The Lewis and Clark expedition, which lasted from 1804 to 1806, marked the first time United States citizens succeeded in crossing the continent of North America. Lewis & Clark: Great Journey West provides a brief but compelling version of the trip, backed by splendid large-format cinematography. It's a journey that still proves exciting 200 years later.

Condensing a three-year expedition into 40 minutes is an unenviable task. The filmmakers have opted to concentrate on process, showing exactly how expedition members rowed, paddled, dragged and carried their boats up the Missouri River; how they climbed through the snow-filled passes of the Rockies; and how they dealt with the raging white-water rapids of the Columbia River as it flowed to the Pacific.

Narrator Jeff Bridges fills in background details about the expedition and its members. Meriwether Lewis (Kelly Boulware), only 28, chose his former army commander William Clark (Sonny Surowiec) to lead the group with him. Clark captained the boats and drew extensive maps, while Lewis explored the riverbanks, collecting plant and animal specimens. The men spent the winter of 1804-05 near a Mandan village in what is now North Dakota. There, they hired French-Canadian fur trader Toussaint Charbonneau (Greg Jackson) as an interpreter.

Charbonneau's wife Sacagawea (Alex Rice), a 16-year-old Shoshone, turned out to be the most crucial member of the expedition. After giving birth in February 1805, she accompanied Lewis and Clark and their men up to the headwaters of the Missouri. It was her introduction to the Shoshone people that enabled the expedition to continue across the Bitterroot Mountains, a grueling journey that led them to the brink of starvation. Rescued by the Nez Perce, the expedition continued to the Pacific, wintering on the Oregon coast before returning to St. Louis in 1806.

The journey had several significant milestones. Although they failed to find a Northwest passage, Lewis and Clark opened the West for further exploration and settlement. Clark's slave York (Toby Tyler), who eventually won his freedom, was given an equal vote with other members of the expedition. For that matter, Sacagawea could vote, too. (Clark would go on to raise her son, Jean-Baptiste.) Remarkably, only one member of the expedition died during the journey.

The filmmakers place a premium on historical accuracy, sometimes at the expense of dramatic urgency. Staged reenactments are kept to a minimum, eliminating a lot of guesswork, but at the same time avoiding what could have been fascinating scenes. The scenery steals the show, in particular the majestic but forbidding Rocky Mountain landscapes. The thrilling visuals help make the film's drier aspects easier to swallow.

-Daniel Eagan