The American West: AMC Wild West Episode 2 (Review)

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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.

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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.

Old West Icon Faces Closure Flyover Pictures Hopes to Help

Old West Icon Faces Closure Flyover Pictures Hopes to Help

The Pony Express was a short but vital part of the American West and the history books tell of a group of young men, boys really, who rode hard and fast against the elements, indian raids, bandits and all sorts of other challenges to get the mail to folks before the stages, telegraph and railroads came in to put the Express out of business. Flyover pictures is honoring that old west memory and hope to help an icon hold off closure. Read on to see what is in danger of being closed and why.

One of the Pony Express stations remains at Middlegate, Nevada. Self advertised as being the “middle of nowhere” with an elevation of 4600 feet and a population of 17, this piece of the old west was turned into a roadhouse with a few motel rooms added on. Over the years this roadhouse has become a vital part of a spread out community that consists of ranchers, miners, the military and truckers who pass through this desolate part of desert.

While the building itself has passed through a few hands over the years, the purpose of Middlegate Station has been the same. It provides the folks who live in the middle of nowhere food, gas, rooms and a sense of community. The place is “off the grid” which means that it is not hooked up to any sort of power line. Quite a few years ago, the power was provided via a diesel powered generator.

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Like most of the residents in the area, the station is off-grid.

This power source was, at the time of its inception, a cost effective way to provide what was needed for a community of “off grid” denizens. As laws changed, and diesel became  too expensive to provide power to the station, the good folk of Middlegate looked to alternative sources of energy via grants, loans, or other programs that have been open to residents who are “on-grid.”

The way to find an alternative way of keeping the way station open has been fraught with loopholes and stumbling blocks that made it difficult for these independent minded people to keep their center of the community open. The biggest hurdle to overcome has been that these “incentives” to use alternative energy do not apply to applicants who are not already on the power grid. With so many different people relying on the Middlegate Pony Express station to provide them with a place to meet, eat, sleep and visit with the occasional tourist or trucker these obstacles needed to be overcome.

Flyover Pictures found out about this iconic piece of the old west and took it upon themselves to help these proud individualistic people who either choose to live out in the middle of nowhere, or have no choice for whatever reason. Being “off the grid” may be the result of a decision to live where the air is clear and neighbors are not breathing down the back of their necks, but it should not be impossible for these modern people who want to live out west in an uncrowded area and beautiful country.

Old West Icon Faces Closure Flyover Pictures Hopes to Help

According to the folks at Flyover Pictures, around 200,000 people live “off grid” in the U.S. and many of this number are a vital part of the core of American providers. Ranchers, truckers and miners who keep the U.S. moving on. Middlegate is not only a historical monument to the days when Americans were fulfilling their vision of “manifest destiny” and heading further and further west in search of land, gold, and freedom but it represents the same spirit of men and women who fell in love with this picturesque area of the world.

Flyover Pictures are making a documentary in an attempt to chronicle the journey of the folks in Middlegate, Nevada who want a viable, and affordable, source of alternative energy for their wide spread community. The days of the Pony Express rider may be over, but the spirit of these stand alone young men who feared nothing and certainly did not feat wide open spaces lives on in the people who have decided to make this desolate area of the U.S. their home.

The documentary has the working title of The Last Roadhouse and it is being funded by Kickstarter as well as the money in the companies own pockets. Speaking to Lisette Cheresson, her enthusiasm, concern and empathy for the folks at Middlegate shines through. She and her partner Ryan, as well as the other folks who make up Flyover Pictures have been out to the area often and have already begun working on the documentary.

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The Middlegate Crew! (From left to right: Brian Colgan, Megan Robertson, Lisette Cheresson, Ryan Cheresson)

There are only three days to go in the campaign and this last stretch will, hopefully, enable the filmmakers to meet their goal of $7,500. Thus far, they have over 127 backers and are roughly $278 short of their target. Tonight, I just became backer number 128. Please dig deep and see what great things you can get from donating to keep this worthwhile and vital part of a scattered community energized.

I will be keeping track of Flyover Pictures and their progress. I’ll try to report on each stage of the project and keep interest in this documentary alive. We owe it to the figures of the old west and the proud independent people who call Middlegate home.

By Michael Smith

12 Years a Slave Defeats Gravity to Make Oscar History

12 Years a Slave Defeats Gravity to Make Oscar History

12 Years a Slave defeated Gravity to make Oscar history as the first film made by a black director to win Best Picture in the the 86 years that the Academy Awards have existed. Incredibly, the Oscar favorite, Alfonso Cuaron’s 3D space drama Gravity lost out on the evening’s biggest award even though it did sweep a total of 7 awards by the ceremony’s end.

Hi Jolly and the Legend of the Red Ghost

Hi Jolly and the Legend of the Red Ghost

In early American West history, there are tales of a Jordanian, or Syrian, or Greek, – history is a bit vague as to his actual ancestry – camel driver called Hi Jolly and a failed U.S. Army experiment with camels; soon after the “camel trials” ended more tales were told about the legend of the red ghost. The camel experiment began on Feb. 10, 1856 when President Jefferson Davis gave the go-ahead for 74 camels to be used as pack animals in a military expedition by the U.S. Army. Major Henry C. Wayne, of the U.S. Army, and Lt. D.D. Porter (of the U.S. Navy) accepted the two original consignments of camels delivered by the Navy ship Supply in Indianola,Texas.

South Africa My Personal Journey: Soweto and Mandela House

Outside Mandela House personal photo
Outside Mandela House personal photo

The recounting of my personal journey through South Africa has so far been fraught with the dangers that people face in certain parts of the Johannesburg area. But the whole trip was not all about the crime and precautions, although a lot of it was. There were two areas that welcomed people and visitors into their world.

Soweto was on my list of things to see mainly because of the Mandela House Museum.  As we approached the township my two companions (our driver L, who was a star and D our correspondent) pointed out that the area we were entering welcomed outsiders. Apparently it had to do with the fact that the denizens of Soweto liked the idea that  white visitors weren’t too terrified to visit.

On the way there, while stopped at a traffic light, a mini-pickup truck with a small group of black men in the back, noticed me taking pictures. They began to wave and smile and make camera gestures (this consisted of making a square with both hands and holding them up to their face). I was happy to oblige and after getting a few shots of these friendly people, they gave the universal “thumbs-up” sign and “okay” sign.

One very enthusiastic fellow blew us a kiss.

The friendly chaps in the white pickup truck outside Soweto
The friendly chaps in the white pickup truck outside Soweto

“See?” Our correspondant asked. “Soweto is very friendly and welcoming, even before we’ve entered the area!”  They were indeed both friendly and helpful.  We made our way to the Mandela House Museum, which was not full of people, although a steady trickle of South African tourist were entering. I appeared to be the only “real” foreigner there.

As you go through the museum, tour guides explain the significance of the house. The little lady who spoke to me got inadvertently ignored for the whole first part of her spiel as I’d assumed that she was just someone else who was there to see the house and not a guide.  She didn’t let that stop her though.

L had to have it pointed out to me that the elderly lady was a guide and that she wanted me to see things in order. Thankfully, I’m too old to blush, otherwise I’d have gone a brilliant hue of red.  I dutifully followed the lady around the small museum and took pictures as she talked.

Mandela House was a solemn moment in a friendly town. The overall feeling was that Soweto was proud of the man who’d moved there and became the first black South African president. The house where he lived, but was not born in, is a stark reminder of the days of Apartheid and the world’s acceptance of it.

The only jarring note at the museum was the price of admission. Not that it was too expensive. Rather it was the pricing system. that was disturbing.  The sign by the ticket kiosk had a list of prices.  South AFricans paid one price, non-South Africans paid slightly higher, and “tourists” paid higher still. I missed the sign, but it was pointed out to me as we left. Rather an unsettling moment where it seems that while “outsiders” are more than welcome, they will pay for the privilege of “not being South African.”

This “triple” pay system was used at other “tourist” attractions as well.

The overall experience of visiting Soweto was relaxed and pleasurable. The streets were full of apparently happy and smiling people and there was a good feeling to the place, with none of the undercurrent that ran though the other areas visited on the trip.  It was  as though the place was an oasis in the tense high crime arena of Johannesburg.

All too soon we had to leave the peaceful surroundings of Mandela House Museum and head off to our next destination. I want to return to Soweto and spend more time there if for no other reason than to soak up some more of that friendly, relaxed atmosphere.

To be continued…

Mandela House Museum photo by author.
Mandela House Museum photo by author.