Billy and Merne's Excellent Expedition: The "Lost" Screenplay of "Lewis and Clark"

By Kopp, James J. | Oregon Historical Quarterly, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Billy and Merne's Excellent Expedition: The "Lost" Screenplay of "Lewis and Clark"


Kopp, James J., Oregon Historical Quarterly


AS THE BICENTENNIAL OF the Lewis and Clark Expedition nears the end of its trail, it is fitting to look back and examine how Americans have viewed these explorers at other points in time and how those views were themselves reflective of their times. Certainly the centennial observation of the Expedition received much attention in 1904-1906, and it has been explored in many ways a hundred years later in 2004-2006, including a national exhibition that has appeared at the Oregon Historical Society. The sesquicentennial observation, the 150th anniversary, of the Corps of Discovery has received less attention, although it took place in a period of United States history that was, in many respects, primed for the adventures of exploration and discovery. The pre-Sputnik world was increasingly becoming affixed to the television set, where young Baby Boomers watched the original Mickey Mouse Club and the adventures of the Hardy Boys and Davy Crockett. The peak of the movie industry may have passed, but the increasing numbers of outdoor drive-ins across the United States drew Americans by the carload to see the exploits of Roy Rogers, the Lone Ranger, and countless cowboy and Indian westerns. The frontier adventure on both small and large screens was reaching its peak in the mid-1950s. When the movie Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier was released in 1955, it filled the hearts and minds of many coonskin cap-wearing fans (including this author). At the height of the sesquicentennial of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, America was ripe for the cinematic tall tale.

The adventures of the Lewis and Clark Expedition have been dramatized endlessly in reenactments, plays, and pageants; but the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the Corps of Discovery surprisingly have made it to the big screen in only a few instances. In fact, except for so-called documentary films, such as the 2002 IMAX production, Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West, the only major full-length production focusing on the Lewis and Clark Expedition is The Far Horizons in 1955. (1) This Paramount VistaVision feature .lm starred Donna Reed as Sacajawea, the focal point of the movie, with Fred MacMurray as Meriwether Lewis and Charlton Heston as William Clark. (2) Directed by Rudolph Mate, the movie--based on a novel by Della Gould Emmons, Sacajawea of the Shoshones (1943)--was released at the height of the sesquicentennial of the expedition and featured photography shot along the trail. (3)

The Far Horizons was not the only planned major studio production of the Lewis and Clark story. Several years earlier, in May 1947, RKO, a major Hollywood studio, announced "plans for 1948 production of a picture dealing with the trans-continental expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark which opened the Oregon territory in 1805." The studio "has engaged Ernest Pascal to write the scenario and has named Stephen Ames to produce the film in Technicolor under the title 'Lewis and Clark'." (4) RKO 's fiscal condition, however, was rapidly approaching a crisis. In January 1948, it was reported that Howard Hughes wanted to purchase the studio, and by May of that year he was a majority owner of the company. Under Hughes's reign as head of RKO, the studio saw a dramatic decrease in production. Few films were completed, new stories were not sought, and a large portion of the studio's "stock" was sold. In the summer of 1948, "RKO offered for sale on the open market fifty story properties valued at $1.5 million." (5) Whether "Lewis and Clark" was one of those properties is unclear.

It was not until March 1954 that the screenplay surfaced again when RKO assigned the rights to "Lewis and Clark" to Joseph Bernhard, a consultant on management relations for the Stanley Warner Corporation. (6) On April 18, 1954, under the headline, "Warners to Make Cinerama Drama," the New York Times reported:

Hollywood opposition to Cinerama was broken today with the announcement that Warner Brothers would .

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