Full disclosure: Mr. Brown is a fan of the reviewer’s blog and I received a copy of the DVD for review purposes.
Kent Masterson Brown is likely known to many readers as an author and historian of the War Between the States. But Mr. Brown’s knowledge, interest and expertise in the field of American history is much broader than just his study of the Civil War. This is evident in his recent film project, Daniel Boone and the Opening of the American West. I recently viewed the film for the purpose of this review.
The docudrama is an in-depth look at Boone’s life and his impact on the American frontier and the settlement of Kentucky. There is also detailed information regarding the geography and natural history of Kentucky which I found quite fascinating. The DVD comes packaged as a 2 disc, 112 minute DVD and was produced by Witnessing History, LLC – a company led by Brown. This is the first full-length film on the life of Daniel Boone ever produced for television broadcast. The film includes an original score by composer Clark D. Cranfill which provides a perfect backdrop for the narrative. Numerous Boone scholars consulted on the film. Included in the film are original Boone documents and works of art.
Let me begin by stating that I thought I knew a little bit about one of the American frontier’s best known icons until I viewed this documentary. Born in 1958, I had the privilege of being introduced to Daniel Boone by the popular 1960’s TV series, “Daniel Boone.” I watched the show so many times growing up (and still on occasion) that I can still sing the show’s theme song! Though the 1964-1970 television production took quite a bit of literary license the series was, nonetheless, responsible for instilling an interest in, and love of, American history in many a young boy during that time period. I rarely missed an episode growing up and have purchased the series for my own grandsons.
While watching this latest production, I couldn’t help but chuckle about some of the misconceptions many Americans have about Boone due, perhaps, to that old TV series. Brown explodes some of those misconceptions in this project: Boone was not the first white man to explore or settle Kentucky (then part of Virginia). He did not care for coonskin caps and never wore one. He was court-martialed, refused an attorney, defended himself, was acquitted and then promoted. He never used tobacco and though he did not totally abstain from alcohol, he was never known to abuse its use. He was red-headed and fair-skinned. He had a deep and abiding faith in God. His reading and writing skills were largely self-taught. And he was, as Brown notes, “one of America’s most authentic and remarkable men.”
This effort by Witnessing History is the first documentary film of its kind about the life of one of America’s best known historical figures. Brown describes some aspects of this project:
The filming of action scenes of Boone’s early explorations of Kentucky, his first attempt at settlement, the Treaty of Sycamore Shoals, the opening of the Wilderness Road, the Revolutionary War in Kentucky and the Ohio Valley (including the sieges of Boonesborough, Ruddle’s Station and Bryan’s Station and the disastrous Battle of Blue Licks), and Boone’s later life as a surveyor, tavern keeper and even a legislator in Virginia were planned.
More than 100 actors and actresses were specially contacted to appear. The production was designed to be studded with magnificent scenes filmed in Pennsylvania, Virginia, Tennessee, North Carolina, Kentucky and Missouri, as Boone would have seen them, the traces, caves, springs, rivers, creeks, hills, and even dwellings and cemeteries.
Born in Reading, Pennsylvania in 1734 and (like so many of America’s early pioneers), of Scots-Irish stock, the film traces Boone’s life through America’s founding era, with the American Revolution as the backdrop, to his death in 1820 in Missouri. The film reveals that Boone was an intensely religious man and grew up in a Quaker family.
In addition to being instrumental in the settlement of Kentucky, Boone also helped establish Kentucky as the dominant horse-breeding state by presenting a bill in May of 1775 to “encourage the breeding of fine horse flesh.” To this day, horse-breeding and Kentucky are synonymous.
The film reminded me of the many hardships endured by the men, women and families that settled the American frontier—something so easy for modern Americans to forget. Particularly heart-wrenching is the film’s recounting of the death of Boone’s oldest son, James. Just 16, James and some companions were ambushed by a party of Shawnee Indians. Most of the party was killed, but James and one other member of the group were both paralyzed by the attack. They were then tortured for hours by the Shawnee. Their screams and cries could be heard for miles. Daniel Boone soon discovered the sad carnage and buried his son where he had been killed. Boone’s efforts to settle Kentucky had cost him his first-born son. It would not be his last sorrow as his brother would suffer a similar fate.
I found much of the scenery in the film breathtakingly beautiful, particularly the landscape of “the inner bluegrass” with its “sinks, sinkhole topography, sinking springs, sinking creeks and subterranean streams.” Much of that particular scenery, with its limestone formations, reminded me of my native Shenandoah Valley to which, interestingly enough, Boone also has a connection.
Brown’s knowledge of and love for his native Kentucky comes through in his narration of the film. This, in my mind, only makes the film more compelling and I found myself feeling as though I was actually standing in the landscape Brown so expertly and passionately describes.
Explorer, pioneer, folk hero, woodsman, frontiersman, militia officer during the Revolutionary War and surveyor; Daniel Boone was most assuredly, as Brown describes him, “one of America’s most authentic and remarkable men.”
The documentary was written, narrated and directed by Kent Masterson Brown. Full of historical nuggets and surprises, the film is as entertaining as it is educational. And though the documentary is 112 minutes, it moves along at a quick pace and it kept me interested the whole time I was watching. The closing few minutes of the film are quite poignant as Brown summarizes Boone’s life in few, but profound words. This is the way that history films should be done. In June of 2015, Daniel Boone and the Opening of the American West, won the coveted Telly Award.
If you are, as I am, a fan of Brown’s work or if you’re interested in learning something about Daniel Boone you didn’t know, I highly recommend this film and give it 5 out of 5 stars. It really is that good.
Note: If you are an Amazon Prime member, you can watch several of Witnessing History’s other projects for free, as part of your membership. Unfortunately, the Boone project is not one of them.
Richard G. Williams Jr., is a writer and the author of four books and numerous articles and essays related to the Civil War. His latest, The Battle of Waynesboro, (The History Press, 2014), was part of The History Press’s Sesquicentennial Series. He’s also written three essays for The Essential Civil War Curriculum which is an online Sesquicentennial project at the Virginia Center for Civil War Studies at Virginia Tech. Williams serves on the Board of Trustees for the National Civil War Chaplains Museum in Lynchburg, VA and blogs at oldvirginiablog.blogspot.com. He writes from the Shenandoah Valley.