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'INTO THE WEST' AN UNEVEN TREK.

Byline: David Kronke TV Critic

SKEET ULRICH says Steven Spielberg lured him into appearing in TNT's epic miniseries ``Into the West'' with his vision of the film being shown in schools for the next 50 years, a statement suggestive of both its strengths and weaknesses.

The 12-hour miniseries, six hours of which were made available for review, tracks 66 crucial years of America's development, from 1825 to 1891, when the country addressed numerous race issues and expanded its realm to span the entire continent.

``Into the West'' admittedly gives viewers a deep appreciation of the hardships that settlers of the West endured and the courage, casual kindnesses and ingenuity they displayed. It also, less insistently, offers a vaguely mystic American Indian perspective of the times.

What ensures that this will be consigned to educational fodder is its leaden earnestness, particularly in its depiction of those rare few who embraced the progressive values of equality we largely share today. Principal characters, crowd-pleasingly if atypically, protect woeful minorities, although we rarely see what propels their righteous motivations beyond pedantic storytelling.

Wheels serve as the first episode's - and, ostensibly, the series' - major metaphor, one that is forgotten by the second week. The film's white heroes - as epitomized by Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle) - manufacture the stolid wagon wheels that will carry settlers beyond the prairies; the Lakota Sioux worship a mystical wheel they've ground into the land that offers premonitions of their futures.

By episode two, however, forget that. The film is most interested in Jacob's perambulations - he leaves his family in Virginia, makes it to California, backs off and marries a Lakota woman (Tonantzin Carmelo) whom he takes back to Virginia just long enough to decide to return to California, landing in Missouri just long enough to hook up with a fellow (Beau Bridges) just shady enough to ensure that the passage over the Rocky Mountains will be genuinely tragic. And that Jacob's trek through the wilderness will take just enough time so that when he's reunited with his family, it will be appropriately meaningful.

And so on.

While Jacob traverses back and forth across the nation, the Lakota story line inches forward a smidgen or two, just enough so we know that the medicine man (Simon R. Baker) foresees his people's devastation.

The problem with an epic production like this is that we're not given much chance to know much about many of the characters (there are more than 200 speaking parts). The guy we know most about, Jacob, is a fairly stolid fellow, which is a nice way of saying he's not terribly interesting.

Rather than having the story spanning across decades and relying upon special effects to reproduce numerous buffalo stampedes and introducing characters who last but an hour or two in the narrative before dispassionately killing (or marrying) them off, the series might have been more emotionally effective and allowed for keener characterizations had it simply focused on one wagon train's treacherous push into the unknown West.

Granted, there are certain spectacular sequences and occasional nice character moments. Still, ``Into the West'' is a largely perfunctory exercise with its sights more on history books than on becoming film history.

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638

david.kronke(at)dailynews.com

INTO THE WEST - Two and one half stars

What: A century of conflict and triumph during the 19th century in America as seen through the eyes of both the Lakota Sioux and white settlers. Steven Spielberg serves as executive producer.

Where: TNT.

When: Premieres at 8 tonight. Airs 8 p.m. Friday through Sunday and 10 p.m. Friday and Sunday; through July 24.

In a nutshell: History as earnest hokum, handsomely burnished.
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jun 10, 2005
Words:612
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