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.

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

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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.

Rockstar Games and AMC Prove Crime is Popular During Financial Slump

Rockstar Games and AMC Prove Crime is Popular During Financial Slump

With GTA V passing the 1 billion mark in just three days after its release as well as looking to earn its second billion very shortly and the Breaking Bad series finale drawing a record number of views, it looks like both Rockstar games and AMC have proved that crime is popular during a financial slump.