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.