One of the most discouraging aspects of "Into the West," a new historical miniseries executive-produced for cable's TNT by Steven Spielberg, is the bleakness of the durn thing. There are tiny moments of joy here and there along the trail, and glistening vistas that appear to be enhanced by computer effects, but for the most part, this is "How the West Was Wan," a pallid and stolid downer.
Obviously this is a big undertaking and a whopper of a production, especially for basic cable, and since TNT has probably sunk a bundle into it, the channel will make all six two-hour episodes as accessible as possible. The first of six "three-play weekends" begins tonight -- the first episode airs at 8, then also tomorrow and Sunday at the same time, plus additional repeats on Sunday at 10 p.m. and midnight and at other times.
It'll be hard to miss -- but not if you keep trying. The show is probably worth making a special effort to avoid -- unless your life has been unconscionably gay and carefree lately and you feel the need for a nice big glass of ipecac.
The 12 hours cover the years 1825 through 1890, encompassing epochal occurrences such as the Gold Rush, the opening of the West to the railroad and telegraph, and myriad conflicts between Native Americans who grew up on the land and the itinerant invaders who aimed to conquer and, shall we say, gentrify it. In keeping with movie tradition, the noble Indians are portrayed as having sensibilities so mystical and spiritual that they can practically see the freeways, theme parks and fast-food joints rising up where the buffalo roam. And the skies are not cloudy all day.
Except that in "Into the West," the skies often do seem cloudy all day, and it's so cold you can see the actors' breath in many scenes. Again and again we are reminded, with the subtlety of a conk on the bean, that in those long-ago days, hardships were really hard and misfortune could be horribly unfortunate. In case you haven't heard (and hold on for a shock now), the Indians' land was taken by "the white man," as the settlers are called, and progress could be heartless and ruthless where Native Americans were concerned.
According to TNT production notes, attempts were made to keep "Into the West" from becoming just another screed of grievances and another opportunity for the rest of us to feel guilty and rotten about the way Indians were treated (there are scenes depicting vicious bigotry toward African Americans as well). Nevertheless, the Indian wars depicted throughout the miniseries will build to a wrenching massacre in Episode 6, the Battle at Wounded Knee.
Oh heavens, not that again.
The saga, which tends to sprawl as all sagas should, also bounces back and forth between two main story lines: the westward incursions of the Wheelers, a Virginia family that, appropriately enough, had been very big in the wheel business for generations before that big Wal-Mart known as The West opened up. Leading the Wheeler way is strapping son Jacob, played strappingly enough, but rather antiseptically, by Matthew Settle. "I dreamed of a better life beyond the Mississippi," we hear him say in narration, and soon he's out West pondering such vexing questions as "How much can a man make off a beaver?"
Sometimes cultures don't clash but rather merge and meld nicely. Jacob, for instance, marries a beautiful Indian named Thunder Heart Woman, played by the striking Tonantzin Carmelo. She's living a rough life yet staying in remarkably fine fettle. In fact, there is a squeaky-cleanness about the production -- the sets, the little towns, the farms and ranches -- that looks ludicrous in the wake of such rough and rugged new-age westerns as "Deadwood," the foulmouthed triumph produced for HBO by David Milch.
"Into the West" does boast a colorful array of Indian names, of which Thunder Heart Woman is only a tame example. There's Dog Star, Growling Bear, Soaring Eagle, Drinks Water (I guess I would be Drinks Coke -- or maybe Eats Too Much Ben & Jerry's), Dark Star, Running Fox, Fire Hoses (Oops. I think that's Five Horses. It's hard to read my notes sometimes), High Wolf and White Feather, a young man who is renamed Loved by the Buffalo after a fantastic encounter with a single buffalo during the middle of a stampede.
In what may be a vision rather than actually happening, the buffalo are enticed to do the lemming thing and go plummeting over a cliff and into a waiting abyss.
Occasionally there are other arresting sorts of imagery -- as when a settler gets shot while lying on his back with a canteen perched on his chest and it's the canteen that spouts liquid from bullet holes, not the settler. The episodes, which have different writers and directors, are 98 percent prosaic and only about 2 percent poetic, however.
Jacob, meanwhile, becomes so infatuated with the legend of a mountain man named Jedediah Smith (Josh Brolin) that he abandons his family and runs off to tag along with Smith and his scroungy cronies. "I was riding with a legend," Jacob declares. "Mr. Smith was like no man I ever knew, and I would never be the same." We're not shown anything to justify this mad adulation except perhaps when Smith gets into a wrestling match with a bear. In one quick shot, the bear gets Smith's entire face in his mouth. But instead of biting his face off, the bear is content to scratch off a large portion of Smith's scalp, which the worshipful Jacob has to sew back on.
On and on tread the trekkers, pausing for such cliches as the obligatory amputation of a limb (a leg in this case), a buffalo stampede, and a vicious rape by a wayward soldier. When one girl dies, an Indian cries, a single tear dribbling down his cheek just the way it happened in the famous "Keep America Beautiful" commercial featuring a weeping Indian many years ago.
Much of the film is similarly familiar, and so many of the episodes and events have been depicted in such other movies as "Dances With Wolves" and "Lonesome Dove" that "Into the West -- Again" would have been a more honest title. The Old West is a nice place to visit but obviously you wouldn't want to live there -- and you probably wouldn't want to keep visiting there, either. "Into the West" fails to make a convincing case for going back yet again.