“Daniel Boone and the Opening of the American West” is destined to be the definitive documentary treatment of the life of Daniel Boone. A running time of 112 minutes allows more depth than you can get out of an hour-long History Channel doc and the Witnessing History production spearheaded by Kent Masterson Brown takes full advantage of the feature-length format to delve deeply into the story of the early settlement of Kentucky.
The physical depiction of Boone and his world is the best I’ve seen. Scott New, the living history reenactor who portrays Boone, is excellent. The reenactments have strong verisimilitude. Thanks to the work of reenactors, the material culture of the era is recreated in detail with great authenticity. One thing that always grates on me with reenactments is that the clothing and gear often looks too fresh and new. Not here. Mud spatters, wear-and-tear, all make the world looked lived-in and authentic.
I really appreciate the exploration of the geology, geography, topography and natural history of the central Kentucky region Boone traversed as a long hunter and settled as a pioneer. The land itself was the motivator for all the action, and it is invaluable to have a sense of its beauty and richness. “Boone” makes it clear why Kentucky was a land for which countless men, women and children would bleed and die.
The production features many paintings by David Wright, which add to its visual impact and historical authenticity. Have to say, though — the Shawnee who contested the settlement of the land get better treatment from Wright than from Kent Masterson Brown. Brown seems to be at pains to emphasize Shawnee cruelty and to minimize the legitimacy of any claim they might have had to Kentucky. Brown depicts the Shawnee character as that of “wandering mercenaries” inclined to do the bidding of others. During the revolutionary era of the settlement of Kentucky, that made them hired guns of the British. That’s off base.
It’s not that the depiction is entirely wrong. The Shawnee were, indeed, often cruel — they killed indiscriminate of age and sex and they engaged in horrible tortures. They held no monopoly on cruelty, though, and they had experienced their share brutality and treachery at the hands of white frontiersmen.
The Shawnee were, or at least had been, wanderers. And they did ally themselves with the British. But I think Brown’s emphasis oversells these traits. As I noted in a previous piece, the Shawnee were the tip of the spear of native resistance in the region for decades. They were not mere mercenaries — they were using the British at least as much as the British were using them. They needed arms and goods that the British could supply, but the war in the Ohio Valley was their war more than it was Great Britain’s, and they continued to fight it long after the Revolutionary War ended.
I understand the urge to push back against lame revisionist depictions of the Indians as put-upon innocents. “Boone” seems to be pushing back against PC conventions that insist on portraying white settlement as aggression for which we should all feel guilty. I’ve always felt that this is not only bad history, but insulting to great warrior peoples. Nevertheless, I am disappointed that Brown did not offer a more nuanced depiction of the Shawnee resistance.
That is my only complaint or point of disagreement. On the whole, Brown captures the era and the man beautifully.
The film features a treasure trove of documents, including land surveys signed by Boone. These add immediacy and a sense of the everyday and prosaic to a story that can be susceptible to mythologizing. It’s good to be reminded that, like the rest of us, Daniel Boone had to make a living.
It is also well to remember that Boone sacrificed profoundly in opening the American West. Two sons and a brother fell to the muskets and blades of Indian raiders. And though he attained a degree of wealth and status, he lost both, reverting to humble station in his last years in Missouri.
“Daniel Boone and the Opening of the American West” is clearly a labor of love, and an arduous one. A guest piece by Kent Masterson Brown at Appalachian History on the making of the documentary is well worth reading to gain a little insight on what goes into a creation on this scale.
“Daniel Boone and the Opening of the American West” is a fine telling of an essential American tale. It is a great fear of mine that we will lose our foundational stories, that a technology-obsessed society with so little historical and cultural perspective will abandon its roots. My hat is off to Witnessing History for this piece of work that will surely stand the test of time.