“The New Wild West Documentary Collection”
DVDtalk.com, October 12, 2006
by Randy Miller III
Gripping, personal and socially relevant, The New Wild West Documentary Collection collects three titles from the catalogue of High Plains Films, a non-profit documentary and media production company. Founded by Doug Hawes-Davis and Drury Gunn Carr in 1992, the company began when its founders—-despite having no previous experience in video production—-completed their own separate award-winning films and decided to work together. The non-profit company has focused its output on nature-themed documentaries; in all, they’ve won more than 40 awards and their work has been screened around the world. The three titles included in The New Wild West Documentary Collection focus on transportation, power and water in the American West; additionally, their respective directors often keep things cotemporary while tackling subjects that may not be.
“Caught In the Headlights” (2006, seen above) is quite possibly the “team captain” of this collection, offering a quirky, poignant look at automobile culture and the animals it affects (read: roadkill). According to statistics, more than 1,000,000 animals are killed by automobiles every day—-that’s more than 1 every 12 seconds, folks—-and more often than not, the victims are simply left to rot. Directed by Margot Higgins, C. Wolf Drimal & Doug Hawes-Davis, “Caught In the Headlights” finds its focus with six individuals who share a common interest in raising awareness of this growing problem, including a woman who rehabilitates injured birds-of-prey, an artist who creates bronze sculptures from roadkill remains, and an auto-body painter who repairs vehicles caught in animal accidents.
Though it often drifts in focus, “Caught In the Headlights” is a compelling documentary that informs but doesn’t overpower. The participants are interesting and varied, the subject unique, and everything flows fairly smoothly. All things considered, it’s safe to admit that this one’s in a class of its own. (Running Time: 53:21 Overall Rating: 4/5)
“Powder River Country” (2005, above left) is next, and focuses its lens on the famous Montana basin where Custer made his last stand. Despite its historical importance, this remote region has remained fairly…well, remote. Native Americans lived in Powder River for centuries, while farmers have called it their home for the past 200 years. Now, the rush for a new natural gas source threatens the unspoiled land—-roughly 11,000,000 acres—-and it’s up to the locals to protect it. According to figures, the drilling would produce about a year’s supply of natural gas but waste billions of gallons of water; not to mention the scarring of the landscape, of course. Its shorter running time keeps the focus strong, but it often feels like certain areas of the film need more time to develop. Regardless, this film by Marianne Zugel & Doug Hawes-Davis is certainly a worthy inclusion to the collection. (Running Time: 34:09 Overall Rating: 3.5/5)
Wind River (2000, above right) is the third and final installment—-and while it’s probably the least involving of the three, it’s still a well-crafted documentary. The story stays in Wyoming, focusing on the struggle between local ranchers and the Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes for the local water supply (read: Wind River). The ranchers are bent on continuing their system of irrigated agriculture, while the Native American tribes would rather keep the river untainted as part of their heritage. Directed by Drury Gunn Carr, Wind River earns points for keeping such a gray struggle organized, especially in such a short amount of time. Like Powder River Country, it’s an isolated tale that shares plenty but maintains distance, creating a highly personal piece that still feels hard to become involved in. Even so, anyone interested in the subject should find plenty to like here. (Running Time: 35:31 Overall Rating: 3.5/5)
As mentioned earlier, The New Wild West Documentary Collection collects these three films in one convenient package. Though the focused nature of all three may keep casual fans away, those interested in nature-themed documentaries could do a lot worse. High Plains’ DVD presentation doesn’t offer much support for the included films, but it’s a still good collection for a fair price. Let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original aspect ratios (1.78:1 for Caught In the Headlights, 1.33:1 for the other two), The New Wild West Documentary Collection looks passable for a collection of low-budget films. The first entry suffers from a lack of anamorphic enhancement, but colors look natural and the overall image is clean and clear. Both Powder River Country and Wind River look decent—-and while their color palettes look natural, mild amounts of edge enhancement and pixellation keep things from looking better. Each documentary includes a standard 2.0 Stereo mix, boasting relatively clear dialogue and music cues. Unfortunately, no English subtitles or Closed Captioning support have been included.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The 1.33:1 menu designs (seen above) are a bit on the slow side, but they’re nicely laid out and easy to navigate. Each film has been divided into several chapters (though no indexes are available from the main menus), while no apparent layer change was detected during playback. This one-disc release is housed in a standard black keepcase; no inserts are included, but brief film summaries are printed on the back cover.
Unfortunately, we only get a Trailers for Powder River Country, Wind River and a few other High Plains releases. Audio commentaries would’ve been a valuable addition to the set, but it’s hard to complain at such a low price point.
Poignant, personal and focused, the three documentaries included in The New Wild West Documentary Collection offer slices of life that most viewers shouldn’t be familiar with. They’re not perfect films, but Caught In the Headlights, Powder River Country and Wind River are well-executed, easy to follow and tackle interesting subjects. High Plains’ DVD presentation is basic but adequate, offering a passable technical presentation but little in the way of extras. All things considered, though, it’s a solid package that documentary fans should enjoy. Recommended.