The American West: AMC Looks at the Wild West (Review)


Featuring a cast of unknowns with a narrator who lacks an iconic voice, AMC began their historical tribute to America’s  wild  west on Saturday. Produced by Robert Redford, who appears occasionally to impart a few words towards progressing this look at America’s bloodiest section of history, the eight part mini-series is, thus far, lacking much in the excitement department.

There are a number of celebrities and at least one well known former Republican presidential candidate adding their two cents worth to the proceedings. Starting with the time period that spawned Jesse James amidst the unrest immediately following the Civil War,  episode one dealt as well with the Native American reaction to all those settlers invading their sacred lands and the government’s reaction to the “uprising;” General George Armstrong Custer.

Tying the unrest of post war America with the beginning “Indian Wars” one could almost assume the show is claiming that Jessie James is responsible not only for Crazy Horse’s activities but the move by the then government to open up the territories to settlers. Territories that belonged, according to the documentary,  to the Lakota Sioux nation.

(While they have been the most prevalent in the plains area, there were a number of other tribes who called this area home as well. In fact, it was the combination of a number of different tribes who defeated the over-ambitious Custer at Little Big Horn.)

While it is interesting to see actors playing the roles of Jesse and Frank James, Custer,  General Tecumseh Sherman and General Grant, there is something missing. An adherence, perhaps, to real facts versus this quick “down and dirty” mini-series.

At the risk of sounding petty, or condescending, it feels a little like the television  version of “American Western History for Dummies.”

In 1993, the Disney Channel; using archival photos and old cobbled together bits of American West art and film clips, ran a six part series on the West. Entitled “Adventures of the Old West” it featured the gravelly tones of Kris Kristofferson as the narrator and his verbal presence made the show impressive and gave  it a sort of audio bona fides that this documentary is missing.

Watching “The American West” on Saturday, there was a pause for the obligatory commercials that plague the viewer in this country.  The iconic tones of Sam Elliott (a man synonymous with westerns and western characters) could be  heard for a Coors commercial and the theme, somewhat unsurprisingly, was a western one. In essence the advert had more of a western stamp of authority than the documentary.

Considering the actors whose voices could have been used in the role of narrator (Robert Duval, Tommy Lee Jones,  Elliot, or even Clint Eastwood) why did the producers opt instead for another unknown entity to guide the audience through a show obviously intended to bring the old west alive?

Even the well known actors who gave bits of “colour” on the sidelines,  were not overly associated with the Western genre. (Apart from Kiefer Sutherland, who has at least three westerns under his gunbelt and of course Redford – the Sundance Kid.)  How much better to have Jones, Duval, Elliot, Kurt Russell or Kevin Costner to provide commentary on the series?

Despite all these complaints, the show is worth watching.  If for no other reason for the younger viewers in the audience to see what happened when this country was still in its infancy.  The wholesale theft of a country from its indigenous population, and a serious attempt at genocide of the roughly 300,000 Native Americans who fought against this tide of invaders may even be addressed. (Hopefully so although they have managed to start after the infamous and tragic  Trail of Tears.)

Still, the “legends” picked for this eight part series are interesting.  A desperate ego driven  and narcissistic military man fighting to get his status back – Gen. Custer,  a murderous thieving band of outlaws who fought for themselves in the war and after – Jesse James, a lawman whose exploits in real life never really matched  those that were claimed later in print – Wyatt Earp, and a young renegade determined to keep the invaders off his land – Crazy Horse.

As one who grew up ravenously devouring tales of the old west, whilst simultaneously consuming stories of the world’s greatest detective; Sherlock Holmes, this time period is a personal favorite.  On one side of the pond there was, in real life, Jack the Ripper and Scotland Yard and on this side “manifest destiny,” a country divided and burning pioneer spirit.

“The American West” airs Saturdays on AMC. Tune in for a cheap version of American history that attempts to downscale the telling of legends and the infamous.  Try to picture Kristofferson or Elliot as narrator, it may make up for a lot.

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

19 thoughts on “The American West: AMC Looks at the Wild West (Review)”

  1. There are spoilers in this review if you haven’t watched the latest episode. This review primarily concerns the next to the last episode, “Frontier Justice”. Redford IS rewriting history. I don’t really think he’s doing it with a revisionist attitude but I just can’t figure out his motivation. Between him, all his money and no telling how many researchers and interns that had to be working on this I have no doubt they could have made this show entertaining and historically accurate. In other reviews I saw mention of many mistakes. Things like using the pictures from other shootouts for the wrong event/locale. In this last show I watched it shows Earp investigating the wagon train robbery and murder of one or two teamsters. Earp picks up a double barrel shotgun, breaks it open and says, “he didn’t even have time to get a shot off’. Really? What I saw was a shotgun breech showing a 12 gauge shell in place with the primer dimpled. Anyone who knows guns knows dimpled primers means the shot was fired (or rarely a misfire). What ever it was it was ridiculous. The trivia section on this episode mentions the very same thing. And would someone please explain the Earp/Clanton $3600 deal to me??? I’ve never heard of that in my life. Even if it were true it’s no different than using any other informant. The stuff they showed about the arrest of Billy the Kid was so wrong it was embarrassing. Everything I’ve ever heard and read about that escape said that Billy the Kid shot the deputy with the shotgun as the deputy was returning to the jail. Billy shot him from the upper window of the jail. When Billy got killed they got that all wrong too. A lot of the info on Jesse James is not accurate or true. The info on Sitting Bull is very sketchy. The way they portrayed the killing of Crazy Horse WAS a PC Retell. Everything I’ve ever read said that Indian Security at the Fort killed Crazy Horse. Redford obviously THINKS otherwise. To bad he can’t stick to history. I know that all the people that have been involved in this show are aware of these stupid mistakes. So the question is why? Why would they spend all that money to put out a half ass effort that is historically so inaccurate it is laughable? There is a lot more that is wrong with this show. And that really points out the fact that there was enough money and experience involved here that they could have easily made this show a premier example of historically accurate Western documentaries.


  2. This series perpetuates the same tired cliches’ – every time they show US Grant he has a tumbler of Scotch next to him. Ridiculous.


  3. I am fascinated by and have read many accounts of the story of Wyatt Earp. This series played wild an loose with the truth about him. They did more to perpetuate the myth surrounding him rather than provide an accurate account. There were so many things that happened that day and the night before that led up to the gunfight. While Wyatt Earp was there, it is my understanding that Virgil Earp was the Marshall of Tombstone, and was in charge that fateful day.


  4. a very narrow view of this era, focusing on tiny segments as though they were the entire story, prone to represent rumor and conjecture as established fact, and totally misrepresenting facts not in dispute… no more informative than the most farfetched hollywood western


  5. As the series has continued, there have been some very strong moments. I teach a Western genre course at the college level and plan to use one of the Jesse James’ scenes in on a lecture on the man. If interested, I analyze that scene at my professional Western genre site – link is here:

    Chad Beharriell


    1. Hi Chad, thanks for your comment but please do not add links back to another site. It counts against our Google rating. It is nice to see someone is enjoying the AMC western history lesson. Cheers.


      1. Hi Michael…thanks for the quick reply and info (didn’t know that links had that effect). If interested (and you don’t mind me sharing) my site name is westernsreboot – the review can be found there. Thanks for the platform for discussion.



  6. I can’t allow yet another opportunity pass without comment regarding George Armstrong Custer during and following the Civil War. Custer graduated last in his West Point class of 1861 and soon after he was called to duty due to the Civil War. He was promoted to captain of the U.S. Army in 1864. Custer’s reckless bravery and leadership early in that war earned him rapid skip promotions to brigadier and major general of the U.S. Volunteers (not the regular army). Following the war Custer reverted to his permanent rank of captain in the U.S. Army. In 1866 he was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. 7th Cavalry Regiment. The famous boy general served ten years as a lieutenant colonel until his death on June 25, 1876 at the famous battle of the Little Big Horn. Colonel George A. Custer was a temporary general for no more than two years, but to today even Mr. Knox-Smith calls him General Custer as he is presented in the AMC series The American West. Like in the movie, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, it’s said, “When legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I hope I haven’t wasted my time here. Custer died a lieutenant colonel. Captain Kent


    1. You are quite correct sir. Even most history books refer to Custer as a General after the war. Should have mentioned it but was too busy pointing out other things I found, shall we say, questionable about
      AMC’s “historical” program. Thank you for taking the time to point this out. Cheers.


      1. It is not incorrect to refer to Custer as General Custer, as it was the highest rank he held, brevet or otherwise. This was and remains with many a proper military custom.


    2. I have to admit that I was wrong in writing that AMC presented Custer as General Custer in their series, The American West. They got it right calling him Lieutenant Colonel Custer. That being said, the man is usually called General Custer. Enough said. Capt. Kent


    3. The vast majority of Union units in the Civil War were volunteer, not regular army. Some of them were lead by laymen appointed by the governors of the states from which they hailed, others were lead by regular army officers including Custer. Once Custer moved from Michigan brigade commander to commander of the 3rd Division of the Cavalry Corps of the Army of the Potomac in 1864 he was in command of both regular army and volunteer units regardless of his original assignment/rank designation or that of those under him in the command.

      After the Civil War Custer was nominated for a brevet promotion to Major General, USA in 1866 by Phil Sheridan and it was approved. From then until his death Custer’s rank was officially Bvt. Maj. Gen., Lt. Col. As was the custom at the time he drew the pay of a Major General, was entitled to wear the uniform, and it was not incorrect to address him as General as it was within the etiquette of the day if one so chose to refer to the highest rank.

      The AMC series does, as you indicated in a later post herein, refer to him as Lt. Col, This, too, is not incorrect. Both forms are acceptable and correct. His marker at the LBH includes his full rank as I list it here, Bvt. Maj. Gen., Lt. Col. These markers were placed by the US Army while they were in full control of the LBH site until handing it over to the NPS in the late 1940s.

      Sources: Utley, “Cavalier in Buckskin.” Donovan, “A Terrible Glory.” Greene, “Stricken Field: The Little Bighorn Since 1876.”


    4. and isn’t it a shame that this “documentary” could not find the time to mention any of the many officers who played more important roles then custer in the indian wars, or any of the other tribes involved??? we here in texas were greatly relieved to learn that the indian wars were fought exclusively further north and did not involve our part of the country….


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