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


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.


Narrated by Bert Thomas Morris 

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