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Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West

Published: Friday, March 21 2003 11:23 a.m. MST

The latest six-story-high movie to arrive on the SuperScreen inspires awe in an American journey. And unlike some other large-format films, this one tells its story with refreshing understatement.

"Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West" whisks us away from St. Louis and across the prairie with the Corps of Discovery, into the great unknown as it looked in 1804. The filmmakers, including Utah director Bruce Neibaur of Draper, faced the challenge of finding locations free of modern clutter such as utility wires and railroad tracks. Fortunately for us, they did discover stretches of river, plains and mountains that look as they did when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark first saw them.

"Great Journey" lays out a wide range of facts that will have you shaking your head in amazement. The Corps of Discovery traveled for nearly two years against the Missouri's current. Near present-day Great Falls, Mont., the men had to carry dozens of heavy trunks some 17 miles around massive waterfalls — and that was only one of many unforeseen detours.

Little, if anything, went as planned on the 8,000-mile trip. How could it, when the Corps set out across terrain whose maps were blank as a bedsheet? Yet Lewis and Clark had not a single major argument along the way.

Their footwear was thin leather, and their clothing no match for the 45-below-zero temperatures that befell them in the winter of 1804. But only one Corps member died during the expedition.

"Great Journey" also emphasizes aspects of the trip that have gained little attention in popular accounts. Sacagawea, the Shoshone wife of the Corps' hired interpreter Toussaint Charbonneau, is given ample credit for guiding the men. She also saved their possessions in a river accident and secured the horses they would need to cross the Bitterroot mountain range. And about halfway through the expedition, Sacagawea gives birth to Jean Baptiste Charbonneau, who's nicknamed Pomp, and carries him all the way to Oregon.

When the Corps finally reaches the West Coast, all of the adults, including Sacagawea and Clark's black slave, York, vote on where to set up their winter camp. It was November 1805, a moment of equality decades before American women and blacks won the right to vote. Sacagawea also epitomizes the American Indians — the Shoshone, the Nez Perce and many other tribes — who continually saved the Corps members' lives by giving them food, shelter, directions and horses. This points up a paradox. The white explorers, encountering Indian buffalo hunters near what is now Omaha, Neb., donned full military dress "to let them know . . . that the United States now claimed their land." But Lewis and Clark's crossing of the West was possible, by the travelers' accounts, only with the tribes' help.

"Great Journey's" narrator is Jeff Bridges, who gives the film a thoughtful tone far from the grandiosity of so many large-format features.

"Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West" is not rated but would probably receive a G. Running time: 45 minutes.

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