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Teddy Roosevelt: An American Lion By Alex Robinson
To most people, if they think of Theodore Roosevelt at all he’s the guy on Mount Rushmore with those other more famous presidents. Although he was phenomenally popular in his day, and historians generally view him as one of the greatest presidents the United States ever had, to most of the American public he’s just another president with a mustache from the Stone Age. Last year, the folks at The History Channel tried to help change that, airing a four hour documentary about Roosevelt, now released on DVD as Teddy Roosevelt: An American Lion.
This feature does an excellent job of capturing the youngest man (age 42) to enter the White House. In addition to his duties as President, Theodore Roosevelt (or TR—he hated being called “Teddy.”) was the Governor of New York, Police Commissioner of New York City, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a Colonel in the Spanish-American War, an author of over twenty books, a cattle rancher and a naturalist. He was the first president to leave the country while in office, the first president to fly in an airplane, ride in a submarine, and the first American to win the Nobel Peace prize. He managed to pack more action and life into his sixty years than most people would in five lifetimes.
An American Lion is told in a straightforward manner familiar to anyone who’s seen historical documentaries on cable or PBS. We have the usual narrator (in this case the appealing Edward Herriman) and assorted descendants and authors, including Edmund Morris, who recently released his second volume of his life spanning TR biography, Theodore Rex. Also noteworthy is the appearance of current New York governor George Pataki and Bill Clinton (though one would have to wonder what TR—who didn’t even care for dirty jokes—would say to Clinton if given the chance). There are plenty of stills, drawings and recreations, and I was particularly struck by the amount of filmed footage of Roosevelt. Many historians say he was the first “modern” President, in the sense of using the media to get his idea and image across, and it seems natural that he would use the infant film medium as much as possible.
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Other than Herriman’s narration, the only other voiceover we hear is TR himself—portrayed by Richard Dreyfuss, reading from Roosevelt’s letters and other writings. Looking at Roosevelt, one would expect him to sound more like oatmeal spokes model Wilfred Brimley but by all accounts TR had a high-pitched, reedy voice so Dreyfuss is a good choice. For the most part he does a good job though he does veer into slightly cartoony territory at times.
I was surprised to see that they did not include the story about how the Teddy Bear was named after him, and his second term in office is given very short shrift. On the other hand, the film does a good job conveying what is undoubtedly Roosevelt’s greatest legacy (greater, I think even than the creation of the Panama Canal), his creation of the National Parks system.
The other thing that struck me was how upon leaving office in 1908, Roosevelt’s life took a dark turn. It’s almost like an O. Henry story, where many of the things on which TR based his life deserted him or, even worse, hurt him. He always loved nature and the outdoors, but a disastrous trip to South America gave him the illness that would kill him in just a few years. He was always a keen politician but his break from the Republican Party in 1912 left him a political outcast. He always loved war and his image was forged during the Spanish-American war in 1898, but he would be devastated at the death of his youngest son Quentin in the First World War.
The Show: A. The documentary is about three and a half hours long, divided over two discs.
The Look: A. The show is presented in a full screen format, which is fine since it originally aired on The History Channel. It was interesting to see a lot of film footage of Roosevelt that I’ve never seen in any previous documentary. Naturally, since some of the footage is close to a hundred years old you shouldn’t expect the highest quality, but the rest of it looks clean.
The Sound: B. The documentary is presented in Dolby stereo. It’s mostly talking heads with some background music, so the sound isn’t paramount of importance.
The Extras: C. The extras aren’t too impressive, consisting of a Roosevelt family tree, some “background and interesting facts” and a bio/filmography of Richard Dreyfuss. Also included, strangely, is an episode of A&E’s Biography show that focused on Roosevelt (Theodore Roosevelt: Roughrider to Rushmore). It’s essentially a Cliff’s Notes version of American Lion, even featuring some of the same authors and commentators.
Overall: A. If you don’t know anything about Theodore Roosevelt, this is a great, comprehensive way to start. Those who are already familiar with Roosevelt’s life will still find the show interesting, especially the archived film footage.