When Teddy Roosevelt returned from a 15-month tour of Europe and Africa and was greeted with cheering crowds, the welcome struck him "like a deep breath of life," says narrator George C. Scott during "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt," a brilliant biographical portrait of TR that airs tomorrow night on ABC.
Watching this film is like taking a deep breath of Roosevelt's life, and of the life of a country at the propitious turn of a momentous century.
Made in 1983 by producer-director Harrison Engle, "Indomitable," at 7 p.m. on Channel 7, is moving and powerful largely because of its subject, but largely, too, because Engle's approach is inventive, intelligent and heartfelt. The man and his time come alive in old newsreels, dramatic reenactments, the music of John Philip Sousa, and stunning, rare, intimate footage.
We think of Teddy Roosevelt as charging up San Juan Hill or barging into the wilderness, and he did those things, but the most haunting footage of him on this program finds him solitary among the terns on Pelican Island, walking off into the distance, a fascinating enigma and, now, a relic of a long-gone glorious time.
He cast a gigantic shadow, and this film, beautifully narrated by Scott, animates that shadow and fleshes it out. Teddy Roosevelt was the first president to strut and fret his hour not upon the stage but before the motion picture camera. He did not have media advisers. It was all instinctual.
He was, says Scott, "a master of communication" who became "the most popular and fascinating figure" in the country, and "the most entertaining man in America." His roguish charisma is infectious even now. "Indomitable" teleports one back to an era of tremendous hopefulness and brio, dominated by a man and a leader who epitomized both. The hopes would be substantially dashed by World War I, and when Roosevelt died in 1919, he took a special brand of American esprit with him.
Engle's accomplishment, shared by his wife Marilyn, who worked on the film, and by Theodore Strauss, who wrote a gratifyingly straightforward script, is in making this historical journey anything but dull. The film has a rich, radiant texture, and the old silent footage has been speed-corrected so that it takes on a dreamlike, elegiac quality.
The insertion of the reenacted scenes, with actor Bob Boyd playing Roosevelt, is bothersome at first, but it adds visual variety and punctuation. Some members of the Roosevelt family are played by present-day Roosevelt descendants. Boyd died in 1983, not long after the film was made, in an auto accident; he was touring North Dakota, playing Teddy on small-town stages. He did live to see the finished film.
All the public events in which Roosevelt figured are covered in the film -- the Panama Canal, the Rough Riders, the founding of the Bull Moose Party, the heroic conservation effort, the trust-busting forays, the creation of the teddy bear. Roosevelt the man is given equal time; he was, we are reminded, an insatiable adventurer. He took a clandestine dive in a prototype submarine, flew in a primitive airplane a breathtaking 200 feet above ground, traveled up an uncharted river in Brazil, and once stopped a rhino at 13 paces.
By the age of 60, Scott says, "he had led a dozen lives."
Engle's use of music is inspired (especially "Roses of Picardy," played when Roosevelt loses his son Quentin in the war) and his choice of newspaper headlines of the day crisply evocative: "Thousands Cheer the Rough Rider." "President Roosevelt Among the Cowboys." "America's Typical American."
And this one, so innocently optimistic then, so tinged with melancholy now: "Welcome, Twentieth Century."
"The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt" is the story of a hero, and some modern-day heroics helped bring it to ABC and a national audience. Stan Moger, of SFM Media Services, has been holding out for better offers for three years since the film was entrusted to his care, and care is what he gave it. Former ABC president Frederick S. Pierce made the brave decision to buy it before he left the network in January.
The Gannett Broadcasting Group came up with the more than $200,000 it took to make the film in the first place. They deserve credit too. But it is Engle whose dedication and perseverance brought it all to fruition.
Obviously an apt companion piece to the ongoing Edmund Morris biography of Roosevelt, the first volume of which, "The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt," was published in 1979, "Indomitable" makes the story still more accessible, and tells it with wit and passion. Since Morris is also to be the biographer of Ronald Reagan, one may be tempted to compare the two presidents. They share enormous popularity and vitality, but Roosevelt was a big-screen president and Reagan, whatever his Hollywood history, is a small-screen one.
But then, these are small-screen times. "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt" is about greatness as it was, and what it must have been like to share in it, and how brash and uncomplicated this century was when it started. It makes you want to cheer, and then it makes you want to cry.