Mill Creek Entertainment // 2010 // 671 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Sandra Dozier (Retired) // November 13th, 2010
Be transported to the wild and wooly past of the American Wild West!
Told largely through the use of historical photographs and narration, this collection of documentaries centers around the American culture during the late 1800s, the "Old West." There are six documentaries in total, each divided into two parts across two DVDs.
* "Old West Cowboys"
This is a look at the daily lives of cowboys in the Old West. In addition to portraying the more sensationalized rough and tumble ways of the cowboy, the documentary breaks down their lifestyle and daily duties, going into detail about methods for rustling cattle and interjecting stories from everyday life.
* "Wild Bill Hickok"
This biography of James Butler "Wild Bill" Hickok presents him in a different light than most are used to. Although he was a handsome, charming man and a grandstander who sometimes got in over his head, he was also interested in religion and justice. Although his reputation as a dead shot earned him some infamy, much of his life was turned into myth and legend that the documentary attempts to demystify.
* "Wyatt Earp "
The story of Wyatt Earp and the gunfight at OK Corral is so well known as to be done to death. This documentary presents a more tempered view of his life and his liaisons with other famous gunfighters of the day. Earp's own quotes and writings help narrate the story.
* "Gunfighters of the Old West"
Many notorious gunfighters of the era are profiled, including the James/Younger gang, the Daltons, and of course Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill, and the brothers Earp vs. the Clanton gang.
* "The Apache On the Warpath: Geronimo"
S.M. Barrett wrote a letter to President Roosevelt in 1905, asking permission to interview Geronimo and let him tell his story in his own words. The words from that interview are read over historical images, creating a unique documentary that is more of a snapshot from the past rather than a retrospective.
* "The Great Indian Wars"
As white settlers moved west in search of land or gold, they encountered Native Americans, and often ended up in conflict with them. This tells the story of Indian/settler conflicts during that time, and the Native American struggle to hold onto their culture and way of life.
There is quite a bit of information packed into these documentaries, and the pictures are sourced from institutions such as the Library of Congress and the National Museum of American History, so this is the first glimpse many average Americans will probably have of these items. Although much of the material is well-written, things fall short in the quality of the images used and the production value. The historical pictures used are understandably aged and worn, but the filmed segments include footage from Hollywood westerns and possible reenactments from modern-day actors that have been inexpertly 'aged' by making them black and white and applying a blurry filter. I actually prefer the slow panning over still pictures to these inserts, as most were so severely scratched, pitted, faded, and mushy that they actually look worse than some of the historical photos profiled. The video transfer is also subpar, with unmistakable interference and spotting. It isn't unwatchable, just mediocre.
The narration is mostly done by Jack Hanrahan (a prolific writer for television comedy shows from the 1960s through the 1990s). Only the second feature, "Wild Bill Hicock," is not narrated by him and not attributed; it may be narrated by Dan Dalton, who produced all of the documentaries (he is cited as doing the music for the feature, which begins with singing and segues into the narration). Hanrahan generally has a clear voice and reads at a comfortable pace, but in the first feature, "Old West Cowboys," he reads as if he is in a speed contest; running words together, stuttering in parts, and sometimes slushing his speech. Along with the needlessly convoluted and academic writing, this first feature is the hardest to watch. Other than that, the only other narration is a brief vocal introduction to the "Geronimo" segment by S.M. Barrett to explain his involvement in conducting the interviews with Geronimo.
As documentary collections go, this is not the worst I have seen, but it falls far short of the polish many fans of documentaries from channels such as History and A&E are used to. With their financial backing, studio equipment, and professional polish; television documentaries look as good as the content they showcase. It would be hard for a home-spun effort like American History of the Wild West to compete, even though it is clear that it was a labor of love for the participants involved.
Do not expect polished editing or a great video transfer. These documentaries feel like someone made them in their garage with the video editing software that came with their PC, which isn't too far from the truth when you consult the credits and find a lot of family members involved in the production. Anyone interested in American history can hardly go wrong with over 11 hours of documentary, but skip this if you are bothered by uneven video quality or lack of studio polish.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Mill Creek Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 671 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Not Rated