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TV Review: Conquest of America


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This is that rare documentary that succeeds on every level. It is divided into four one-hour segments: Northeast, Northwest, Southeast, and Southwest. Each segment focuses on the exploration and/or conquest of one part of what is now the United States. And each segment does what good history does: tell a story from beginning to end, adding in enough details to make the story compelling but not overloading the story or the viewer.

They air Monday and Tuesday, March 28 and 29, on the History Channel. Check your local listings.

The Northeast segment focuses on Henry Hudson. We learn not only the last part of the story, Hudson's abandonment, but the first part of the story, his seemingly countless journeys into ice-infested waters in search of a passage to the Orient that didn't exist. The details of the relationships between Hudson and his crews are on full display, and we really understand why Hudson did what he did.

The Northwest segment focuses on Vitus Bering and his dream of expanding Russia's empire into Alaska. This segment has more of a naturalist bent, as the fur trade and sea otter population damage are examined; but also being examined is the tremendously effective efforts of Nicolai Rezanov to patch up relations between Russia and Spain, at war in America because the home countries are at war in Europe.

The Southeast segment focuses on the French attempt to establish a settlement in Florida, which was controlled by Spain. The main characters in this drama are Jean Ribault of France and Pedro Menendez of Spain. Each leads his people on a separate goal, two goals that end up crossing paths. The story of France in Florida is not often told and is a welcome addition to this story of America.

The Southwest segment takes on the story of Francisco Vasquez de Coronado and his search for the fabled Seven Cities of Gold. This is perhaps the most compelling episode of the four, focusing as it does on a period of history that many people have a cursory understanding of but not a detailed grasp. This is also the only segment that has an instance of gratuitous violence. Teachers and parents are warned to be on the lookout here. Again, the focus is tight, on Coronado and his struggles to find something that just isn't there. Scenes of testimony at his court-martial bookend the story of his expeditions, making the story-telling all the more pressing and impressive.

These episodes have the highest recommendation. They fill in gaps in most people's views of the history of America. The period costumes and dramatizations do not in any way detract from the story-telling; in fact, they enhance the overall presentation. The decision to focus on one part of the story of conquest is a good one. Usually, discussions of these periods tend to try to cram in all the explorers who ever set foot in the regions. These episodes, with their emphasis on one story and all of its details, create much more drama that way.


 
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