Sunday, August 12, 2007

Lewis and Clark showdown [part 1]: Encyclopedia Brittanica v. The Simpsons?

When historians of the Northwest gather together together it is only a matter of time before the ancient argument arises yet again: Who made the better documentary film of the Corps of Discovery? Encyclopedia Brittanica in conjunction with Emerson Films? Or the TV show The Simpsons? (Ken Burns? The name does not ring a bell.) This post will provide the reader with access to the primary sources for this important historiographic debate.

In 1954 Encyclopedia Brittanica films released Lewis and Clark, a 17-minute black-and-white movie for use in school classrooms. Their partner in the project was Emerson films, maker of many of those stilted movies that defined educational ennui for my generation. Lewis and Clark is a hoot! It is a standard romantic vision of the Corps of Discovery, with much unintentional campy goodness.

The most memorable part for me is an exchange between Lewis and Charbonneau at Fort Mandan. Charbonneau has raised his hand to strike his pregnant and bedridden wife Sacajawea when he is stopped by Lewis:

Clark: That is enough squaw man.

Charbonneau: Oh but of course captain. Still Charbonneau does not understand. She is but a squaw. Among the Indians she is less than nothing, at the most property and Sacajawea owes me much. She is a captured Shoshone girl who knows what might have happened to her if it had not been for me, a loving husband. But I am a weak man and can’t stand to see suffering.

Clark (angry): Her body is covered with the marks of your beatings!

Charbonneau (philosophically): Well I have shortcomings...

There is so much to analyze here. The portrayal of Charbonneau is a classic 19th and early 20th century caricature of the French traders and settlers who preceded the Americans to the west by generations. He is vain, lazy, cruel, avaricious and childlike. He has sacrificed his status as a civilized man to pursue his base impulses (note Lewis' deadly insult--"squawman") and it takes American ambition to get him out of the Indian village at all.

The other notable thing about the scene is the way Charbonneau characterizes the status of Indian women as " less than nothing, at the most property." He makes similar comments elsewhere in the film. This perfectly reflects the 19th and early 20th century view of native women as oppressed drudges who did all the heavy work of camp yet had no status or rights within their tribes. This ancient stereotype is what modern ethnohistorians refer to as "bullshit." Native woman held a lot of power and importance in most culture areas, including among the Mandans and Shoshonis portrayed in the film.

I also love the ending--Clark in a bathtub in Saint Louis, while Lewis stands over him in full dress but with great interest. Ah the 1950s, the last era of widespread unacknowledged homoeroticism! Clark scrubs himself and says "We did it Mern and now I am going to get married. Judy Hancock, here I come." Given Lewis' apparent same sex attraction (here also), one looks for a leer or a wink on the actors face, but of course there is nothing like that.

York appears only very briefly, as a sort of Step-and-Fetchit caricature that ignores his real contributions to the expedition. Other problems with the film include a scene showing Fort Clatsop covered with several feet of snow and a lot of anachronistic late-nineteenth century speech.

Next: Blogging the Simpsons take on Lewis and Clark.

No comments: