One hundred twenty-nine years after George Armstrong Custer led an attack on a village of 10,000 Indians and died at the Battle of Little Big Horn, Mother Nature is having her revenge on the general. Well, on his stunt double, that is. ”I’m freezing my f—ing ass off here!” Custer bellows from atop the stallion on which he’s been galloping through take after take of this Hollywood re-creation of his notorious last stand. A freak weather system has dusted the northern New Mexico high country with snow while 60-mile-per-hour wind gusts make the temperature resemble an unfathomable 10 degrees Fahrenheit. Between setups, 100 extras clad in the pre-Gore-Tex attire of 19th-century cavalry soldiers and Native American warriors huddle around portable propane heating units. Teeth chatter. Toes curl. Coffee flows liberally. ”We’re still in June, right?” director Tim Van Patten jokes to his crew, reminding them that the event they’re filming actually occurred on a summer day — June 25, 1876, to be exact — by all accounts sunny, clear, and hot.
If General Custer wants to place blame for freezing his tail off, he’s going to have to get ahold of exec producer Steven Spielberg. Into the West, a $50 million, 12-hour, six-week event, grew out of conversations between the filmmaker, coming off his success with HBO’s Band of Brothers in 2001, and TNT’s head of original programming, Michael Wright, who was interested in a project about the American frontier. What evolved is a limited series that gives equal treatment to the 19th-century hardships of both white pioneers and indigenous tribes. ”I hope viewers take away a sense of how costly those times were,” says Spielberg, who did not direct any episodes, via e-mail. ”Not just on the settlers trying to make a life for themselves, but especially what the cost was to the Native Americans, who paid dearly for our westward expansionist ambitions.”
The pioneers weren’t the only ones with great ambitions: TNT’s unusually substantial marketing campaign (a reported $50 million) includes billboards, elaborate TV and magazine ads targeting a wide range of demographics, and trailers on some 6,000 movie screens. ”It works on a number of levels,” says Wright. ”It’s an adventure. It’s a love story. It’s a human drama. It’s a social drama. But we were always mindful of bringing it back to the personal.”
One part Western, two parts history lesson, the sweeping drama spans 1825 to 1890 and follows a pair of fictional families — the white Wheeler clan from Virginia, and Lakota tribespeople from the Great Plains — who intersect with each other and with real events like Custer’s Last Stand. Spielberg and Co., including producer David Rosemont (Door to Door) and Lonesome Dove director Simon Wincer, sought to have Into the West illuminate while it entertains — much like the miniseries Roots once examined an ugly history head-on. ”I’ve always had children come up to me and say, ‘Are you a real Indian?”’ notes actress Tonantzin Carmelo, who plays Native American protagonist Thunder Heart Woman, a Lakota who marries the central white character, Jacob Wheeler (Matthew Settle). ”I’ve always wondered what that means to them — people’s perception of Native Americans is mostly through the television, so they think all Native Americans live in tepees.”