Watch Ken Burns' The West

Ken Burns' The West, or simply The West - presented by filmmaker Ken Burns - is a serialized documentary of the American Old West aired on public television stations in the USA. Ken Burns gained fame for earlier documentaries on the Civil War and baseball. Here, however, Burns is the executive producer. He provides the financial backing and overall guidance to bring this show to television. Direction is within the hands of Stephen Ives, with whom Burns collaborated in at least two other shows. Lacking any significant motion picture film from the 1800s, Burns and Ives employ the proven technique of still photography with narration to bring The West to life. This is not a drama, and Ives depends heavily upon historical archives and Hollywood's most celebrated voice actors to paint a picture of the Old West. Indeed, narrator Peter Coyote and voiceover actors John Lithgow, Adam Arkin, Gary Sinise and others truly are the series' cast.

The West originally aired on public broadcast airwaves in eight episodes presented in chronological order, beginning in 1806 with episode one, The People. Episode two transitions into the period of the Louisiana Purchase, the Republic of Texas and the Mexican-American War; it ends with the California gold rush. Episodes three through seven document westward expansion, the Civil War, Reconstruction and the railroads. By episode seven, The Geography of Hope, the century is drawing to a close, and the automobile and telephone are set to transform rural life forever. The last chapter, episode eight, relives the turn of the century, industrialization and the years just before World War I in 1914. Viewers may see the final episode online or elsewhere as One Sky Above Us, episode eight, and Ghost Dance.

PBS
1 Season, 9 Episodes
September 23, 1990
News
8.4/10
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Ken Burns' The West Full Episode Guide

  • As settlers race to claim tribal lands, Native Americans try to restore a lost way of life until their hopes are crushed at Wounded Knee. The new century marks a new era, but the West remains what it has always been, a world waiting for a dream.

  • By the late 1880's, Americans were astounded by the changes they had brought to the West. Mining towns such as Butte, Montana were now full-fledged industrial cities, magnets of opportunity to workers from around the world, but also places where the landscape itself was under assault. Defeated militarily, Native Americas throughout the region now flocked to the call of a Paiute mystic, who offered the illusionary hope that the lost world of the buffalo could be brought back by a Ghost Dance. But its promises would be trampled in the snow and blood of Wounded Knee. In place of the great Native American cultures which once dominated the Plains was a new culture, epitomized by the Oklahoma Land Rush, in which 100,000 eager settlers lined up for a mad dash to stake out a farm and a future.

  • Newcomers arrive by the millions, bringing a new spirit of conformity to the West. Yet the legend of the "Wild West" lives on, thanks to the greatest showman of the age.

  • The federal government tightens its grip on the West, but three bold spirits remain defiant - Sitting Bull, Brigham Young, and Chief Joseph.

  • The transcontinental railroad opens a new era in the West, carrying homesteaders and cowboys, helping give women the vote and sending buffalo hunters onto the plains, where they drive a symbol of the West - and a way of life - to the brink of extinction.

  • Civil war comes early to the West. The war between North and South unleashes brute savagery in the West, and leaves behind an army prepared for total war against the native peoples of the plains.

  • The Gold Rush brings the whole world to the West, as 49ers from Asia, South America and the eastern states scramble for "a share of the rocks". But in the push to strike it rich, many are violently pushed aside.

  • Americans head west along many pathways -- the fur trade, self-determination, religious freedom, or a better life. But whatever direction they travel, they move closer with every step to a "Manifest Destiny" that will make the West their own.

  • The West begins as the whole world to the people who live there. When Europeans arrive it becomes a New World, shaken by incompatible visions. And when Lewis and Clark venture west, it becomes the testing-ground for a nation's continent-spanning dream.

Most Popular Ken Burns' The West Episodes

  • Season 1 Episode 9 One Sky Above Us 9/22/1996

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