The American West: Custer Dies, Earp Arrives – Historical Shorthand


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AMC continues their historical shorthand version of the American west.  In the last two episodes Custer dies and Wyatt Earp arrives on the scene as an effective lawman.

Episode four followed the attack on Little Big Horn and the disastrous consequences for the 7th Calvary.

It also continued  the Jesse James story by recreating the James-Younger  gang’s  failed bank robbery at Northfield, Minnesota.   The robbery netted the gang a “bag of nickels” according to some reports after a Swedish employee refused to open the already unlocked vault door. (Clearly, like most criminals, the robbers were not the sharpest tools in the shed that day. Had they tried the door the gang would have taken over $15K.)

The townspeople reacted to the gang’s attempt to intimidate the populace by shooting back and killing two members.The two he Younger brothers were  also captured and imprisoned as a result of the unsuccessful bank robbery.

Out west, Custer splits his forces and sends Major Reno out to flank a huge Native American encampment.  Although the series mentions only the Sioux Nation and the Cheyenne,  the Arapaho were also involved in the battle.

The episode ends with Custer dying, possibly shooting himself, as the rest of his troops lay dead around him. Jesse and Frank go into hiding after the Northfield bank robbery fiasco and Sherman has initiated his policy to eradicate the buffalo in order to starve out the Sioux.

Episode five finally introduces Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. The American West stays on the course of picking and choosing the information provided for each “historical legend.” It also covers the surrender and murder of Crazy Horse.

Wyatt Earp is set up as an upcoming legend in his own right and no mention is made of the brothers who were already lawmen in their own right.  Perhaps this will be mentioned later but necessarily.  This “history” show is providing a very narrow version of the events that created legends.

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Jonathan C. Stewart as Wyatt Earp

Take, for example, the Billy the Kid portion which excludes the fact that John Henry  Tunstall was English. The actor playing him sounds very ‘merican and not English at all.  It also never mentions that “The House” was comprised of two ranchers, JJ Dolan and LG Murphy, who were not pleased with the completion from, not only, Tunstall but ranchers Alexander McSween and John Chisum as well.

The trio of cattle barons all helped to heat up the Lincoln County range war.  (Another small point is the depiction of Tunstall’s death. The rancher and his men, including Billy, were approached by Murphy and Dolan men. Being outnumbered the Tunstall faction retreated, except for Tunstall who rode up to the larger group to complain that they were on his land. The English cattle baron was shot dead.

(Not to be picayune but the real life Billy the Kid was a freckle-faced, buck-toothed charmer whose personality could change in an instant to from friendly chappy to deadly killer.)

Thus far this history lesson from Robert Redford and AMC has been very narrow in focus and not overly factual.  It also seems to owe much to popular history. Sure there are a few “historical” writers and experts to weigh in on the proceedings but the lack of certain names spells inaccuracy or censorship.

It will be interesting to see if The American West continues to practice this form of  tunnel vision in the final three  episodes.   Granted the show is attempting to show how certain individuals influenced the American way of life, but in most cases it is a stretch.

One question that arises when watching this series is why this particular group of “legends” were chosen.  There are many more heroes and villains in the history books and none of these get a look in.  Certainly  Jesse James was the US “Robin Hood’ but at the end of the day, this myth was self generated as yet another excuse to rob and kill.

The American West airs Sundays on AMC. Tune in if you want a very narrow history of the wild west.

CAST:

Narrated by Bert Thomas Morris 

Author: Mike's Film Talk

Former Actor, Former Writer, Former Journalist, USAF Veteran, http://MikesFilmTalk.com Former Member Nevada Film Critics Society

One thought on “The American West: Custer Dies, Earp Arrives – Historical Shorthand”

  1. Dear Mr Knox-Smith,

    Thank you for posting this review of The American West. I’ve watched episodes 1-7 and am appalled by the lack of accuracy. As you said, Tunstall was British not American and he was also 24 — not middle aged as the show depicts him. And the depiction of Billy the Kid’s escape from Lincoln and his killing of deputies Olinger and Bell could not have been more erroneous. Billy wasn’t being held in a cell (Lincoln didn’t have one), he slipped out of the handcuffs because of his small wrists (Bell didn’t take them off) and he shot Olinger from the second floor window after a famous exchange of words (and not outside on the street).

    These are just a few of the gross inaccuracies I saw but there are many more (for instance there’s zero evidence that Jesse James travelled to New Mexico to ask Billy the Kid to join his gang) and I appreciate you bringing them to light. I just wish I could find somewhere at AMC to lodge my complaints.

    Thank you.

    Brian

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