“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Five – “INTO THE WEST” (2005)

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Below is Part Five to my article about Hollywood’s depiction about the westward migration via wagon trains in 19th century United States. It focuses upon “Manifest Destiny”, the second episode of the 2005 television miniseries, “INTO THE WEST”:

 

“WESTWARD HO!”: Part Five – “INTO THE WEST” (2005)

I. Introduction

Steven Spielberg had served as executive producer for a miniseries about the history of the Old West, during a period that spanned from the mid-1820s to 1890-91. If this premise sounds familiar, it should. It bears a strong resemblance to the main plot for “HOW THE WEST WAS WON”. Only the story for “INTO THE WEST” centered on two families – a family of wheelwrights from western Virginia and a family from the Lakota nation.

“INTO THE WEST” aired as a six-part miniseries during the summer of 2005. The second episode, “Manifest Destiny”, focused on wagon journey from Independence, Missouri to California in 1841. The first episode, “Wheel to the Stars”, introduced some of the saga’s main characters – such as Jacob Wheeler, the son and grandson of Virginia wheelwrights; Thunder Heart Woman, the Lakota woman with whom he will fall in love and marry; his younger brother Jethro Wheeler, who was too frightened to follow Jacob on the latter’s first journey to the West; and Thunder Heart Woman’s three brothers, Loved By the Buffalo, Dog Star and Running Fox. This episode ended with Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman’s marriage at her family’s village.

“Manifest Destiny” picked up seven to eight years later with Jacob’s return to Wheelerton, Virginia, with a pregnant Thunder Heart Woman and their four year-old daughter, Margaret Light Shines in two. With the exception of Jethro, the rest of the Wheeler family – including Jacob’s three cousins, Naomi, Rachel and Leah – greet Thunder Heart Woman and Margaret with a chilly intolerance. After the birth of Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman’s new son, Abraham High Wolf, Jacob learns of the death of the famous explorer and trapper Jedediah Smith.

Jacob realizes that Wheelerton is no longer home to him and decides to return to the West. This time, Jethro, Naomi, Rachel and Leah decide to accompany him and Thunder Heart Woman. The Wheelers spend at least three years traveling west, until they reach Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840. The family decides to travel to California and is forced to wait until the following spring of 1841 to start their journey. The Wheelers join a wagon party led by one Stephen Moxie. The Wheelers, along with their fellow emigrants experience bad weather, accidents, Native Americans, romance and tragedy during their journey to California.

 

II. History vs. Hollywood

With television miniseries like “CENTENNIAL” and “THE CHISHOLMS” as examples, one would think that Hollywood had finally learned to inject as much historical accuracy in its period dramas as possible. But “INTO THE WEST” – at least as far as “Manifest Destiny” is concerned – seemed to be an exception to the rule. Screenwriters William Mastrosimone and Cyrus Nowrasteh managed to toss historical facts to the wind, when they wrote this episode.

Mind you, Mastrosimone and Nowrasteh managed to begin the journey on the right note. The first known wagon party to attempt the journey to California (the Bartleson-Bidwell Party) did leave Westport, Missouri in 1841, the same year as the Wheelers’ departure. “Manifest Destiny” did an excellent job in conveying the day-to-day chores performed by the emigrants. The wagons used by the Wheelers and other members of the Moxie wagon party were, thankfully, not the lumbering Conestogas seen in old Hollywood films. The episode also included the use of buffalo meat, dangers of cholera on the trail, river crossings and an accident caused by difficult terrain like the Windlass Hill around Ash Hollow. Unfortunately, the rest of the episode’s portrayal of wagon train migration proved to have very little historical accuracy.

“Manifest Destiny” marked a return of an inaccurate portrayal of emigrant life that had not been seen for a while. Although none of the wagons featured in the episode are not Conestogas, all of them are being pulled by horses, instead of mules or oxen. I found it a miracle that none of the horses had dropped dead by the end of the episode. I also noticed that the emigrants in Moxie’s party had to pay at least $80.00 or provide some valuable service (in Jacob and Jethro’s case, provide wheelwright service) in order to join. However, I cannot say whether this is accurate or not. I have never come across such a thing during my studies of overland wagon travel. On the other hand, such transactions may have occurred.

One glance of the terrain featured in “Manifest Destiny” immediately alerted me to the fact that the episode had not been filmed anywhere near the locations from the actual Oregon and California trails. In fact, no famous landmarks from the two trails were shown in this episode. Not even a single fort. I discovered that the miniseries was either filmed in the Alberta Province of Canada and around Santa Fe, New Mexico. This does not surprised me. The actors in this episode spent a good deal of time wearing coats or cloaks. Since the wagon journey from Missouri to California usually spanned between mid-spring and early fall, I found the presence of outer wear unrealistic.

The Lakota characters featured in the six-part miniseries proved to be just as complex as the white characters. This is not surprising. After all, some of Jacob Wheeler’s in-laws were among the main characters – especially his three brothers-in-law. However, when it came to the Hoxie wagon party’s encounter with members of the Cheyenne nation, historical accuracy was once again tossed into the wind.

Among the travelers that joined the Moxie wagon party was a family of free blacks from Illinois named Jones. When Mrs. Jones died from cholera, they were forced to remain behind, until they could be certain that no one else in their party had contracted the disease. The Wheelers – with the exception of Naomi, who was traveling with her new husband – were forced to remain with the Jones, due to being the closest with the family. Soon, Jethro came down with cholera. But he managed to overcome his illness. After his recovery, Jacob rode ahead to find the wagon party. He discovered that the entire wagon train – except for Naomi, who was taken – had been killed by Native Americans. Jacob returned to the Wheeler and Jones wagons, which found themselves under attack by Cheyenne dog soldiers, the very party that wiped out the Moxie wagon train. In other words, the viewers were expected to believe that a band of Cheyenne dog soldiers were able to wipe out a fairly-sized and well-armed wagon party. Yet, the only damage they were able to inflict upon the Wheeler and Jones families was a lance through Jacob Wheeler’s shoulder. Ri-i-ii-i-ight! This was one the most ludicrous piece of historical inaccuracy I had ever encountered in a period drama.

There were other minor historical inaccuracies, which had nothing to do with the Moxie wagon party that I found in “Manifest Destiny”. One, Jedediah Smith did not die around 1836-37. He was killed in 1831. And according to Jacob, there were no battles or any real violence in California during the Mexican-American War. Wrong! A few months after the Americans had taken over the province, the Californios took up arms against their new rulers, resulting in a few battles mainly fought in Southern California.

It seems ironic that “Manifest Destiny” turned out to be the least historically accurate episode of “INTO THE WEST”. I say that it is ironic, because this episode happens to be my favorite from the entire miniseries. “Manifest Destiny” gave a fairly accurate picture of the daily activities of emigrants on the overland trails. But it turned out to be like many films from the past – more Hollywood than history.

 

III. Conclusion

This marks the end of my look at Hollywood’s depiction of emigrant wagon trains. The two movies and three miniseries were not the only productions to feature this setting. And if these articles have increased your interest in this subject, you might want to consider other movie and television productions about it.

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Top Favorite WORLD WAR II Movie and Television Productions

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September 1-3 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939; the German Army invaded Poland on the orders of its leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a week following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. While the Polish military struggled to keep the invading Germans at bay, its government awaited awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom, with whom they had a pact. Two days later on September 3, Poland’s two allies declared war on Germany and World War II; which ended up engulfing both Europe, Asia, North Africa and the South Pacific; began.

Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war.

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR II MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1a - Band of Brothers

1a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

1b - The Pacific

1b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

2 - Kellys Heroes

2. “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles starred in this memorable war comedy about a group of Army soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Brian G. Hutton directed.

3 - Inglorious Basterds

3. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent alternate history adventure about two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent starred.

4 - Casablanca

4. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s un-produced stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie also starred Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

5 - The Winds of War

5. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this excellent 1983 television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali McGraw.

6 - Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this 1987 excellent comedy-drama about his own childhood experiences during World War II. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7 - A Bridge Too Far

7. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) – Sir Richard Attenborough produced and directed this darkly fascinating adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Operation Market Garden campaign. The all-star cast included Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

8 - Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this detailed and first-rate account of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The movie starred Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

9 - The Longest Day

9. “The Longest Day” (1962) – Darryl Zanuck produced this all-star adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Normandy invasion. The cast included Robert Mitchum, Richard Beymer, Robert Wagner and John Wayne.

10 - The Bridge on the River Kwai

10. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 World War II novel. The movie starred William Holden, Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa.

HM - Empire of the Sun

Honorable Mention: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in World War II China. The movie starred Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.

“INTO THE WEST” (2005) – Jacob Wheeler and the Awareness of Self

 

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“INTO THE WEST” (2005) – Jacob Wheeler and the Awareness of Self

Many people would usually consider the topic of Self Awareness when discussing New Age religions or Eastern mysticism. Characters from a TV Western miniseries seems like the last thing anyone would think of when discussing the meaning of Self. Yet, a major character led me to consider this very topic, while re-watching Steven Spielberg’s 2005 miniseries about two families – Lakota and western Virginia – called “INTO THE WEST”

“Self” has been described as the essential self or the core of an individual. A person who has learned to live one’s life with a strong sense of Self is considered as someone who has achieved or come close to a level of self-actualization – namely, achieving personal growth through accepting the true core of oneself. If there is one character in “INTO THE WEST” who seemed to personify self-actualization, it was Thunder Heart Woman (Tonazin Carmelo and later Sheila Tousey), the Lakota woman who had married into the Wheeler family. I am not saying that Thunder Heart Woman was a person with no insecurities, personal demons or anything of the sort. But of all the major characters, she seemed to be more in tune of what and more importantly, who she was.

In the miniseries’ second episode titled, “Manifest Destiny”, Thunder Heart Woman had seemed impervious to her white in-laws’ attitude toward her, during her immediate family’s short stay with her in-laws in Virginia. Even when faced with the disapproval of a German minister and fellow wagon immigrant called Preacher Hobbes (Derek de Lint), she remained impervious to his bigotry. At least according to her husband’s narrative. But this essay is not about Thunder Heart Woman. It is about one of the men in her life – the one love in her life, who managed to catch my attention. Namely one Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle and later John Terry).

The third of four brothers from a Virginia wheelwright family, Jacob Wheeler seemed very similar to his Lakota wife – the type of person that seemed to know his own mind. The miniseries’ first episode, ”Wheel to the Stars” revealed that Jacob’s Virginia family seemed to view him as a non-conformist . . . or oddball. He, in turn, regarded his hometown of Wheelerton, Virginia; his family and its profession with mild contempt. In short, this young Virginian was a fish out of water in 1825 America and he knew it. This would explain Jacob’s longing to see the world beyond his hometown and the eastern United States. He did not hesitate to express his enthusiasm for the West. After meeting mountain man James Fletcher (Will Patton), he immediately set out to achieve his desire to leave Wheelerton.

Possessing a talent for persuasion, Jacob managed to convince two of his brothers – Nathan (Alan Tudyk) and Jethro (Skeet Ulrich) – into joining his trek to the West. Jethro turned back at the last minute and Nathan ended up accompanying him. After Jacob and Nathan parted ways in St. Louis, the former caught up with Fletcher and famed mountain man, Jedediah Smith (Josh Brolin) and convinced the latter to allow him to accompany Smith’s expedition to California. I could probably list a number of examples of Jacob’s talent for persuasion, along with his exuberant and non-conformist nature. What I had failed to mention was that he possessed a strong and stubborn will to achieve what he desired. A perfect example of this was his determination to return to California after he, Smith and their fellow mountain men had been kicked out of the province by Mexican authorities. Not only did Jacob manage to achieve this goal, he did so at a great price. And yet . . . one of the interesting aspects of the Jacob Wheeler character is that despite possessing a strong will and extroverted nature, he also had certain vulnerable characteristics and insecurities. Especially insecurities. In both ”Wheel to the Stars” and ”Manifest Destiny”, Jacob’s relationships with his Wheelerton family and Thunder Heart Woman revealed just how insecure he could be.

Jacob seemed to have a rather peculiar relationship with his Virginia family. Despite regarding them with contempt for their provincial attitudes, he had also allowed their attitudes to bring out his own insecurities. His grandfather Abraham (Ken Pogue), his father Enoch (Serge Houde) and his three brothers – Nathan, Ezra (Joshua Kalef) and Jethro – either derided or teased him about his lack of interest in the family’s wheelwright business. And all of them viewed Jacob as a daydreamer with no sense of family duty or any common sense. The Wheelers have never hesitated to express their low opinion of Jacob’s desire to experience life beyond Wheelerton. I cannot help but wonder if the Wheelers’ contempt toward Jacob’s non-conformist ways had bred a sense of insecurity within him. Or if this insecurity was one of the reasons behind his desire to escape Wheelerton for the west.

It is possible that I may have stumbled across one result from Jacob’s less-than-ideal relationship with his Virginia family. I do not know if anyone else had noticed, but it seemed to me that whenever any of the other Wheelers teased, ranted or expressed contempt toward Jacob or his views on the West, he rarely bothered to defend himself. Jacob did not defend himself whenever his brothers mocked him at the dinner table.; when Jethro made the ”tail tucked between your legs”comment, following Jacob’s return to Wheelerton in ”Manifest Destiny”; and when Enoch accused him of luring both Nathan and later, Jacob to the West. Instead of defending himself, Jacob merely remained silent in an effort to ignore the hurtful comments.

However, there have also been moments when he did defend himself. Jacob made a snarky comment about his grandfather Abraham’s penchant for rambling on about his past as Revolutionary War veteran and the family’s business. And the elderly man reacted in such a vitriolic manner that I found myself wondering if Jacob had ended up with a new hole in his backside. When Nathan raged against him for helping an escaped slave named Ben Franklin (Sean Blakemore) in Tennessee, Jacob insisted they had done the right thing considering that Ben had earlier released Nathan after holding him hostage with a knife. And when Nathan lost his temper over Jacob’s refusal to follow him to Texas, the younger brother merely insisted upon continuing his intention to join Jedidiah Smith’s expedition.

One could only wonder why Jacob had rarely bothered to defend himself against his family’s scorn. Did he share Thunder Heart Woman’s talent for imperviously ignoring the scorn and prejudices of others? I rather doubt it. Whereas Thunder Heart Woman had seemed unconcerned by others, Jacob’s face tends to express his pain or embarrassment caused by his family’s attitudes. I suspect that deep down, Jacob longed for not only his family’s respect, but their acceptance of his true self. But unlike many people, he was not willing to change his nature for the Wheelers or anyone else’s acceptance.

Why did Jacob decide to return to Wheelerton with his pregnant wife and daughter after eleven years in the West? In his narration, Jacob claimed that he wanted Thunder Heart Woman and his daughter Margaret Light Shines (Elizabeth Sage, later Irene Bedard) to meet his Virginia family. Perhaps he was telling the truth. Yet, a part of me found that hard to believe. The moment Jacob began to enjoy his Lakota in-laws’ hospitality, he felt certain that his own family extend the same kind of warmth to his wife. And yet . . . he had insisted upon returning to Virginia. Why? Had Jethro hinted the truth in his ”tail tuckered between his legs” comment – that Jacob encountered nothing but failure in the West and returned back to Virginia for a livelihood? Or was it something deeper? Perhaps a last chance for Jacob to seek final acceptance from his family? Who knows.

Whatever Jacob had sought in 1836 Virginia, he did not find it. His father Enoch revealed that the family’s wheelwright business had suffered a setback, due to the economic depression that struck the United States in the mid and late 1830s. And the Wheelers seemed no more closer in accepting Jacob for himself or his Western family. His cousin, Naomi Wheeler (Keri Russell) viewed Indians as non-human. His brother Ezra regarded Thunder Heart Woman as a mere ”squaw”. Naomi’s sister, Rachel (Jessica Capshaw), viewed young Margaret’s hand as a piece of dung. And Enoch seemed to act as if his new daughter-in-law and grandchildren did not exist. No wonder Jacob ended up complaining about the Wheelers’ treatment of his Lakota family.

Eventually, Jacob decided to take his wife and children and return to the West permanently – preferably Californa. It seemed the Wheelers’ continuing disregard toward them – along with news of his idol Jedediah Smith’s death – led to this decision. He almost seemed cold and distant toward his parents and Ezra. But he did not count on Jethro and his three female cousins’ decision to accompany him to California. Apparently, not all of the Wheelers viewed him as an oddball for his preference for the West. Jacob seemed heartened by Jethro’s decision to join him. And although Naomi, Rachel and Leah’s (Emily Holmes) decision to join the trek West took him by surprise, Jacob readily accepted their company. In the following narration, he came to this conclusion:

”I hope that I would prove equal to the responsibility I had undertaken.”

I found this comment rather odd. Jethro and the three cousins had been determined to follow Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman on the trek to California, regardless of anything he would have done or said. Even Jethro had later pointed this out.

The next three years (1837-1840) must have been the best Jacob had ever experienced with any of the Virginia Wheelers. The three cousins – Naomi, Rachel and Leah – finally began to view Thunder Heart Woman as a member of the family and cherished her and Jacob’s three children (Abraham had been born in Wheelerton in 1836 and Jacob Jr. was born in Missouri sometime in late 1840). Jacob’s close relationship with Jethro seemed like a far cry from the conflicts with Nathan that marred his trip to the west back in the 1820s. One would begin to think that Jacob no longer suffered from any insecurity by this point. And yet . . . they only remained buried inside him, waiting for the right moment to manifest.

In the end, it took the wagon train journey to California (dubbed ”the Wagon Train of Doom” by me) featured in ”Manifest Destiny” for Jacob’s insecurities to get the best of him. Upon their arrival in Independence, Missouri in the fall of 1840, the Wheeler family remained there during the winter before joining a California-bound wagon train led by one Stephen Hoxie (Beau Bridges) in the spring of 1841. Surprisingly, only Thunder Heart Woman seemed reluctant to leave Missouri. I suspect she had enough of being constantly on the move for the past several years. But the rest of the Wheelers, especially Jacob, seemed determined to head for California.

Once the Hoxie wagon company began their westward trek, everything seemed to be faring well. The weather seemed beautiful. Everyone seemed to be in good spirits – including the black family from Illinois named Jones that managed to join the wagon train without any opposition. Both Naomi and Rachel attracted the romantic attention of the train’s two scouts – ‘Skate’ Guthrie and James ‘Jim’ Ebbets (Ryan Robbins and Christopher Heyerdahl). This contentment finally ended when Thunder Heart Woman spotted wolves feeding off the corpse of a buffalo and when the train later crossed what I believe was the Big Blue River. The incident proved to be the first of two disagreements between the couple. Thunder Heart Woman viewed the wolves as a sign that the wagon train would come to a bad end. She insisted that the Wheeler family return to Missouri. Jacob dismissed her worries as superstition on her part. But the expression on his face clearly indicated his doubts on the wisdom of the trip.

Then the first disaster struck. One of the emigrants, a German-born minister named Preacher Hobbes (Derek de Lint), lost control of his wagon during the crossing. Distracted by the Hobbes family’s situation, Jethro nearly lost control of his wagon. Leah fell out of the wagon and drowned in the river’s fast flowing water. Although Hobbes received an angry response for his carelessness from Captain Hoxie, the Wheeler women’s anger seemed to be directed at Jacob for leading them to this western trek. The expression of guilt seemed very palpable on Jacob’s face, as Naomi demanded that he take the family back to Missouri. Leah’s death proved to be just the beginning.

The further west the wagon train traveled, more disasters followed. The emigrants were forced to deal with a severe thunderstorm and a cattle stampede that left the only son of a black emigrant named Absalom Jones (Neville Edwards) dead. Not long after the storm and the stampede, both Naomi and Rachel married two of the wagon train’s scouts, Skate and Jim. But that brief period of happiness failed to last when the wagon train attempted to travel through a pass. While traversing a pass, a wagon broke free, knocked Rachel down and ran over her leg, causing a severe compound fracture. The leg eventually became infected. Hobbes, the closest thing to a doctor available, tried to amputate Rachel’s leg; but his efforts turned out to be clumsy and Rachel died before he could finish. Although no family member angrily demanded that return to Missouri, the expression on Jacob’s face obviously conveyed his feelings of guilt.

The final blow to Jacob’s disastrous return to the west occurred when Mrs. Jones died from cholera. Since the Wheelers’ wagons had been traveling with the Jones’ wagon at the back of the train, they had been exposed to the disease. Hoxie and the scouts forced the Wheelers and the remaining members of the Jones family (Mr. Jones and Sally Jones) to remain behind under quarantine while the main body of the wagon train carries on. Only Naomi was able to continue with the train, since she had been with her new husband. Jethro became afflicted with symptoms of cholera but recovered. Both Jacob and Thunder Heart Woman drifted into a serious quarrel, when he suggested that she take their children and attempt to find her Lakota family. Needless to say, Thunder Heart Woman took the suggestion badly and reminded Jacob that he should have listened to her warnings about the journey.

No new outbreaks occurred after Jacob ordered that all drinking water be boiled. The Wheelers and the Jones rushed to catch up with the wagon train, but discovered that it had been attacked by Cheyenne warriors. All of the emigrants had been wiped out, aside from Naomi, who first became a captive and later, a wife of a Cheyenne chief Prairie Fire (Jay Tavare). The Wheelers and the Jones families were also attacked by Cheyenne warriors. They managed to repulse the attack, but Jacob ended up seriously wounded by an arrow in his chest. The surviving emigrants tried to move on with a wounded Jacob, but the juts and bumps of the trail made it impossible for him to endure the pain. Instead, he insisted that Thunder Heart Woman, Jethro, Mr. Jones and the children continue west to California without him, since he would only prevent them from crossing the Sierra Nevada Mountains before winter. They left him behind with great reluctance.

The period that Jacob spent east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains allowed him to wallow in loneliness and grief over the separation from his family. But he remained determined to find them. And it took him another four to five years before he finally did. Becoming a member of John Charles Frémont’s California Volunteer Militia during the Mexican-American War allowed Jacob to scour the region for signs or news of his remaining family. Five years passed before he finally came upon the ranch that Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman had settled. Jacob also discovered that in the intervening years, his brother and wife had considered him dead, began a relationship and had a child – a little girl named Cornflower. Devastated by this turn of events, Jacob decided not to reveal himself to his family. At least not openly. Instead, he left the wooden medicine wheel necklace that Thunder Heart Woman had given him when they first met to his youngest child, Jacob High Cloud. Another five years passed before Jacob finally reconciled with his family, due to the efforts of his daughter, Margaret Light Shines.

Ever since I first saw ”INTO THE WEST” and especially the above mentioned scene from ”Manifest Destiny”, I have found myself wondering about Jacob’s actions. I understood why he decided not to intrude upon the family that Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman had formed upon their arrival in California. But why did he leave the medicine wheel necklace to young Jacob? Surely, he knew that his family would be aware that he was alive . . . and knew about their situation? Looking back on his action, it struck me as a very passive-aggressive on his part. He lacked the courage to face Jethro and Thunder Heart Woman. And yet, he seemed determined to thwart the happiness they had created . . . as if he was punishing them for continuing their lives without him. Or perhaps Jacob felt a great deal of envy toward Jethro because the latter turned out to be the one who successfully led the family to California, and not him.

Perhaps Jacob had always a passively-aggressive personality from the beginning. His relationship with his Virginia family struck me as being marked by a great deal of passive-aggressive behavior from the start. Jacob seemed determined to be his own man, whether in his enthusiasm for the West, his decision to leave Wheeler or join Jedediah Smith’s expedition over following his brother Nathan to Texas. And yet . . . he never defended himself in the face of their criticism. Instead, he resorted to resentful silence. Why did he constantly fail to defend himself? Was he merely trying to keep the peace? Or did some small part of him fear that his family may have been right about him? It seemed strange than many fans and critics of “INTO THE WEST” seemed to adore Jacob for his seemingly self-assurance and outgoing personality. At the same time, they derided Jethro for being an insecure loser in their eyes. I got the feeling that they were so busy either scorning Jethro or adulating Jacob that they failed to detect the latter’s personal insecurities and darker traits. And Jacob certainly had them by the bucketful.

Did Jacob ever overcome his insecurities? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I wonder if many are aware of this, but it usually takes an individual to overcome his or her faults during an entire lifetime. A good number of people never succeed in overcoming all of their faults. And since “INTO THE WEST” focused more on his and Thunder Heart Woman’s children in the last three episodes, audiences never discovered if he had overcome all of his faults and insecurities. Jacob certainly seemed more at peace in his old age than he did during his first forty years. Perhaps those years of solitude near the Sierra Mountains foothills helped him finally achieve some inner peace.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Ten “Points” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Ten “Points” Commentary

”BAND OF BROTHERS” finally came to an end in this tenth episode that featured Easy Company’s experiences as part of the U.S. Army of occupation, following Germany’s surrender in Europe. This marked the third episode that featured Richard Winters as the central character and the second with his narration. 

Told in flashback via Winters’ narration, ”Points” opened in July 1945, with Dick Winters (Damian Lewis) enjoying a morning swim in an Austrian lake, while being watched by his best friend, Lewis Nixon (Ron Livingston). After the two friends spend a few minutes looking at regimental photos, Winters recalls the experiences of Easy Company during the last days of the war in Europe and their role as part of an occupational force. Two months earlier, the company manages to capture Eagle’s Nest, Adolf Hitler’s high mountain chalet in Berchtesgaden. Following Easy Company’s capture of Berchtesgaden, they receive news of Germany’s surrender to the Allied Forces. Easy’s remaining stay in Germany does not last long. They, and the rest of 2nd Battalion, are sent to Austria as part of the U.S. Army’s occupational force. Easy Company battled boredom, various departures, the death of Private John Janovec (Tom Hardy) in a jeep accident, the shooting of Sergeant Chuck Grant (Nolan Hemmings) by a drunken American soldier, and a mixture of anticipation and anxiety over the possibility of being shipped to the Pacific. The miniseries ended with a visit by a recovered Lynn “Buck” Compton (Neal McDonough) and the revelations of the men’s post-war lives.

”Points” proved to be a mildly interesting episode about what it was like for World War II veterans to serve as part of an occupational force in Europe, following Germany’s defeat. Many of the incidents featured in the last paragraph certainly prevented the episode from becoming dull. And thanks to Erik Jendresen and Erik Bork’s screenplay, along with Mikael Salomon’s direction; ”Points” provided other interesting scenes. One featured a tense scene that saw Joe Liebgott (Ross McCall), David Webster (Eion Bailey) and Wayne A. “Skinny” Sisk (Philip Barrantini) assigned to capture a Nazi war criminal. Private Janovec’s conversation with a German veteran at a road checkpoint provided a good deal of subtle humor for me. Another humorous scene featured Winters and Nixon’s encounter with a still resentful Herbert Sobel (David Schwimmer), who proved to be very reluctant to salute the now higher ranked Winters. One scene that really grabbed my attention featured most of the 506th regimental officers watching a newsreel about the fierce Battle of Okinawa in Japan. Not only did that scene remind viewers the fate that Easy Company had managed to evade with the surrender of Japan, it also proved to be an unintentional foreshadow to Spielberg and Hanks’ World War II follow-up, ”THE PACIFIC”.

Once again, Damian Lewis gave a subtle, yet exceptional performance as the miniseries’ leading character, Richard Winters. But I was also impressed by Matthew Settle’s fierce portrayal of a frustrated and somewhat tense Ronald Spiers, who struggled to keep Easy Company together, despite their travails as part of an occupying force. And I was pleasantly surprised by Peter Youngblood Hills’ poignant performance in a scene that featured Darrell C. “Shifty” Powers’ private farewell to Winters.

I do have one major complaint about ”Points”. I did not care for the fact that miniseries did not reveal the post-war fates of “all” of the surviving members of Easy Company. The only characters whose lives we learned about were most of those seen in Austria, at the end of the episode . . . but not all. The episode never revealed what happened to Edward “Babe” Heffron or Donald Malarkey, who were also in Austria, by the end of the miniseries. And viewers never learned of the post-war fates of veterans such as William “Bill” Guarnere, Walter “Smokey” Gordon, Joe Toye, Roy Cobb, Les Hashley, Antonio Garcia, and yes . . . even Herbert Sobel.

Despite my major disappointment over how the episode ended, I still enjoyed ”Points”. I would never consider it to be one of my favorite episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. But it did not put me to sleep. However, it still managed to be a satisfying end to the saga.

Richard D. Winters (1918-2011), RIP

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Eight “The Last Patrol” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Eight “The Last Patrol” Commentary

Episode Eight of ”BAND OF BROTHERS””The Last Patrol” saw the return of paratrooper David Webster (Eion Bailey). Last seen in “Crossroads”, hobbling away from a battlefield in Holland, after being wounded; Webster returns from the hospital to find his old company recovering from the traumas suffered during the campaign in Belgium. With the Allies on the verge of victory, Easy Company begins to eye any chance of a return to combat with great wariness, during its stay in Haguenau, a town located in the Alsace region. Unfortunately, their luck fails to hold when Winters orders Spiers to select a group of men to carry out a dangerous scouting mission within the German lines. 

Recently, one of my relatives read an autobiography of one of the Easy Company veterans still living (I will not reveal his name). I was surprised to discover that he harbored some ill will toward the miniseries for allowing a major showcase of another character, David Webster. Why? Webster had never participated in the campaign in Belgium. He never bothered to leave the hospital to rejoin Easy Company in time for that harrowing experience. Many people might find that hard to believe. Yet, this autobiography had been recently published – perhaps in the last two years. This veteran continued harbor resentment toward Webster for missing the Belgium campaign after sixty odd years. Sixty years strikes me as a hell of a long time to be angry at someone for something like this.

Screenwriters Erik Bork and Bruce C. McKenna certainly included this resentment toward Webster in ”The Last Patrol”. In fact, I would probably say that they were a bit heavy-handed on this topic, especially in the episode’s first five to ten minutes. This was certainly apparent when Bork, McKenna and director Tony To insisted upon actor Eion Bailey wearing a silly grin on his face, when his character is informed about those Easy Company men that were killed, seriously wounded or otherwise in Belgium. The episode was also heavy-handed in its portrayal of Easy Company’s reluctance to engage in more combat, whether it was a major battle or a patrol. The first half of the episode seemed to saturate with some of the veterans either commenting on their reluctance to fight or their resentment toward newcomers like the recent West Point graduate, Second Lieutenant Jones (Colin Hanks) or returnees like Webster, who missed the Belgian campaign. And I never understood why Winters and not Spiers had chosen the fifteen men to partake in the patrol. Winters was the 2nd battalion’s executive officer around this time, not Easy Company’s commander.

Although the episode eventually improved, it still had another major flaw. The major flaw turned out to be Webster’s narration. Unlike Carwood Lipton’s narration featured in ”The Breaking Point”, Webster’s narration not only struck me as heavy-handed as the episode’s handling of his return, but also ineffective. The main problem with this episode’s narration is that it had a bad habit of repeating what was already shown. Some have blamed Eion Bailey’s performance for the flawed narration. However, I blame the screenwriters for writing it, and the producers for allowing it to remain in the episode. The material, in my opinion, seemed unworthy of a talented actor like Bailey.

Fortunately, ”The Last Patrol” was not a disaster. To, Bork and McKenna – along with most of the cast – did an excellent job of capturing the weariness suffered by Easy Company, following the ordeals of Bastogne and Foy; despite some of the heavy-handedness. This was especially apparent in Scott Grimes’ performance, whose portrayal of Sergeant Donald Malarkey seemed to reek of despair and grief over the deaths of “Skip” Muck and Alex Penkala in the last episode. The episode also benefitted from a humorous scene that centered on Frank Piconte’s (James Madio) return from hospital, after being wounded during the assault upon Foy. It allowed audiences to see how the men of Easy Company (both the Toccoa men and the replacements) had bonded – especially after the Belgium campaign. This scene provided a bittersweet moment for Webster (which was apparent on Bailey’s face), who began to realize how much his lack of experience in Belgium may have cost him. However, the episode’s centerpiece turned out to be the first rate action sequence that featured the patrol crossing the Rue de Triangle (Triangle River) and infiltrating German lines to snatch some prisoners. Although brief and filmed at night, the sequence was also fierce, brutal and a painful reminder that escaping the horrors of war might prove to be a bit difficult, despite the paratroopers and the Germans’ reluctance to engage in more combat.

Aside from Scott Grimes, other first-rate performances came from both Matthew Settle (Spiers) and Donnie Walhberg (Lipton), who seemed to have developed some kind of brotherly bond; Colin Hanks, who gave a nice, subtle performance as Easy Company’s newest addition, Lieutenant Henry Jones; Damian Lewis, whose finest moment as Winters came when the latter prevented the men from participating in a second patrol; Craig Heaney, whose portrayal of the embittered and caustic Roy Cobb seemed a lot more effective than in previous episodes; and Dexter Fletcher, who has been a favorite of mine for years. Not only was his portrayal of 1st Platoon sergeant John Martin was as deliciously sardonic as ever, but he provided a strong presence in the episode’s only combat sequence.

Although some are inclined to criticized Eion Bailey’s performance in ”The Last Patrol”, I am not inclined to do so. Yes, I was not impressed by his early scenes that featured Webster’s return to Easy Company. But I blame the screenwriters, not the actor. Thankfully, the episode moved past that awful beginning and Bailey proved he could give a subtle and well-rounded performance as the cynical Webster, who has to struggle to deal with the possibility that the men he had fought with in two major campaigns now consider him as an outsider.

”The Last Patrol” might not be one of the better episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. But for some reason, I have always liked it. I suspect that despite its flaws, I liked how the screenwriters and director Tony To gave it a world weary aura that matched both the situation and emotions that the men of Easy Company were experiencing, after eight months of combat.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Seven “The Breaking Point” Commentary

 

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Seven “The Breaking Point” Commentary

Easy Company continues its experiences in Belgium in ”The Breaking Point”, Episode Seven of HBO’s ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. Following the Bastogne campaign, the paratroopers find themselves in the Bois Jacques Forest just outside of Foy, Belgium. There, they to prepare for an assault on the town, while dealing with the competency of their commander, Lieutenant Norman Dike. 

”The Breaking Point” proved to be just as much of an epic episode as ”Bastogne” and ”Carentan”. Narrated by First Sergeant Carwood Lipton (Donnie Wahlberg), the episode depicted Easy Company’s experiences in the Bois Jacques Forest, just outside of Foy. The episode began with Corporal Don Hoobler’s (Peter McCabe) killing of a German soldier and his acquisition of a Luger. However, this minor incident proves to foreshadow a series of rather depressing incidents for Easy Company to endure. While displaying his new treasure trove to some of his fellow troopers, Hoobler accidentally shot himself in the leg and severed a major artery. He died on the way to the nearest aid station. The rest of the episode’s first half focused around the company’s discussion of Hoobler’s death, the need for a new company commander to replace the incompetent Norman Dike, Babe and Guarnere’s discussion of platoon leader “Buck” Compton’s increasingly odd behavior and more rumors about Dog Company’s Lieutenant Ronald Spiers.

Unfortunately for Easy Company, matters grow worse when German artillery in Foy begin shelling the 101st Airborne’s lines in the Bois Jacques Forest. One series of shelling results in Sergeant Joe Toye losing part of his leg. When Bill Guarnerne tries to come to his rescue, another series of shelling commences and “Wild Bill” meets with the same fate. Worse, both Lipton and Sergeant George Luz witness a moment of cowardice from Lieutenant Dike. The injuries suffered by the two sergeants leads Compton – who is still recovering from his wound in Holland and a stint in an Army hospital – to have a nervous breakdown. He is relieved of duty and Easy Company finds itself short of one of its more competent officers. Easy Company has a short respite before another round of shelling by the Germans. Poor Luz finds himself crawling through the forest, searching for a foxhole for refuge. Before he could reach Warren “Skip” Muck and Alex Penkala’s foxhole, a German shell completely obliterated it . . . and them. Lipton tries to warn battalion XO Winters that Dike might prove to be a disaster for Easy Company’s assault upon Foy. But Winters can do nothing without any cause, due to Dike’s connections. But when Dike panics in the middle of the assault, causing the needless deaths of many men, Winters finally has an excuse to get rid of him and replaces him with Ronald Spiers. His choice proves to be the correct one, as Spiers manages to extract Easy Company from disaster and lead them toward victory.

”The Breaking Point” proved to be on such an epic scale that it could have easily been stretched into a 90 minute movie on its own. It had everything – drama, humor, action, and suspense. Screenwriter Graham Yost did a magnificent job in re-creating Easy Company’s experiences in the Bois Jacques and during the assault on Foy. I did have one quibble about this episode. I found myself slightly confused over the consequences of Don Hoobler’s death. The reaction of the men around the paratrooper seemed to indicate that he had died, while “Doc” Roe tried to revive him. Yet, according to Lipton, Hoobler had died on the way to an aid station. Despite this, the episode had some outstanding sequences. Some of the best featured “Skip” Muck’s recount of the wounds suffered by some of Easy Company’s men during their six-to-seven months in France, Holland and Belgium; Lipton’s attempt to warn Winters of Dike’s inadequacies as a company commander; and Spiers assuming command of Easy Company. I cannot decide whether the episode’s pièce de résistance were the shelling sequences that led to Toye and Guarnere’s injuries and the deaths of Muck and Penkala, or Easy Company actual assault upon Foy. Perhaps ”The Breaking Point” might prove to be that one episode with two exceptional sequences.

Director David Frankel not only put it all together with some exceptional action sequences, but also with his guidance of the cast. It did help that this episode featured some first-class performances. I found myself especially impressed by Frank John Hughes, who made his last appearances in the miniseries as the memorable William “Wild Bill” Guarnere; Peter O’Meara as the incompetent Norman Dike; Scott Grimes, who gave a poignant performance as Donald Marlarkey; Matthew Settle as the formidable Ronald Spiers, who proved to be a lot more human than Easy Company had earlier surmised; Neal McDonough, who brilliantly conveyed the strain Buck Compton suffered upon his return from an Army hospital and his eventual breakdown; and Rick Gomez, who proved to be both funny and dramatic as the company’s own comic, George Luz. Damian Lewis, Ron Livingston Richard Speight Jr. and Peter McCabe also gave solid support. But the best performance came from Donnie Walhberg in his portrayal of Easy’s dependable first sergeant, Carwood Lipton. Walhberg not only gave a subtle performance as the soft-spoken Lipton, but also had the screen presence to hold this epic episode together. He also captured Lipton’s style of speech in his narration of the episode.

In earlier articles, I had already indicated that there were at least three ”BAND OF BROTHERS” that I held above the others in terms of quality. Two of them were ”Bastogne” and ”Carentan”. The third episode turned out to be ”The Breaking Point”. In fact, I would go as far to say that David Frankel’s direction, Graham Yost’s script and Donnie Walhberg’s performance made it the best in the entire series.

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Six “Bastogne” Commentary

“BAND OF BROTHERS” (2001) – Episode Six “Bastogne” Commentary

This sixth episode of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” featured the experiences of Easy Company during the Battle of the Bulge and their participation in the Allies’ efforts to hold the ground near Bastogne, Belgium; while low on ammunition and supplies. The episode focused on Easy Company medic, Eugene “Doc” Roe, as he tended his fellow soldiers where he can, while also scrounging for medical supplies. 

”Bastogne” turned out to be the first of two episodes centered on Easy Company’s experiences in Belgium. Shown from Eugene Roe’s point-of-view; the audience saw Easy Company deal with many difficulties and traumas during this campaign. Aside from ammunition and supplies, Roe and the company had to deal with freezing temperatures, low morale, the encircling German Army and worst of all, an ineffectual company commander by the name of Norman Dike. The episode featured a good deal of combat sequences. But since they were shown through “Doc” Roe’s eyes, the audience’s views of these sequences were at best minimal.

One sequence had First Platoon on a reconnaissance patrol in order to probe for the German line. The patrol led to several wounded troopers and the death of a replacement trooper named Private Julian. Supporting characters like Lieutenant Harry Welsh and Wayne “Skinny” Sisk suffered serious leg wounds from occasional German artillery shelling. And Walter “Smokey” Gordon was wounded and paralyzed during a German tank assault. During this time, Roe struck up a fictionalized friendship and potential romance with a Belgian nurse named Renée LeMaire. Their relationship ended in tragedy, when Renée was killed during the German bombing of Bastogne on Christmas Eve. Replacement trooper Edward “Babe” Heffron also figured heavily in ”Bastogne”. Although the episode was mainly told from Roe’s point-of-view, it allowed one sequence told from Babe’s point-of-view. In it, Babe and another medic named Ralph Spina had a humorous encounter with German troops in a foxhole, while searching for medical supplies for Easy Company.

There are three episodes of ”BAND OF BROTHERS” that I consider to be personal favorites of mine. And one of them is”Bastogne”. In my reviews of episodes like “Day of Days” and “Replacements”, I had complained of the lack of epic scope in episodes that featured important and historic battles. In ”Bastogne”, director David Leland and screenwriter Bruce C. McKenna gave the episode that epic scope needed for an episode about the famous siege of Bastogne. And the fact that they told the episode through the eyes of medic Eugene Roe made their efforts all the more amazing. Was this particular episode filmed inside a soundstage? It is possible. If it was, I am impressed. I wish I knew the name of the production designer for this particular episode, because he or she did a magnificent job in re-creating the Ardennes Forest during the winter. I also found the photography very impressive, especially in the scene that featured the Army Air Corps’ attempt to re-supply the division by air and the German bombing of Bastogne near the end of the episode. Once again,”BAND OF BROTHERS” allowed viewers to get a peek into the personal interactions between the troopers of Easy Company. Most of these interactions occurred during Christmas Eve . . . right before Harry Welsh was wounded by German artillery. However, I also enjoyed the two major interactions between Roe and Heffron – especially one scene in which both Roe and Spina tried to comfort Heffron, who was distraught over Private Julian’s death.

”Bastogne” featured some excellent performances from certain members of the cast. Neal McDonough gave a subtle and convincing performance as platoon leader Lieutenant Lynn “Buck” Compton , whose emotional stability seemed to be in danger of spiraling out of control after getting shot in Holland. Another memorable performance came from actress Lucie Jeanne, who portrayed Renée Lemaire, the Belgian nurse in Bastogne that Roe befriended. Robin Laing got a chance to shine as Edward “Babe” Heffron, the replacement trooper that hailed from Bill Guarnere’s Philadelphia neighborhood. He was especially effectively poignant in a scene in which Heffron grieved over Private Julian’s death. But the star of this particular episode was Irish-born actor Shane Taylor. Recalling my complaint about the questionable American accents of some of the British cast members, I can happily say that Taylor was not one of them. He did an excellent job in recapturing the Louisiana-born Roe’s native accent. More importantly, he gave a subtle, yet superb performance as the quiet and efficient medic, struggling to perform his duty and prevent himself from getting affected by the suffering around him. In the end, Taylor not only gave one of the miniseries’ best performances, but also managed to carry a very important episode on his shoulders.

”Bastogne” is not completely perfect. Despite the strong chemistry between Taylor and Jeanne, there were moments when I found the nuance of their relationship – especially the silent exchange of glances – a bit heavy-handed. And I am somewhat confused about the fate of the wounded men that Roe escorted to one of the hospitals in Bastogne. Earlier in the episode, he had escorted Sisk and Gordon to the hospital where Renée worked. He was about to deliver Welsh to the same hospital, when he witnessed its destruction from German bombers. The episode made it clear that Bastogne had remained encircled by German forces, until the arrival of elements from General George C. Patton’s Third Army on December 26, 1944. So . . . what happened to Sisk and Gordon? They did not meet Renée’s fate. Both men survived the war. How did they get out of that hospital and Bastogne before the December 24 bombing?

Perfect or not, ”Bastogne” is one of my personal favorite episodes in ”BAND OF BROTHERS”. And thanks to director David Leland, screenwriter Bruce C. McKenna and actor Shane Taylor, the episode conveyed an epic point-of-view of the siege of Bastogne that made it one of the best (at least in my opinion) episodes in the entire miniseries.