500 NATIONS - DVD review

...probably the single best examination of Native American history and culture ever committed to film.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

A common misconception is that when European settlers first arrived in America they found only a scattering of "wild Indians," savages whose fame would later rest in the dubious hands of Hollywood filmmakers, where they would invariably be portrayed as the bad guys. The 1995 television miniseries, "500 Nations," goes a long way toward dispelling that myth, pointing out that when the first Europeans reached these shores, there were over 500 Native American nations in North America alone, "tens of millions of people," we're told, the remnants of some of the most-advanced civilizations the world had ever known.

Presented on four DVDs and a bonus CD-ROM, extending to 372 minutes, and introduced by Kevin Costner, "500 Nations" is possibly the most extensive documentary on Native American history and traditions ever made. Like most such documentaries, it has its ups and downs, its moments of poignancy and revelation and its moments of tedium. But every minute of the series is filled with valuable information and insights, and it works well as a continuing and painless education for all of us.

Co-written and directed by Jack Leustig, the series uses a variety of sources--archeological records, journals, paintings, art work, interviews, and CGI reconstructions--to offer a comprehensive look at the natives of North America, not just from the days before Columbus but from the days before Christ. It begins in a past that mirrored the great civilizations of Egypt and continues, mostly chronologically, through the late eighteen hundreds and the massacre at Wounded Knee, which, in fact, is where the story begins. It examines how one of the world's most prominent cultures was reduced to cannon fodder in its darkest hour. It is not a pretty story, and it does not spare either the Europeans or the Native Americans themselves in telling its tale.

The series begins with an introduction by Costner, and he pops up from time to time to continue his commentary. The actual narration, however, is done is by actor Gregory Harrison. Disc one contains segments on Native American creation myths and then chronicles the lives of some of the earliest-known inhabitants of North America: the Anasazi, whose magnificent culture dates back to before 1,000 B.C.; the Maya, from 603-800 A.D.; the warrior Aztecs, by 1500 A.D. one of the most populous nations on earth; the invasion of Mexico in 1519 by Cortez; and the fall of the Aztec civilization through war and smallpox.

The great native empires of North America pretty much ended after the European incursions, but the Native American people continue to live on despite the odds, their stories told here in paintings, carvings, ruins, writings, and computer-graphic representations. There are almost no live-action renderings of the proceedings, however, which means that the material is presented in a fairly academic manner, which may be off-putting to some viewers who might lean toward something more exciting. I have to admit that I couldn't watch more than one disc at a time myself, as the sheer amount of information advanced became somewhat overwhelming, and the pace seemed to slow as my attention span decreased.

Discs two, three, and four follow the same pattern as disc one. Kevin Costner hosts them, Gregory Harrison narrates them, and director Jack Leustig uses maps, still pictures, paintings, location shots, some CGI, and numerous interviews to tell his story. The discs contain two episodes each of the original television series, about an hour-and-a-half per disc, divided into twelve to fourteen chapters.

In addition to Costner and Harrison, the various episodes include voice-overs by Edward James Olmos, Patrick Stewart, Timothy Bottoms, Wes Studi, Amy Madigan, Graham Greene, and others. English is the only spoken language available on the discs, but there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Disc two, episodes three and four, covers a "Clash of Cultures" and the "Invasion of the Coast." Here we find Columbus, the Spanish conquistadors, and the rest of the plunderers. Treachery and betrayal by the Spanish invaders leave a path of bloodshed and violence wherever they go. The injustices portrayed are difficult to stomach and could be unsettling to younger children. The final episode on the disc ends by chronicling the Inuit tribes of the far north from about 1500 A.D. forward.

Disc three, episodes five and six, contains "Cauldron of War" and "Removal." These segments tell of the coming of the English and French settlers from about 1500 to the early 1800s. It shows how many Native Americans were enslaved, a practice displaced only years later by the subjugation of African slaves. Then, in 1830 the Indian Removal Act became law, causing further turmoil between the native tribes and the U.S. Government.

Disc four, episodes seven and eight, contains "Roads Across the Plains" and "Attack on Culture." These segments take us from the late 1700s to the late 1800s, where the series began. Interestingly, this is the only disc to include what looks like some very brief live-action footage. Anyway, it takes us to California, the West, and the Midwest, and it includes most of the Indians known to us today through Western-movie lore: Sitting Bull, Chief Crazy Horse, Chief Joseph, Geronimo, and the like. The disc concludes by stating that "renewal of native cultures reminds us of the glory of America's original people and the hardships they endured."

"500 Nations" is a scholarly look at the native peoples of North America, perhaps too scholarly to make for absorbing watching at a single sitting. But, then, it was never meant to be seen all at once. It was meant to be viewed over a period of nights, one episode at a time, which is the way I watched the series. The entire program may not be as well paced or as exciting as it could have been, and more live action would have undoubtedly animated the events considerably, but what we have is still plenty good. The information presented is enlightening and informational; oppressing, yes, but inspiring, too. A recommended watch.

Because the series was made for television, it is presented in a standard 1.33:1 television ratio. The video's most notable achievements are its natural colors--never too bright, never dull or faded--and its clean transfer to DVD. Its drawback, however, is that typical of a television product, it appears slightly blurred compared to a good DVD movie transfer. The hazy picture is not really bad, mind you, just much like regular-broadcast television, and combined with a variety of moiré effects, wavy, jittery, unsteady lines, the result is not top-notch reproduction of the kind we usually expect from a good film.

The sound, too, is typical of television, a straightforward 2.0 stereo affair clarified somewhat through the Dolby Digital process. Its strong points are its midrange clarity, superb in rendering the narration so necessary in a documentary, and its freedom from any kind of background noise. Its weaknesses are a relatively narrow front-channel stereo spread, a limited frequency and dynamic response, and almost no surround information. Fortunately, it doesn't need much more than a good midrange to reproduce voices, soft background music, and a few sound effects.

The first three DVDs in the series include sections for "Special Features" in their Main Menus but there are none. Only disc four and the bonus CD-ROM have any extras on them. Disc four includes three minutes of closing remarks from Costner and eight minutes of "CGI Insight with Director Jack Leustig."

I'm not sure why WB chose to include a bonus CD-ROM disc of archival and making-of material rather than another DVD or a DVD-ROM. I suspect that the CD was made at the time of the series' production, 1995, and that was all the technology the filmmakers had available to them. In any case, it is a typical interactive disc, with an opening menu and index that allow the user to access timelines, picture galleries, stories, histories, and so on at the tap of a mouse button. It is easy to use, highly intuitive, and instructive.

The five discs are packaged in a foldout cardboard-and-plastic container housed in a handsomely embossed, sturdy cardboard slip case. Also enclosed is further information on the contents of each disc, plus a booklet insert containing complete chapter listings.

Parting Thoughts:
"Human beings can be awful cruel to one another," wrote Mark Twain in "Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." We have seen this truism play out in almost every country of the world in almost every age since the beginning of recorded history, and never more so than in the treatment of Native Americans (and Africans) at the hands of European settlers in America. Costner concludes his remarks by saying that the history of Native Americans is "a story of loss and a story of hope."

One's appreciation for "500 Nations" will undoubtedly depend upon one's appreciation for history in general and documentaries in particular. Insofar as documentaries go, this one is no better than most in style or construction, but superior to most in substance. It is probably the single best examination of Native American history and culture ever committed to film. While the series may be a long haul for the disinterested, and while it is no Ken Burns "Civil War," it is a worthwhile watch for anyone, student or non student, interested in America's heritage.


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