Gold Rush Doc (455)

Gold Rush is the [3rd] episode of a series produced by the History Channel in 2006 titled Ten Days That Unexpectedly Changed America. Directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, the documentary is 45 minutes long and features a relatively standard array of film documentary techniques in depicting its subject, including the so-called Ken Burns effect of panning across still images such as daguerrotypes and paintings. A more recent innovation employing post-production software creates a parallax effect which renders the elements of two-dimensional images such as different figures and objects as though they were the components of a paper theater. The combination of these two techniques confers a sense of depth and dynamism which is visually stimulating and adds a degree of drama to the voice-over narration.

Like many other documentaries, Gold Rush alternates between the talking-head testimony of scholars (ex. Gray Brechin and J.S. Holliday); long shots of the landscape, anecdotal information culled from contemporaneous journals and letters (in this case William Swain and Sarah Royce) and performed by voice actors; photographs and illustrations; dramatic reenactments (often in slow motion or slightly out of focus); and latter day “practical” experts such as historical re-enactors, docents, and a state park concessionaire. The last of these, Jim Miller, asserts that the thousands of migrants who came to California in the wake of the Sutter’s Mill discovery were motivated not simply by the lure of great wealth but by the seductive quality of gold itself. “It’s beautiful,” he remarks. “And it’s rare. It has a romance.”

That invocation of romance seems pertinent given our focus on Allende’s Daughter of Fortune and a key postulate of the course that historiography, as a form using many of the methods of narrative fiction, often partakes of Romance. Manifest Destiny is not only an ideological justification for imperialism, but is also what Abbott would likely call a masterplot. Even further, it is a story proceeding inexorably to some definite closure.

The revisionist project of Gold Rush becomes apparent at one critical juncture– the relatively recent claim, supported by rigorous scholarship, that the effects of the Gold Rush on indigenous peoples in the longer term rose to the level of genocide. More familiar foci include the “complex cultural reality” of the mining camps, the dispossession of the Californios, the terrible hardships encountered by migrants in their months-long crossing of the continent, and the rise of highly capitalized corporations that shut out independent small-scale placer miners in favor of hydraulic mining which caused catastrophic damage to riverine ecosystems.

While Gold Rush covers a fair amount of ground (for example the influence of this history on the American creed of Success and the principle, stated aptly by Brechin, that “the flag follows the pick”) it does lack any substantive account of the experiences of those who travelled by sea to California. The documentary addresses the challenges confronted by Chinese miners, and Chileans are given a cursory nod, but their journeys to California receive paltry attention. Those sailing around the Horn could expect to arrive roughly nine months after departure, while those taking the isthmus route ran the risks of contracting potentially fatal diseases. How might some discussion of these “flows” of people, culture, and goods complicate and extend the web of global (hemispheric, Pac Rim) connections emanating from California?

In sum, this documentary is adequate, providing an expansive if not always detailed overview of the impact of the Gold Rush on US American development.