Judge Kristin Munson lives by only one rule of the West: Never squat with your spurs on.
You got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em.
In the early '90s The Real West was a change of pace from all the World War II programs and reruns of David L. Wolper Presents on A&E. Hosted by Kenny Rogers, the Gambler himself, the series aimed to bring a dose of historical reality to the romanticized picture of the American West. Eventually, the show shifted over to sister network The History Channel, which has now selected eight episodes to release as part of its new line of "Ultimate Collections."
Facts of the Case
Here's the roundup:
• Buffalo Bill Cody
What is it with The History Channel and picking names for its compilations? Its so-called Haunted Histories Collection not only didn't have much to do with ghosts, it didn't even have one episode of Haunted Histories. The Real West: Cowboys & Outlaws also suffers from a misleading title. Of the eight programs here, only three focus on cowboys or outlaws.
The Buffalo Bill program benefits from featuring not only film recorded at his Wild West Show but interviews with people who attended it as children; still, the only link he has with cowboys is that he featured some in his show. The outlaw episode is a big letdown. Cramming ten outlaws into fifty minutes turns interesting stories into quickie anecdotes and makes the episode feel like a clip show. The most enjoyable parts of the set are the three overviews of cowboys, lawmen, and guns. There's just the right mixture of history and trivia (The tin stars lawmen wore were often cut from the bottoms of cans) with succinct bios highlighting the bigger personalities. You might watch "Hickok" or "The James Gang" only once, depending on personal interest, but the broader subject matter of those three programs make them more entertaining to revisit.
Because this is a fifteen-year-old program, audio and visual are serviceable but not spectacular; the full screen and basic stereo are both about as good as what you'd get watching TV. One problem I encountered was that the newer episodes in the set work in reenactments and use lighting and texture effects to make them look like authentic footage. What I thought was severe grain in several sections turned out to be a superimposed image of a burlap sack. By relying on old illustrations, newspaper articles, and paintings for visual aids, the older shows actually transfer better.
Bonus features are nothing more than written screens of information. These "textras" are unimpressive and a little confusing. Why, for example, do we need text bios for any of these people when there are entire programs devoted to them on the set? In the "Rules to Live By" section, sometimes the rule is longer than the explanation, and isn't even a rule. Here's number 7: "Marshals did not always spend their time protecting the people—they were also interested in making history by capturing the most wanted outlaws." I understand this is an older series but if this is The History Channel's definition of "Ultimate" I'd hate to see what "Deluxe Collector's Edition" entails.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Where The History Channel outdoes itself is with the heavy-duty high-gloss packaging. A double-thick cardboard top flips open to reveal a slim cardboard page with the disc listings that opens in the opposite direction, in the center are four plastic flip pages housing the DVDs. The whole thing is slimmer than a VHS and hardier than a boxed set slipcase, and looks right purty on the shelf. I hope more companies switch to this format because you could crack this over someone's head in a saloon brawl and there wouldn't be a mark on it.
With the resurgence of the Western at the cineplex, there's definitely a need for some historical fact to go along with the historical fiction. An uneven presentation and a mixed bag of offerings can't make The Real West live up to its "Ultimate" title but, at under twenty dollars, you can't beat the price.
I'd like to pass judgment but bandits have absconded with the verdict. Ride Cisco, ride for the hills!
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Scales of Justice
Studio: History Channel
• Text bios of Buffalo Bill Cody, Wild Bill Hickok, Jesse James, and the Texas Rangers
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