- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

Never mind the road not taken, actor Sonny Surowiec says. Too many of us choose the path of least resistance.

"So many times today we take the easy route rather than tackling the obstacle," says Mr. Surowiec, star of the Imax feature, "Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West."

Had Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, the famed explorers whose exploits are recounted in the new film, not stared down countless obstacles, both real and imagined, vast stretches of the North American continent may never have become U.S. soil.

The film tracks the band of adventurers hired by President Jefferson to explore the West by re-enacting their landward push to the Pacific Ocean and back. The dangerous mission (1804-1806) was meant to find the so-called Northwest Passage, a water route it was hoped would connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, expanding the nation and allowing for greater intercontinental trading.

"Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West" is narrated by actor Jeff Bridges and showing at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of Natural History through Feb. 28.

Along the 8,000-mile way, Lewis and Clark encountered Indians both friendly and hostile, dangerous wildlife and the fears stirred by rumors regarding the uncharted earth. Some whispered that woolly mammoths still roamed the territory. Others imagined belching volcanoes littering the landscape.

The journey disproved those suspicions, but the path boasted its share of natural dangers.

Mr. Surowiec, who plays Clark in the film, says simply re-creating the duo's trek proved exhausting.

"Even when we were filming it," he recalls, "trying to move these boats took an incredible amount of energy."

Lewis and Clark "always had something to do to keep them, in some sense, sane," he says.

Director Bruce Neibaur says the "whole shape and nature of our country would be incomplete without that expedition."

"People can argue, 'Was it good? Was it bad? That's what history is. The fact is the United States would not be what it is without that expedition." The expedition secured large swaths of land for United States that had previously been claimed by Spain and Great Britain. The team also explored the vast lands in the West that the United States had acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase.

The film takes advantage of Imax's oversized screen to present stunning aerial photography capturing the nation's heartland, with close-ups mimicking the undeveloped country as it once appeared. Previous Imax films, though, proffer more camera tricks to maximize the visceral impact of the big screen experience. "Lewis & Clark" stays true to its historical roots but in doing so suffers from coming off as too scholarly for the average viewer.

To its credit, the filmmakers took great pains to dutifully re-create the past, hiring Stephen Ambrose and other historians to make sure the narrative echoed the true story.

Trudging the Imax cameras across those scenic landscapes captured in the film proved less grueling than it might have years before, the director reports.

"Over the years, that technology has really improved," he says. The most sophisticated part of the equipment, he says, is how it speedily moves the large Imax film through the camera mechanism.

Producer Lisa Truitt says the size of the screens on which the film will be shown also determined the level of attention devoted to every detail of the shoot.

"Everything else you take with you magnifies because of it," Miss Truitt says. "The costumes that we had to commission had to be much more detailed than for television. You're seeing so much more detail on the [bigger] screen."

The Lewis and Clark saga may be nearly 200 years old, but Miss Truitt says today's audiences are hungry for such a yarn.

"It's about American heroes, venturing out, not knowing what's in front of them," she says.

Earlier drafts of the film featured more dialogue, Mr. Neibaur says. Eventually, the filmmakers used Mr. Bridges' narration to flesh out the tale.

Mr. Surowiec says actors in Imax films quickly learn to suppress their instincts.

With the Imax large format, performing needs to be "very withdrawn," he says. "Otherwise, it comes across like you're acting."

Perhaps it's typically American that Clark is being played by someone who wasn't born in the United States. Mr. Surowiec hails from Vancouver, but he became an American citizen about a year ago.

He had a fair grasp of his new country's history before the shoot, but he hit the books, anyway, burying himself in historical tomes and explorers' journals.

He never had to look far for extra information.

"The director, everybody on the set was very knowledgeable about Lewis and Clark," he says.

The project taught him a great deal about the title figures.

"These are two very different people," he says. "They really knew each other and knew how to work with one another to get things done."

Traditional movies hit the theaters, then retire to the land of DVD and cable. Imax films have a longer theatrical shelf life, something for which Mr. Surowiec is grateful.

"Imax is something that lives on," he says. "It'll be playing for years to come."

Additional reporting by Scott Galupo.

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