It seems strange that an adventure as exciting as the Lewis and Clark expedition, with such compelling themes as undying friendship and American triumph over the harshness of nature, has made so little impact in Hollywood. Lewis and Clark movies are sparse on the silver screen. I know of only one feature film that spotlighted the expedition. This was the 1955 flick “The Far Horizons,” directed by the Polish-born Rudolph Maté.
A quick search of Maté’s credits reveals no classics, and “The Far Horizons” is, alas, representative of his body of work. Fred MacMurray stars as Meriwether Lewis, better known as “Merne” (you can just imagine the screenwriters fretting over that sissy first name!). The action opens in 1803, when Jefferson calls “Merne” home to inform him about the Louisiana Purchase and offer him command of the expedition (his exact words are “Whaddyasay?”). As Merne prepares to tear himself away from his lady love, Julia Hancock (Barbara Hale of Perry Mason fame), his old Army buddy Bill Clark (Charlton Heston) shows up and caddishly beats his time. Nonetheless, duty calls, and the pair round up a bunch of men and set off to explore the new land.
Charlton Heston’s Clark hates Indians, and he’s ready to wipe out any tribe that stands in their way…but little does he dream that the biggest danger will be to his heart. Before long, a beautiful Indian maiden named Sacagawea (Donna Reed) saves the Corps of Discovery from attack by the Minnetarees, and she and Clark begin a schmaltzy romance.
Needless to say, history goes by the boards. Churlish Clark gets the credit for discovering the Great Falls, only to decide to chuck it all for his love for Sacagawea. The best scene in the movie comes when crusty Sergeant Gass (William Demarest, who would later play opposite MacMurray as Uncle Charley on “My Three Sons”) breaks up a fistfight between Merne and Bill and chews them out for their childish misbehavior. One only wishes Robbie, Chip, and Ernie were there to enjoy the show.
There’s nothing in “The Far Horizons” that would get anybody interested in the Lewis & Clark expedition as a worthwhile part of history. The same is true of “Almost Heroes,” a 1998 comedy that was the brainchild of director Christopher Guest. In this movie, two dimwit wanna-be explorers form their own expedition to try to beat Lewis & Clark to the Pacific. Matthew Perry of “Friends” plays the Lewis role, and “Saturday Night Live” fatman Chris Farley takes on the Clark part. The only thing striking about this movie—besides the paucity of laughs—is how much of the real expedition is spoofed in the movie. Somebody did their homework. In fact, a major subplot involves a slimy Spanish officer who is trying to intercept the expedition, a fairly little-known historical footnote that would be lost on most of the target audience. Like most of Guest’s movies, it’s worth a smile, but “Almost Heroes” is the kind of movie that makes you feel guilty for spending your time watching it.
A more worthwhile outing comes on the big-big screen with “Lewis & Clark: The Great Journey West.” This short film, presented at IMAX theaters, is a gorgeous celluloid presentation of the Expedition. Sweeping scenery, dignified narration by Jeff Bridges, simplified but accurate historical presentation, and touching performances by the attractive young actors make this one a real pleasure. This film has a special place in my heart because seeing it in 2002 led me to Undaunted Courage, then to the journals, and finally to a wonderful obsession with Lewis & Clark writing and travel. As you might expect from a movie produced by National Geographic, this is an adventure film that the whole family can enjoy, and it’s especially thrilling on the big IMAX screen.
Finally, we come to Ken Burns’ “Lewis and Clark: The Journey of the Corps of Discovery,” which first aired on PBS in 1997. Ken Burns doesn’t do anything half-way, and this four-hour series is both comprehensive and beautifully filmed. Voice-overs by actors allow the Corps to speak for themselves, while historians weigh in to provide background, offer interpretation, and give you an idea of both the sweeping scope of the adventure and its historical importance. The visuals and soundtrack are wonderful. While the length is daunting and the talking-head style might induce restlessness in young folks, by the time Burns gets to Lewis’s death you will be sniffling along with Dayton Duncan. A leisurely viewing of this fine documentary is infinitely worthwhile.
With such great material to work with, it’s a wonder Walt Disney never pursued a Lewis and Clark movie or TV show back in the Davy Crockett/Daniel Boone years. Could it be that that “Merne” Lewis just wasn’t a Walt Disney kind of a guy?