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212 of 233 people found the following review helpful
on March 28, 2008
The West
DVD ~ Peter Coyote
When some people use the word "documentary" they seem to imbue it with an expectation of total objectivity--as if one could eliminate all traces of cultural experience from one's makeup and discover a shining path of ultimate "truth" simply by the act of becoming a filmmaker. Nonsense. We are all a product of our times and of the culture in which we were raised and educated. Documentaries are always, always, always selective. There is no such thing as total objectivity, either in writing or in filmmaking.

That said, this is an enormously valuable effort to sift through an extraordinary cross-section of materials and condense them into 12 and 1/2 hours of very viewable, enlightening and often extremely moving stories. Yes, that's right, I said "condense". The documents available on the history of the West literally fill many museums, and unless you plan to spend every waking moment of your life from the time you learn to read until the day you die as a serious scholar of western lore, you will never gain a complete knowledge of the subject. This is an outstanding effort to provide a distillation of the sense and feel of the west from the earliest days of indian tribal inhabitation to the passing of the frontier. To have even attempted that feat in a 12 and 1/2 hour presentation took courage and imagination. Although I have often grumbled to myself about Ken Burn's relentless imposition of an over-stylized montage technique on the presentation of his documentaries, I have nothing but astonished admiration for his accomplishment in crafting this mini-series. Bravo.

Yes, yes, it doesn't tell the whole story of the West. Yes, it is selective. And, yes, there are other things that could have been included. C'mon guys, quit sitting back like Monday morning quarterbacks and griping about what is missing from this presentation. Think about what he WAS able to accomplish! He captured a sense of sweep, a sense of the development of the frontier, and an extraordinarily vivid impression of the cultural, religious, social, economic and racial collisions that occurred in this vast space over a period of a couple of centuries. Good grief, what do you want, blood? If he had never made another movie, this series would still have placed him in the pantheon of American documentarians. No one is claiming that this is the only document you need to expose yourself to in order to achieve perfect understanding of the history of the West. But it's certainly one absolute requirement for inclusion in any attempt to understand the subject.

For any collector of Western memorabilia and lore, for any teacher who wants to enrich a class in American studies, and for anyone at all who simply wishes to gain a sense of the West in our history, this is a must-have set of dvds to add to your collection. It should be available in every school and public library and rerun regularly on PBS. It's the best thing Burns has ever done--the Civil War series notwithstanding--and those who chirp like little toads that it should have been better are welcome to make an effort to direct and produce a version that improves on it. Don't hold your breath until that happens.

Now I'm about to suggest a bit of social heresy in this day of 30 second commercials and infinitesimal attention spans. If you really want to gain the ultimate impact, try total immersion. Choose a rainy or snowy Saturday or Sunday, lay in a goodly supply of your favorite food and drink, lock the door and turn your phone off (!), and then do a total viewing immersion. Watch the entire series from beginning to end in one marathon day. And by the way, treat yourself to some solitude. That's right, do it alone; spend one day watching this without having to pay attention to the needs or attitudes or reactions of a viewing companion. Let it surround and soak into your senses. Embrace the barrage of images and sounds. Plunge headlong into that amazing collection of stories about people and places and events. It will change you. You won't come away with total recall of details, but you will achieve a new sensory and intellectual appreciation of our history that is geometrically greater than watching it piecemeal with days or weeks intervening between the episodes. Later on, after some time has passed, you can go back and view it again in the self-contained capsules; that time through, you will absorb the detail. Go ahead, try it. Challenge your mind.

Well done, Mr. Burns! My hat is off to you. And thank you PBS for reminding us that our brains are for thinking.
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76 of 84 people found the following review helpful
on May 15, 2009
I recently purchased this DVD set/documentary from Amazon, even though I read the single negative review first. I have learned to sense invalid positive or negative reviews, particularly when they stand out vis a vis all the other reviews, and the reviewer who criticized this documentary was simply totally in error, as to his facts and comments!

This is an absolutely beautiful documentary, and it meets all of Ken Burns' own directoral standards, and more. But of course this would have to be the case, just in terms of basic logic, since Burns put up the money for this project.

The criticism of Peter Coyote, and of those interviewed in this documentary, couldn't be more invalid.....Coyote's voice and demeanor and attitude are all perfect for this project and I cannot imagine anyone else matching the high quality of his voice-over comments.

The experts interviewed throughout this film, are the best in the world when it comes to the history of the West (including J.S. Holliday, the premier historian/writer of California gold rush history).

As for the negative reviewer's criticism of the "panning" of some of the photos, this panning movement is done with the same high quality that Ken Burns provided when he directed his other documentaries, and is only used in specific cases, where the photograph gained value-added by the technique.

This is such a beautiful documentary set, and is done so professionally and with such sensitivity and skill throughout, that it would be a shame if any of you who are considering purchasing "The West" DVD set, failed to acquire this wonderful documentary, because of a single, off-the-wall, inappropriate, and invalid review.

But then the above comments are simply my opinion, and you the reader of these reviews, will have to judge for yourself.
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77 of 90 people found the following review helpful
on May 29, 2007
This is an incredible piece of filmmaking. This is Ken Burns' long-overlooked documentary masterpiece about the birth and transformation of the West of America. Every "chapter" is more engaging than the last. This doc is also very well-balanced as far as the white Native American points of view. "The West" spans the devastation and ingenuity unique to American History. This doc is completely overshadowed by "Baseball" and "The Civil War," ( has thousands of votes for those two and only about 100 for "The West") but this is as good as it gets. Go West!
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46 of 55 people found the following review helpful
HALL OF FAMEVINE VOICEon November 20, 2003
Growing up in the Midwest, I thought "The West" was Hopalong Cassidy, Randolph Scott and John Wayne ~ nevertheless Westerns or B-Westerns captured my interest and I became addicted to what it was like from the very beginning of the West! Here is a wealth of history collected within the realm of centuries, put down on paper by Geoffrey C. Ward and Dayton Duncan ~ directed by Stephen Ives and presented by Ken Burns on five discs, as we take the journey westward bringing together all races, nationalities and religions striving for a new land and freedom for all her people.
Never have I witnessed such openness in the telling of the triumphs and tragedies of America's westward expansion ~ it took more than 75 historians on this project to make it right. Right from the git go we have Episode One(The People/Bonus DVD Features), Episodes Two & Three (Empire Upon The Trails/The Speck of the Future), Episodes Four & Five (Fight No More Forever/The Geography of Hope) and Episodes Eight & Nine (Ghost Dance/One Sky Above Us) ~ featuring some of the most beautiful photography of our country. The entire collection covers the period of 1800 to 1915, wonderfully narated by Peter Coyote (whose voice sounds very much like Henry Fonda).
This is one of, if not the best documentaries on "The West", I've ever seen. Been collecting Time/Life leatherbound books on the subject for years ~ Frederic Remington and Charles M. Russell books and paintings ~ plus bronze of "The Mountain Man", "The Rattlesnake" and "Comin' Through the Rye" by Frederic Remington. Ken Burns "The West" on DVD is something I will cherish the rest of my life ~ will pass it on to my children and grandchildren, so they will know this is the way it was moving WEST!

Total Time: 12 Hours ~ PBS B8891 ~ (9/30/2003)
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61 of 77 people found the following review helpful
on December 4, 2006
This series is very entertaining, which is certainly an achievement. However, political correctness does pervade it as previously noted. You can see this right away in the first episode. For example, it points out as false the notion that native people lived in harmony with each other before the white man's arrival, but then it fails to condemn the natives' wars with each other, or even to treat them negatively. Rather, the "warrior traditions" which included beheadings, mass slaughters, brutal subjugation and conquest, war for war's sake, ethnic cleansing, enslavement, and other savagery visited upon other natives, are treated as simply that, traditions somehow worthy of our respect. How about those exalted "Dog Soldiers", basically the natives' equivalent of the SS. Are we too politically correct to condemn immoral acts simply because they were done by people of color to each other? Are we too immature to view the natives as anything more complex than the white man's victims? Isn't it disrespectful or racist or patronizing to treat these wrongs as acceptable just because they weren't done by Europeans? Is the idea "they were ignorant savages, they didn't know any better"? Does anyone believe that? What's the message here?

There are also some glaring inconsistencies. For example, in the first episode, we are told that the natives were not all the same: different groups had very different languages, customs, habitats, governance, religions, etc. However, we are then told throughout the series that "the Indian" believed this or that or did this or that. Often this is said on screen by someone who has native ancestors, as if he or she is speaking for all natives. Does this make sense?
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18 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on December 6, 1998
Burns' film is a masterpiece of history and storytelling. Without a doubt, the best thing I have ever seen on television. This is documentary film at its best. Compelling and spellbinding from the beginning to the end. The story of the Native Americans' dilemma, contained within this documentary, by itself would be a masterpiece of documentary film ... but there is much more. The West is a tour de force, a great piece of work by a true master. The companion book is also a great treasure. No, I do not work for Amazon or for Ken Burns, I just want you to know what a great masterpiece The West is.
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18 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on October 13, 2002
This is the best documentary I've ever seen. Peter Coyote's narration is wonderful. The skill with which the story of the westward-moving Americans is interwoven with the tragic story of the displaced Native Americans is truly amazing. The beautiful scenery of the western U.S. is intermingled with photographs from the past. Despite having learned the history of the West every year in school growing up, I learned many new things watching this documentary. It's definitely worth watching.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on November 14, 2011
The West may be distantly fronted by Ken Burns but it is more artistic and possesses more of an edge than any Ken Burns' work. Steven Ives collaborated with Burns on The Civil War and Baseball but this documentary is Ives' own.

No matter how much you may have studied the period the series covers you will either find astonishing surprises or fascinating fresh elements to stories you already knew. You will find where Larry McMurtry got his inspiration for Lonesome Dove and hear from the last people for whom this era is living memory.

Some viewers express annoyance of course regarding the documentary's depth of detail regarding the fate of people who had been here prior to the arrival of Europeans. As former Texas Governor Ann Richards notes, this has been a fate shared by countless conquered people throughout human history. Given Western values the destruction of a stone age culture by a deeply acquisitive technological one would be a foregone conclusion. Certainly the tribes of the British isles in Boudicca's time ultimately fared no better under the succession of invaders beginning with the Romans. Difference is the amount of detail we have about the annihilation of North American tribes as well as information about their culture. For Americans, it is our history. We cannot and should not deny those moments when we forsook our primary ideals. And this happened many times and not just to aboriginal tribes. We would certainly be disturbed if Germans today knew nothing of Hitler.

But The West ultimately isn't about victims. It is about events and consequences in circumstances unique in human history which will likely remain unique until such time as we journey to the stars.
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28 of 38 people found the following review helpful
on May 30, 1999
Photography breathtaking. Music spellbinding. The story riveting. This documetary should be mandatory viewing in every American History class. True history here - not the whitewashed watered down, self serving glorification of the conquest of the untamed West. Here is the story of America at its genecidal worst; ruthless, murderous, calculating, and devestating. And yet this same story shows unimagineable beauty, heroics, love, and the enevitability of change. This is undoubtably one of the most fair tellings of what happened to the West and the people who took it from the People who loved it. See it, feel it, and continue to think about it.
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17 of 23 people found the following review helpful
Ken Burns Presents: THE WEST is narrated by Peter Coyote and written in part by Geoffrey C. Ward. As with other Burns documentaries it has an impressive roster of voiceover actors.

First aired on PBS in 1996, this eight-chapter overview of the area now defined as the western United States obviously attempts to readdress traditional histories by entirely omitting gunslingers and outlaws and favoring all others over WASP males. Thus, it's well-intentioned and compelling as it stands but is a flawed and incomplete work.


Episode 1: The People
Introduction; When Dogs Could Talk; The Vision; Cities of Gold; Thunder Rolling from the Mountains; Popé; Dog Soldiers; In the Garden, Before the Fall; Corps of Discovery

Episode 2: Empire Upon the Trails
Introduction; Hats; The Heart of Everything; Tejas, In the Midst of Savage Darkness; We go to conquer; Trail of Tears; The Barren Rock; Westward I Go Free; What A Country; So We Die; A Continental Nation

Episode 3: Speck of the Future
Introduction; Gold Fever; My Share of the Rocks; Kit; Stay at Home; The Diggings; The Right of Conquest; This Land of Gold & Hope; Emporium of the Pacific; Diggers; The Day of Forty-nine

Episode 4: Death Runs Riot
Introduction; Free Soil; Mountain meadows; The Republic of the Rio Grande; This Guilty Land; Anarchy; Preachers and Jackass Rabbits; Who is the Savage?; The Everywhere Spirit

Episode 5: The Grandest Enterprise Under God
Introduction; A Grand Anvil Chorus; White Man's Pipe; The Artillery of Heaven; An Instinct for Direction; One People; The Woman's Exponent; Walking Gold Pieces; Good Company; How do you like Nebraska?; Cowboys; A Wound in the Heart

Episode 6: Fight No More Forever
Introduction; Yellow Hair; Tatanka-Iyotanka; Hard Times; A Good Day to Die; Center My Heart; Good Words

Episode 7: The Geography of Hope
Introduction; The Exodusters; Rain Follows the Plow; A Hard Time I Have; Barbarians; The Romance of My Life;The Barrio; I Must Lose Myself Again; Friends of the Indian; Medicine Flower; Hell Without the Heat;Gunpowder Entertainment; Final Vision

Episode 8: One Sky Above Us
Introduction; Guthrie; The Outcome of Our Ernest Endeavors; Butte; Like Grass Before the Sickle; P.S I Like You Very Much; Progress; Take It; Lachryma Montis; This Isn't History; To Speak for My People; I Will Never Leave You; The Gift

Adam Arkin, Philip Bosco, Blythe Danner, Ossie Davis, Hector Elizondo, Peter Gallagher, Julie Harris, John Lithgow, Amy Madigan, Mary Stuart Masterson, Russell Means, Arthur Miller, George Plimpton, Robert Prosky, Jason Robards Jr., August Schellenberg, Jimmy Smits, Ralph Waite, Eli Wallach
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