Fox (Russell Means) and son of White Crow (David Midthunder). Red Lance’s younger brother, Voices That Carry (Nakotah Larance), wants to go with his brother, but is required to stay behind with his grand-uncle Dog Star because of his youth. Red Cloud thinks that the “peace talkers” from Washington will honor the Treaty of Fort Laramie and keep other whites out of the Black Hills.

Ghost Dance: Ten years have passed Robert (Craig Sheffer) and Clara Wheeler (Joanna Going) return home, disillusioned by the school they have been hired to run, and Clara begins to teach Native American children on the reservation. Loved by the Buffalo (Joseph M. Marshall III) believes he has found the foretold prophet when a mysterious Indian named Wovoka(Jonathan Joss) inspires his people with the Ghost Dance and a vision of their restored land at a Paiute reservation, the Yerington Indian Colony near Yerington, Nevada. But the ritual stirs up more fear among those who wish to contain the Native Americans. Voices That Carry (Chaske Spencer) is reunited with his brother Red Lance (Eddie Spears). Within weeks, the Ghost Dance becomes a phenomenon in the reservation. Local white governors and suppliers, who are tasked with the job of providing clothing and food for the Natives, become fearful of an Indian uprising. Local newspaper reporters overly exaggerate the dance as being sadistic and rebellious in nature. Margaret Light Shines is living in the reservation to help tend to the local children and sick. One of the newspaper reporters, not realizing she speaks English and knows how to use a camera, confronts her and trades his camera for a Ghost Shirt. Margaret Light Shines then uses the camera to record her version of the history.

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