While still maintaining that Jesse James single handedly upset the applecart in late 1800s America, The American West zoomed into the Black Hills, Gold, the Union Pacific and the first US economic depression in its documentary about the wild west. It also glides over the Custer massacre of a Cheyenne village.
It is interesting to note that in the retelling of the railroad marching resolutely across the plains, that Thomas “Doc” Durant is mentioned as one of the first millionaire fraudsters in the country. The man responsible for connecting the country coast to coast was an out and out crook.
Therein lies one of the problems with this “documentary” on the American Wild West and the expansion of its immigrant denizens. The country’s formative years were, apparently, all influenced by greedy conmen, thieves, robbers and (not forgetting Custer) a narcissistic egomaniac.
On a sidenote, it is amusing to see the series skirting Grant’s alcoholism. (The man had a lifelong problem with drinking.) The show’s makers do show the president with a drink in his hand in most scenes but no mention of his record of drunkenness, which almost got him drum out of the Army is ever made.
On terms of brownie points, The American West does show how the government worked hard, initially, to get along with the Native American denizens who were here before the white man “conquered” the country. They also mention the same government shafting the other party in the peace treaties when gold looked to be an economic savior.
Once again, it seems that chicanery and robbery put the country on the map, so to speak, and either helped the US to grow or plunged it into economic chaos. (On a sidenote, one of the colour providers mentioned that the Union Pacific Railroad scandal took millions from tax payers pockets. Taxes were not levied on the average Joe until 1913 chaps.)
The introduction of the Missourian newspaper editor who turned into Jesse James’ publicist was a new one and rather fascinating. It was also interesting to note that the myth John Newman Edwards worked so hard to manufacture was catered to in the scenes of the robberies. “That was my father’s watch…”
The Pinkerton Detective Agency is also given fairly short shrift, possibly because they do not get really interesting until they blow up James’ house. The act was performed when Jesse and Frank’s mother was in the kitchen and the blast took off one of her arms. If the self centered outlaw needed any further prodding to keep committing crime, this was the perfect excuse.
With all the focus on the “bad men” of American History so far, The American West appears to be saying that the US and the wild west were populated and influenced more by crime than by heroic acts or pioneers who risked everything to move west.
The railroad did indeed provide (relatively) easy access to the west. While this show goes to great pains to paint Jesse James as not only the first train robber of the new railroad but also the instigator behind the south rising again, it should be pointed out that the James gang were not the only chaps robbing trains.
As the executive producer Robert Redford should know, there were a number of gangs robbing trains, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (played by Redford in the 1969 film). There were the Dalton’s and the Younger’s (also products of the Civil War) and the first recorded train robbery was in 1866 by the Reno gang.
The American West is fairly interesting, in that the series maintains that a select few men from history changed the face of the country in some sort of interconnected way. This focus, while interesting, leaves so much out. Although the mention of Doc Durant was a plus.
There is no doubt that Jesse James was the best known of all the train robbers, at the time (down to Edwards’ efforts) but is odd that his activities are being credited with affecting so much of the day-to-day goings-on of the young country.
The American West airs Sundays on AMC. Tune in and get what appears to be a skewed perception of how the wild west was won.