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A&E Home Video presents
The Real West (The Best of) (1994)

"The losses of loved ones, the injuries suffered in these treks, the daily routine often was a monumental task just to survive. The Trans-Mississippi West is really our Homeric epic. It's our era of heroes, male and female."
- Dr. Paul Fees

Review By: Justin Stephen   
Published: February 27, 2001

Stars: Kenny Rogers (host and narrator)
Other Stars: Joseph Flying Bye, Robert M. Utley, Dee Brown, Dr. Beatrice Medicine, Dr. Paul Hutton, Isaac Dog Eagle, Celene Not Help Him, Roger McGrath, Leon Metz, Virginia Scharff, Dr. Paul Fees, Glenn Shirley, Irene Black, Dr. Stephen L. Hardin, Bill Chenerka, Kevin R. Young, Walter Lord, Joe Musso, Gilberto Hinojosa, Mike Cox, Dr. John L. Davis, Tom Burks.
Director: Craig Haffner

Manufacturer: DVSS
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (descriptions of violent acts, but generally safe for all audiences)
Run Time: 03h:05m:36s
Release Date: December 26, 2000
UPC: 733961701685
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
B C+C+C+ F

DVD Review

Perhaps no time and place in our nation's history is more romanticized than the western frontier during the mid to late 1800s. Relying only on our dim recollection of junior high history texts (likely fraught with inaccuracies themselves) and what we have seen in the movies, most of us don't really know much that's factual about the Old West. To help fill this significant gap in our collective knowledge, The History Channel created the series The Real West. Each episode attempts to portray the true story behind legendary events, entities, or personages from this period.

The Best of The Real West features four episodes from this series:

Sitting Bull and the Great Sioux Nation: (46:23) - Beginning with a brief history and cultural study of the Lakota nation (meaning "the people", the name the Sioux called themselves), this program focuses on the life and exploits of both the great Chief Red Cloud and the warrior Sitting Bull. Once comprised of seven mighty tribes who controlled vast lands in the northern Midwest, the Lakota and the white man continued to butt heads over such things as the Bozeman trail, leading ultimately to the battle at Little Big Horn.

Wild Women: (46:24) - The legendary figures of the Old West were not just male. The names of several women are also written prominently into Western lore. This program begins with an overview of the role of women in the mass westward migrations of the 19th century, effectively shattering the stereotype of the bonneted lass sitting on a shaded wagon. It then focuses on three legendary female figures of the era. Martha Canary Burke, better known as Calamity Jane, was a woman who lived as a man, serving as hunter and scout. Mira Belle Shirley, better known as Belle Starr, is known as a notorious outlaw figure (thanks to countless dimestore novels that flaunted her fictional exploits), but in truth was guilty of little more than associating with outlaws. Lastly, Anne Moses, who is best known by her stage name Annie Oakley, was not an outlaw at all, but rather a sharp shooter who for many years toured with Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show.

The Battle of the Alamo: (46:21) - One of the most famous events in America's story, much of what we think we know about it actually comes from Hollywood, not from the actual annals of history. This presentation begins with the conditions leading up to the bloody 6th of March, 1836; the sequence of events of the battle itself and a similar, and even bloodier, conflict in nearby Goliad, and how Texas eventually won its independence.

Texas Rangers: Manhunters of the Old West: (46:28) - The Texas Rangers, outside of perhaps the FBI, are the most storied and famous law enforcement agency in the United States. This program begins with a look at the group's humble beginnings in 1823 and the conditions that necessitated its creation. The story behind the group's most noteworthy leaders, its significant contribution in the Mexican-American war, its bloody conflicts with Comanche Indians, its gradual transition to a law enforcement role in the 1870s, and its eventual establishment as an official state police force in 1901 are covered.

The Real West is hosted and narrated in a competent but uninspired fashion by Kenny Rogers. Director and executive producer Craig Haffner employs the technique popularized by documentarian Ken Burns: vintage photographs and film, readings of vintage letters and journals, and interviews with modern historians interwoven with narration. While not as effective as Burns', the technique is generally employed to good effect.

The Real West is at its best when it covers general topics, such as the early portions of Wild Women (a general look at the participation of women in the great Western migration and how it effected gender roles) and Sitting Bull.... (a history and cultural study of the Lakota people). The effectiveness of the presentation tends to lose steam when more specific topics and people are covered. This may be the result of trying to cover too much material in the 45 some odd minutes available for an hour-long television show with commercial interruptions. One program in particular, Sitting Bull...., is not only misnamed (as it covers Red Cloud just as thoroughly as Sitting Bull) but over-ambitious to the point of fault in the material it tries to cover.

Once again, A&E has chosen to market this program as a two-disc set when the content would have easily fit on one disc. I suspect that they are banking on the subconscious impression of consumers that they are getting more for their $19.95 than they really are. I was unable to find out how many episodes of "The Real West" actually aired, but a boxed set that included every episode, at a higher MSRP, probably would have been a superior product offering than of the four-episode "Best of..." set reviewed here.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The visual content of The Real West is identical to what was aired on The History Channel in 1994. Naturally, some of the vintage film utilized in the presentation is of poor quality, which is to be expected. Through the rest of the content, some graininess and occasional artifacting is apparent. A little more troubling is the notable disparity in video quality among the various interview segments with historians and scholars. Some are quite good. Others are borderline poor, with oversaturated color and poor clarity. Overall, The Real West is pretty much what you would expect from a DVD presentation of a television series. Each episode is prefaced by a rather nice one-minute narrated intro in nonanamorphic widescreen.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0Englishyes

Audio Transfer Review: As with the television broadcast, The Real West is presented in stereo. The musical score accompanying the widescreen preface tends to come across as a bit heavy and muddled. Except for musical accompaniment, which adds some element of richness to the soundtrack, the presentation tends towards the monotonic. Dialogue is clear and volume levels are very even throughout but a faint hiss can be detected through much of the presentation. Generally, there is nothing in the overall audio presentation that is terribly impressive.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Packaging: Alpha
2 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extras Review: The Real West is completely devoid of supplementary material. Once again, A&E has chosen to release a product that doesn't come with subtitles or captioning so those with a hearing impairment should keep this in mind.

Extras Grade: F


Final Comments

The flaws in the presentation and the scant four episodes offered probably relegate The Real West to the "worthwhile rental" category except for those that are fanatical about the subject matter. However, it is certainly fair to say that it was an educational and not displeasing viewing experience.


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