It might sound corny, but it sums up my feelings succinctly: "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt" is a nice little "old-timey" documentary for a classic, "old-timey" guy. Now, obviously, Teddy Roosevelt was far more than some run-of-the-mill "old-timey" guy, but despite all his great achievements and firm place in the history of America, I always think of him as a regular (tough) guy. Harrison Engle's 1986 documentary does a great job of capturing this same feeling over the course of its 94-minute journey through Roosevelt's life. Is it a documentary that would give Ken Burns a run for his money? Definitely not, but it never tries to. It is very simple in its execution and this simplicity and straightforward approach makes it a rousing success.
The film is your standard documentary that starts from the beginning and follows an even path to the end. Narrated memorably and with tremendous professionalism by George C. Scott, "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt" takes viewers through the life of America's 26th President. Engle uses archival footage, (restrained) dramatic recreations of events, and a voice actor to tell Roosevelt's story. Unlike many documentaries, Roosevelt's presidency is given as much focus as any other key event in his life and viewers must wait for the program to approach that time period. Scott is simply excellent, with a restrained narration that never pulls the viewer away form the program to think, "Hey, that's George C. Scott." The program is full of many interesting tidbits of information that ensured my interest was held until the end credits.
Roosevelt's youth may surprise many who (like myself) viewed Roosevelt as the consummate tough guy, when in fact he was quite sick as a child. Likewise, while I naturally assumed Roosevelt was an educated man, I didn't know he attended Harvard or that shortly after, following some personal tragedies he set his sights west and spent some time in North Dakota. The program presents these facts as just facts and by adding no editorial flourishes it lets the viewer, if he or she sees fit, to make their own interpretation of events; for instance, the above events seem perfectly clear to me, Roosevelt sought to leave behind all that reminded him of the death of his first wife and mother by going to a relatively lawless and much less "refined" area of the country.
If there is one main fault though, it's the consistent nature of the documentary can be infuriating, especially when a point in Roosevelt's life captures the viewer's interest more intensely. Engle's direction ensures no one period in Roosevelt's life is given greater importance (aside from his presidency), and as a result even after 94-minutes of Roosevelt, I had many unanswered questions (which hurts the replay value of the program). The easy solution is the answer I was given in school for many years following documentaries: read a book. I can safely say if there were an "Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt" companion book, this would be the greatest infomercial imaginable.
Engle's film ultimately serves its simple purpose of giving some insight into the most mysterious of the faces on Mt. Rushmore. The program is a perfect blend of the low-key with the bombastic, namely the John Phillip Sousa score, which keeps the energy going and disguises the few slower moments. While dated by today's standards, Engle's historical recreations deserve praise for being supplements to the narration, filling in key events in Roosevelt's life that the plethora of archival footage couldn't. "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt" has wide appeal, from the youngest of kids to the seasoned history buff, wanting to take in a lighter documentary. The film like Roosevelt himself is to the point and instantly memorable.
The 1.33:1 original aspect ratio transfer is a bit stronger than I expected from an old video production. It is free of glaring macroblocking artifacts that are often present with tape transfers, which the production appears to be. The color levels are decent, but not amazing; while the contrast level is a little on the high side. The actual footage of Roosevelt is amazing for being, in some cases, over 100 years old. I've seen footage from bigger budget documentaries half as old look far worse. Overall, it's an acceptable transfer given the program and doesn't hinder viewability.
The 2.0 English audio track is rather weak, with background music softer than expected, and the narration of George C. Scott being mixed a little bit quieter. In contrast, the actor doing voiceovers for Roosevelt is overpowering at times, especially with his slightly higher pitch delivery.
The extras on the second disc are sparse, despite the appearance of a great quantity. The most substantial is a 15-minute interview with Harrison Engle, the director. He shares a great deal of information, despite the short runtime and answers the most likely questions you'll have about the presentation. The remainder of the extras are all text based with the exception of a Teddy Roosevelt photo gallery. The text extras include a collection of quotes from Roosevelt titled "Teddyisms," a biography for John Philip Sousa, a copy of Roosevelt's inaugural speech, and a track listing for the set's third disc.
The third disc is a standard audio CD of John Philip Sousa music, titled "Sophisticated Sousa." It appears to be the same tracks as featured in the documentary and runs a hair over an hour. It's a nice collection for sure and listeners will instantly recognize many of Sousa's marches. I can't say it's a CD that would get even moderate rotation on my stereo, but it's a nice bonus nonetheless.
They don't make men like Teddy Roosevelt anymore and they sure don't make documentaries like "The Indomitable Teddy Roosevelt." While it's a far cry from the more academic documentaries or heavily polished productions of Ken Burns, it's greatest triumph is its accessibility and excellent pacing. It presents facts about the subject and uses the words of the man himself to fill in any gaps or provide greater insight. At the very least it should provide some insight into one of the United State's greatest leaders and show that there was much more to his life than his term as President. Recommended.