This block-sized blockbuster can’t be faulted for timidity—and, as an entertaining fictional primer to mid-19th-century Western history, very nearly justifies its hubris.
The year 1848 is this epic’s most memorable character. Andersen (Turn of the Century, 1999, etc.) crams paragraphs with personality and incident, but he’s best at making the past palpable. A world-shaking annus mirabilis, 1848 saw California’s gold rush, widespread cholera and trans-European monarch-toppling. Dillydallying in Bohemian life, upscale Brit Benjamin Knowles hits Paris right when it explodes. A gamin happens to hand him a homemade bomb as gendarmes approach. Mistaken for a rebel, Ben flees, finding his best friend murdered in rioting and the fetching grenadier slain by an avenging reactionary. His adventures elaborately cross-cut with those of the siblings Lucking—fireman and Mexican war vet Duff and actress-hooker Polly—ablaze with lefty, demimonde fever in a Big Apple straight out of Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. Add Daguerreian-era tabloid journalist Timothy Skaggs to this posse of raffish visionaries—“Modernity glows,” Skaggs exults—and the pursuit of happiness, fresh starts and Manifest Destiny commences as they heed Greeley’s injunction: “Go West.” Just one of a cast of true-life cameos, Greeley joins wasted genius Edgar Allan Poe, compulsively farting Charles Darwin and ever-eager Walt Whitman in the book’s vast backstory. That backstory, teeming with slave trade and robber-baron anecdotes, gossip about Dickens and Thackeray and explanations of utopian socialist politics, steals thunder from the actual tale, as no protagonist is especially sympathetic and the plot proves dizzyingly frenetic. Basically, what makes this a thriller is the breathlessness of the historical moment itself.