From the Spanish conquistadors of the early 17th century, the Gold Rush of the 1800s and the Ghost Dance religion of the 1890s, director Ken Burns and PBS take us on an epic journey through the mystic West, in this eight-part series on Netflix.
Through extensive archival footage and narration by various expert historians, it explores the changing mythologies of the American West over a 200-year period, as it was settled by many different types of seekers, who have both cherished and bitterly fought over this coveted dreamscape.
The West was a powerful symbol of freedom and defiance. The early pioneers who settled in places like Texas and California were often fleeing persecution, oppressive governments and controlling institutions.
The untamed landscape was contiguous with their own desires for independence and opportunity. A place where they could be sovereign and create their identity anew.
The series quotes a popular saying from the early days of Spanish settlement in Texas:
“God is in Heaven, the Pope is at the Vatican, the King is in Madrid, the Viceroy’s in Mexico City, and to hell with you. I’m in San Antonio.”
But those who sought to realise their vision of the future in the West often clashed with others of competing ambition, in numerous bloody struggles: Lakota vs. Hopi; Santa Anna vs. Sam Houston; The Battle at Wounded Knee – to name but a few notable examples.
It was not only warfare that claimed lives in this brave new world, the harsh landscape orphaned many children. Though The West seemed full of possibility, it also took real grit and determination to survive its many deprivations, far from the comforts of civilisation and society.
A beautiful soundtrack, using many folk songs from the period, accompanies magnificent shots of rural Utah, Oregon, Texas and California, evoking the sense of hope and wonder early travellers to this frontier must have experienced.
What this series reminds us that The West is as much a grand concept, as it is a real place. It is the endless possibility of the horizon.