Produced by Dayton Duncan and Ken Burns
Both Duncan and Burns are natives of New Hampshire (and Burns received recognition of his film work at Dartmouth just before he burst onto the national scene with his Civil War series) so it was no surprise that both showed up for the advance screening of their latest documentary.
Unlike their other documentaries, though, Horatio’s Drive is relatively short–just 107 minutes–but they make all those minutes count. In 1903, Horatio Nelson Jackson, a Vermont doctor, made a bet for fifty bucks that he could cross America in a car in under 90 days. This was before the Model T and reliability. The transcontinental journey was beset by numerous breakdowns and other delays. There were threats from competitors. And despite the new fangled technology, Horatio and his companion Sewell Crocker (along with an ugly bulldog named Bud he got for fifteen dollars), they often had to rely on old technology to bail them out of a problem.
The narration is humorous and optimistic. It’s also punctuated by poignancy as Horatio wrote back to his wife (mysteriously nicknamed “Swipes”) in Burlington, Vermont about his daily setbacks and hopes. The wonderful thing about this film is how the producers want you, the audience, to feel as if you’re taking this first American roadtrip alongside Horatio. I suppose this can only be adequately felt in the large theater that I viewed the film: the rumbling jumps and starts of the car engine as it putters along a rocky road, the jerking of the camera that gives the illusion that you’re sitting in the car having your insides nauseatingly jiggled about.
Burns mentioned in the Q and A after the showing that we often view history as in the past and immalleable, but the fact is, history is very malleable. In this case, Horatio’s Drive is about taking a little known facet of American history, digging up new material that hasn’t been seen beforehand by scholars, and putting a whole new spin on what it means to see a country on the edge of something revolutionary.
For those of you not lucky enough to have attended the viewing, Horatio’s Drive is going to be shown on public television on October 6. The discussion of the film on NPR is located here.