David J. Peck is a retired physician and a popular, nationally recognized speaker on the medical aspects of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. He is the author of Or Perish in the Attempt: The Hardship and Medicine of the Lewis and Clark Expedition (Nebraska, 2011).
I will bet you lunch that every author of historical adventure has a fantasy of getting a call asking, “Have you ever thought of making a documentary about your book”? Such was my good fortune when The Lewis and Clark Foundation of Great Falls, Montana, contacted me with just such a proposal. The Foundation asked if I would be interested in making my book, Or Perish in the Attempt: The Hardship and Medicine of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, into a film that would highlight the explorers’ adventures, their medical problems on the Expedition, and a look into the medical world of 1804. I was full of enthusiasm and ideas for the project. Making my heroes of yesteryear and the medicine of the era come to life on the screen was an exciting challenge.
Our first hurdles were to hire an experienced and talented filmmaker. Craig Wirth, member of the Utah Broadcasters Hall of Fame, four-time Emmy Award winner, film professor at the University of Utah, and independent filmmaker was the natural choice. Craig grew up in Montana, and loved my book and the story of Lewis and Clark. His enthusiasm matched my own and we were both intrigued by the possibilities. We brainstormed how best to bring our characters to life and impart the near miracle that all but one of the expedition members returned in relatively good health.
Our limited budget required a good deal of resourcefulness. I contacted various young Montana friends to act as non-speaking reenactors and obtained period clothing from friends at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center in Great Falls and the Sacajawea Interpretive Center in Salmon, Idaho. I contacted other Lewis and Clark scholars and medical experts that I wanted to use in the film and we set a “start-shooting” date of August 2012.
Every day on the shoot, we started in the early morning and often lasted into the night. Setting up lights and 1805 era campsites along the Missouri River; trying to keep everything dry when the thunderstorms hit; and picking up the lights and replacing the broken bulbs when the wind blew our sets and lights down were frequent frustrations. Gary Moulton, editor of the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, flew to Great Falls to act as our historical expert. It was a joy to watch as Craig asked his thought provoking and stimulating questions and Professor Moulton answered with insights he has gained during his professional lifetime of Lewis and Clark scholarship.
My interviews about medicine of the Corps of Discovery and the medical world of 1804-06 were shot by the side of the Missouri River, occasionally even getting wet from the wake of Lewis and Clark’s canoes passing by. When the camera rolls, it is a bit daunting to realize that every spoken word on the video will be considered by the viewing public for its clarity and relevance. Writing Or Perish in the Attempt was an exercise in literary patience, with time to edit and consider my content. But the cameras do not lie. My “on air” level of enthusiasm and accuracy required more than the consideration of a written phrase.
Since filming began, it has been my pleasure to travel to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. With the filming complete, we’re into the post-production phase. Editing, writing and recording of the narration, adding our original soundtrack, and having the film’s color perfected will provide polish for our production.
Several of Craig’s past productions have been broadcast on numerous national public television venues. Hopefully, our 56-minute version will hopefully follow that path. A shorter version will be shown three times daily to visitors at the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center.
The stories of the expedition’s medicine, the threats of enraged grizzly bears, rattlers, massive hailstones, flash floods, infectious diseases, injuries, sexually transmitted diseases, malaria and hysteria, with many of the often horrible and ineffective treatments rendered by the “physician”-captains will soon jump off the pages of a Bison book and onto the screen.
Since writing the first words of Or Perish in the Attempt, I have echoed the words of captains Meriwether Lewis and William Clark: We proceeded on. Writing the book was a wonderful adventure for me; producing the film has added a thrilling new chapter.
-David J. Peck