The American West: The Big Killing – Then There Were Three (Review)

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As The American West speeds through its recounting of the “heroes” and badmen who became legends, it appears that the list has narrowed down to three. Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid are the last of the myths and icons of the old west to be portrayed. Although, Pat Garrett gets a look in as the guy who brought Billy to justice the first time.

The series has thus far been rather frugal with the truth and neglected to mention major players in the Lincoln County Range War.  It also appears to cater to myth versus irrefutable truth.

At one point in “The Big Killing”  episode we have Billy the Kid Meeting Jesse James who attempts to recruit the “Kid” to join his gang. The “meeting” was included in a frontier doctor’s memoirs but the medico gets no mention and he was the man who introduced the pair.

Arguably most historian’s refute this as apocryphal tale, as Dr. Hoyt’s book was written many years after the fact but Robert Redford, who executive produced the show, has opted to put this doubtful tale in as fact.

The Billy the Kid section is the weakest segment in the last of these three  “legends.’  In another glaring omission of the real participants in the range war and its aftermath,  the infamous escape of Billy  leaves out  more names and facts. The house that Billy, and others (who were not mentioned in the episode) escaped from was that of Andrew McSween who was shot and killed, in the attempt.

There are names and  incidents missing from several vignettes of the legends on offer. Possibly  because the series is restricted to eight episodes.  Or the researchers have opted to use just the internet for information or even relied upon “historians” whose bona fides may be lacking,. There is much about the men they have chosen to focus on that has been ignored or left by the way side.

Certainly the format is meant to give the audience a taste of the west as the new American’s marched resolutely across the land and changed Native American’s lives forever.  In the show’s retelling, only a few men are chosen and it seems that the railroad is the main link.

The history of this huge country is fascinating. None more so that the time period shown in AMCs offering The American West.  Some things have been done correctly. The dichotomy of the East Coast’s industrial revolution for instance. Machinery and  cities that already boasted multistory buildings were in direct contrast to muddy streets and the newly established railroad.

In this episode Wyatt Earp is only just going to Tombstone, invited there by his brother Virgil, and it will be interesting to see if any mention is made of John Henry “Doc” Holliday. The two men were thick as thieves and Doc helped out at the O.K. Corral shootout.

This series was eagerly awaited by many who enjoy American “western” history. However AMC have really let the side down with its tunnel vision version of events. Of course some of the issues here may lie with a limited budget.  For example the preview of next week’s episode shows Billy in a small, single story jail cell.  In reality the building that housed Billy was  the two-story Lincoln county jail that doubled as the court house.

As nice as it is to have reenactments of history presented right after Hell on Wheels, if the show’s producers are going to rely upon such specious information they may as well do a scripted bit of western fiction.

The American West airs Saturdays on AMC.  There are two episodes left.  Worth a look only if the viewer has no idea of western history and wants a good starting point.

CAST:

Narrated by Bert Thomas Morris 

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 

A Walk in the Woods (2015) Snail Paced Recollections (Review)

Robert Redford, Nick Nolte

Based on the Bill Bryson book of the same name, “A Walk in the Woods” follows a 1994 (the book was published in 1998)  attempt by the then mid-forties Bryson and an old pal (Stephen Katz) to walk the Appalachian trail.  Robert Redford optioned the tale with his old buddy Paul Newman in mind  as costar. Sadly, Newman died and the project languished a bit before Nick Nolte came on board.

Directed by Ken Kwapis (He’s Just Not That Into You, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) with a screenplay co-written by Michael Arndt and Bill Holderman based on the Bryson book;  “A Walk in the Woods” is pedestrian by nature. The  film moves at a  70 year old’s pace (although in the film, both Katz and Bryson are in their 60s) and this gentle comedy amuses despite its creaky pace.

There are some impressive pedigrees attached to the feature. British actress Emma Thompson (a double Oscar winner), Mary Steenburgen (another Oscar winner) and Redford (yet another winner of the little gold chap) and Nolte (an Oscar nominee).  With such an august  cast there can little to complain about in terms of performance.

The delightful Kristen Schaal (The Last Man on Earth, 30 Rock) is brilliant as the companion from Hell and she provided a bit of obvious comic relief.

“A Walk in the Woods” is a leisurely tale of two  older men who want to do something of significance and learning about themselves along the way. The message being that one is never too old to learn more about what makes them tick.

The film, which moves about as slowly as both Redford and Nolte do along the trail, is a gentle look at two men who lost touch with one another getting reacquainted and it is amusing. There are however  very few laugh out loud moments, although the jealous husband at the hotel is funny.

Kwapis takes moments to remind the audience of where the two men are. Spectacular scenery and panoramic views take the breath away and one feels the pull to grab a backpack, tent and walking poles and join the exodus along the trail.

There are a few scenes where Bryson remarks on the ecological state of the trail and speaks of the decline of the Chestnut tree, but overall this is an older buddy film.  It is not unlike the Canadian Indie film “Land Ho.” While not based upon a Bryson travelogue the pacing and general feeling is not too dissimilar.

It is not a boring film, just  very slow paced and an ambling sort of entertainment.  The chemistry between the bluff, and often very florid, Nolte and the svelte yet prickly Redford is amusing enough and it is delightful to see these two old pros show how it should be done.

Steenburgen is captivating in her role as the hotelier who is clearly interested in Redford’s character.  Emma Thompson convinces as the spouse who knows her husband inside out and finds his past memories with Katz somewhat amusing.

“A Walk in the Woods” is a 3 star film. Nothing to really write home about but it is entertaining in its own way.  A little slow and rambling, a bit like the walk along the Appalachian trail itself.  Worth a look as it is on Amazon Prime at the moment.

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Changes S.H.I.E.L.D. to What?

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Changes S.H.I.E.L.D. to What?

Having to watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier after watching Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. was a bit anti-climatic in one or two scenes, but only a little, although it did raise the question as to what the new spy organisation will be called now. Watchers of the Joss Whedon small screen version of the Marvel verse may have been asking themselves that same question after last Tuesday’s episode. Whedon’s show about Agent Coulson and his small band of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents has received its fair share of complaints from viewers who wanted more crossover and tie-in episodes.