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TV Preview: Ken Burns chronicles America's first cross-country road trip

Monday, October 06, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

HOLLYWOOD, Calif. -- And you think you've had bad luck on road trips? Even the worst modern-day stories of nightmarish highway experiences -- flat tire, overheated engine, out of gas -- look like an easy fix compared to "Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip," a chronicle of the first cross-country trip by automobile.

Both a charming documentary and an amusing slice of pure Americana, "Horatio's Drive" is the latest directorial effort from PBS moviemaker Ken Burns. Written by longtime collaborator Dayton Duncan, the two-hour story follows two men and a dog as they make their way across America.

 
 
"Horatio's Drive: America's First Road Trip"

When: 9 tonight on WQED/WQEX.

Narrated by: Keith David

   
 

Acting on a $50 bet that he couldn't drive across America in 90 days, Horatio Nelson Jackson, a 31-year-old retired doctor from Vermont, set off from San Francisco in May 1903 in a Winton Touring Car.

Jackson hired Sewall Crocker, a 22-year-old bicycle repairman, to join him. Along the way they adopted Bud, a bulldog who wore the same goggles as the car's human occupants.

Not long after they set out, what would seem like intolerable inconveniences to modern Americans began. The car suffered from constant breakdowns, no surprise given the state of the roads it followed -- they were often just ruts in the dirt.

Tom Hanks performs the voice of Jackson, often quoting from letters Jackson wrote to his wife, nicknamed "Swipes," along the way. Hanks conveys the tone of Jackson's letters, which never seem to espouse anything but optimism for their expedition, which coincided with the 100-year anniversary of the Lewis & Clark exploration of America.

"It has none of the import of it, but in its own funny way, is about to usher in another era in American history, exactly a hundred years later," Burns said at a July press conference. "If you had to stop and think: What is the machine that has had the most profound effect to everyone's every day life, it would be hard to argue anything more important than the automobile."

Burns said Americans' mobility is born out of the country's physicality, and Duncan said Jackson's spirit of exploration is part of the national DNA.

"We are restless people, and want to see what's over the next horizon," Duncan said. "That is, at its essence, what the Lewis and Clark expedition is, and that's what was going on with Horatio's Drive."

Along the way, Jackson delights people in the towns he drives through, most of whom had never seen a car before. One person dubs the Winton the "go-like-hell machine." He also found himself in need of purchasing the townsfolk's wares and services.

"There are no gas stations anywhere, and a good deal of this story is about trying to get to the next place before you break down, before you run out of gas, before you lose your way," Burns said. "Half this film is just watching him wait for a stagecoach to bring him spare parts or a train."

Jackson may suspect his jalopy will replace the need for blacksmiths someday, but he needs a blacksmith at virtually every turn.

"He's absolutely right: The car is going to replace the blacksmith. But he's there thinking about this because the blacksmith is making him a part he needs in order to get from this town to the next one, and it's going to take him days to do it because he keeps breaking down along the way," Burns said. "As he arcs across the country, he's really taking a kind of snapshot, a cross-section of who we were at this incredibly naive, generous and guileless moment before this unbelievable technology -- and all that technology would bring -- changes us forever."


Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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