"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Annie Get Your Gun (MGM, 1950)


A travesty of Annie Oakley




 
 
I dislike Annie Get Your Gun not because it’s an awful film (though it is), nor because Betty Hutton as Annie roars out her songs like a wounded heifer (though she does), nor even because there isn’t a comma in the title (because it needs one) but because the basic picture of Annie Oakley is all wrong. Hutton, taking the role Ethel Merman had in the Broadway show, plays her as a hillbilly tomboy, a sort of sharpshootin’ Doris Day-style Calamity Jane, and it’s quite wrong. Oakley was a demure, proper lady who skillfully projected a persona of “little miss”, even as a married woman in her thirties, but she was never less than a Victorian lady in all matters of propriety and dress.
 
The real Annie with her gun
 
It is true that I am biased. I don’t care for musicals at all. I find them inherently silly and don’t like the style of music (though I love opera and have no problem with musical drama as such). But these tawdry Hollywood versions of garish Broadway shows are painful. I only watched it because of its vaguely Western subject matter, out of duty.
 
Doris Day, Judy Garland, Ginger Rogers were all considered
 
The love of Oakley’s life was the marksman Frank Butler (1847 – 1926), who fell for her when she beat him in a shooting contest, invited her into his show and soon gave her all the limelight. They were married and worked in variety together for years before joining Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show. In the musical, they join Cody right away. Butler (Howard Keel) is a flashy Tom Mix-style dude cowboy who takes umbrage when bested by the young girl and goes off in a huff to join Pawnee Bill’s show. He and Annie love each other but are kept apart for most of the movie and Annie goes to Europe alone. There is no sign of Annie’s rival Lillian Smith either; Annie gets all the glory and meets all the crowned heads.
 
 
Frank Butler
 
Louis Calhern is Buffalo Bill. As a singer, he makes a great actor. (The others can sing but act poorly). Calhern did at least look the part; he was tall, distinguished and aristocratic-looking. It was to have been Frank Morgan but Morgan died just as filming began. Calhern was in fact in a proper Western as well as this junk: he had second billing in the excellent Anthony Mann-directed Devil’s Doorway the same year.
 
Yes, well, if you like that sort of thing...
 
The Indians are portrayed offensively, in a 1950 ‘comic’ way. They are greedy and coarse. Sitting Bull (J Carrol Naish) introduces himself with an “Ug”. He provides the money for the show, investing revenue from oilwells he has (I know, but that is the least of the sillinesses of the storyline).
 
A non-comic Sitting Bull
 
Buffalo Bill’s manager, a principal part, is one Charlie Davenport (a fictional character) played by Kennan Wynn. He tells Bill that despite the European tour the show is broke. They hatch a plot to merge with Pawnee Bill’s show to pay their debts, not knowing that Pawnee Bill (Edward Arnold) is broke too and wants to merge to get his hands on Buffalo Bill’s supposed wealth. Or something. The plot is too daft to recount further. This business does at least give rise to one of the few good lines in the screenplay (by Sidney Sheldon and Herbert and Dorothy Fields) when the mutual impecuniousness is discovered and someone says, “They haven’t got as much money as we haven’t got.”
 
Butler & Oakley, Hollywood-Broadway style
 
For a big-budget musical there is surprisingly little spectacle in the Wild West show, the ‘biggest’ scenes being one where Annie saves the Deadwood stage by shooting Indians (she didn’t) and the finale as riders surround the happy couple.
 
Yawn
 
You may like this movie if you like colorful musicals. It has at least There's no business like show business and Anything you can do in it. With Irving Berlin (replacing Jerome Kern) and Rodgers and Hammerstein involved (and Busby Berkeley directed quite a few scenes but they were excised or reshot) it couldn’t be all bad, but it could be mostly bad, and it was. As a Western, of course, it’s nowhere, but you can’t fairly blame it for that (though I do).

 

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Doolins of Oklahoma (Columbia, 1949)


A B-Western of quality





 
 
 
Bands of outlaws were meat and drink to the Hollywood Western, and if they contained brothers and robbed trains and banks, so much the better. The Reno brothers were probably the first but of course the James gang and the Youngers often appeared on the screen, and later examples such as the Daltons were pretty popular too. The last in the line were the Doolins, offshoots of the Daltons, who marauded in Oklahoma in the 1890s. They had a variety of names, The Wild Bunch, of course, (but then many outlaws had that soubriquet) but also The Oklahombres and The Oklahoma Long Riders (for the long dusters they wore).

Burt Lancaster, Audie Murphy and Randolph Scott all had a go at being Bill Doolin. William Doolin (1858 – 96) was a cowboy who got into a shooting scrape in Coffeyville on July 4th 1892 and then joined up with the Dalton gang. Rumors persist that Doolin was “the sixth man” holding the horses in an alley at the fatal Coffeyville raid in 1892. Emmett Dalton, the only survivor of the raid, never disclosed who the man was. Doolin then formed his own gang. From 1893 to ’95 Doolin and his cronies (who included the teenage girls Cattle Annie and Little Britches) went on a spree of crime, including the so-called Battle of Ingalls, until Doolin’s career finally came to an abrupt end caused by the shotgun of Heck Thomas.
 
The real Bill Doolin, after Heck Thomas had finished with him
 
Hollywood Doolins are, naturally, misunderstood goodies. Directors and screenplay writers dipped their very broad brushes in copious quantities of whitewash to paint a picture of Robin Hood-like social bandits driven unwillingly into crime by force of circumstance. In this movie Randolph Scott wants to go straight and settle down on a ranch with his true love but is pretty well obliged to take up robbing again by his cronies. “Forced to seek friends outside the law, then chosen as their leader.”
 
Randolph Scott as a noble Doolin forced to rob
 
The movie has good credentials. Gordon Douglas directed it for Columbia, probably the most proficient studio at B Westerns. Douglas was a workaday director who churned out some pretty ordinary stuff, from 1944 to 1975, but also made quite a few good Westerns The Doolins was in fact only his second. The year after, he did The Nevadan, also with Scott, which was actually very good. Only the Valiant with Gregory Peck, The Iron Mistress with Alan Ladd, the remake of Stagecoach, two nice pictures with Clint Walker, Fort Dobbs and Yellowstone Kelly, two later actioners, Rio Conchos and Barquero, all these oaters were not at all bad, and Douglas deserves credit for directing solid, well-made (if B) Westerns.
 
Gordon Douglas (director).jpg
Gordon Douglas
 
It’s pretty actiony, with Yak Canutt doing the stunts and Jock Mahoney standing in for Randy. The story and screenplay were by Kenneth Gamet, who had done an outstanding job on Coroner Creek the year before and who wrote six movies for Randolph Scott. He was a pro.

The music is by Paul Sawtell, and Charles Lawton Jr., one of my favorite Western cinematographers, did an excellent job with the Alabama Hills, Lone Pine locations. Some of the photography is remarkably good, enough to make you sit up and take notice. If you watch it, look out, for example, for the night descent of horses in the dust, or an aerial shot of swirling horses.
 
Excellent cinematography
 
And the cast is strong: John Ireland as Bitter Creek and Noah Beery Jr. as Little Bill are among the outlaws, George Macready is the lawman, and we get Louis Allbritton as Rose of Cimarron (Bitter Creek’s girl) and Dona Drake as a feisty Cattle Annie (there’s no sign of Little Britches).
 
The Doolin gang
 
So all in all it’s a professional, tight Western with much in its favor.

Randy dies on screen for only the fifth (and last) time in his career. Good bandit he may be but he can’t be seen to get away with robbin’ and shootin’.

Recommended.

 

Monday, December 21, 2015

Jesse James (PBS, 2006)


The real Jesse


PBS has put out many documentaries on semi-mythical figures of the old West, such as Billy the Kid and General Custer, for example, and in 2006 it was the turn of perhaps the most iconic train- and bank-robber of them all, Jesse James.

It was a film in the American Experience series and this one was produced, written and directed by Mark Zwonitzer, who has also contributed to and/or directed many others on different aspects of American history.
 
Mark Zwonitzer
 
Like all these programs, it’s sober, serious and unsensational, which, given the hype surrounding the name of Jesse James and the absurd layers of myth that have been piled upon him, is a good thing.

In fact it starts with the mythic aspect of James’s career, the idea that he was a common man’s champion against rapacious capitalism, on the side of the ‘little people’, willing to stand up against oppression, a sort of American Robin Hood. Most movie portrayals of him have underlined this aspect, of course, it being easier to have your central character (usually played by a Hollywood star) as a noble hero rather than a juvenile delinquent who became a sociopathic hoodlum.
 
 
Worth a look
 
The good news, and it’s very good news, is that one of the talking heads in the documentary is TJ Stiles. Mr. Stiles has written the very best book of all on Jesse James, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War (2002). Some biographers have written what turns out to be the definitive life of their subjects. It may be that in a generation or two new facts will emerge and an even better life of Jesse James will be written, but it’s hard to imagine now. Jesse James is so deeply researched, so well written and so authoritative that really, you don’t need any other book. The same can be said of Casey Tefertiller on Wyatt Earp, Roger DeArment on Bat Masterson, Don Russell on Buffalo Bill, Robert Utley on Sitting Bull, and several others. These lives are, well, it.
 
TJ Stiles
 
The film starts in 1864 with a sixteen-year-old Jesse going off to join a guerrilla band, the regular Confederate forces having been already driven out of Missouri. We are told that slaves accounted for half the James family’s wealth. Hollywood Jameses often denounce slavery and declare they have never owned a slave but that was bunkum. The savagery of the conflict is underlined. ‘Trophies’ were taken and the psychopath Bill Anderson, for example, rode with scalps and ears attached to his horse’s harness. The murder of disarmed men at Centralia, in which Jesse James took part, is very rarely mentioned in film treatments but was shockingly real.

But at this time Jesse James was virtually an unknown. It was really his post-war brigandry, in particular the robbery in Gallatin in December 1869, that made his name news. And James was skillful at the manipulation of the media of the day. You get the idea from the film that in fact that was what he was seeking – attention. Like a spoilt boy he desperately wanted people to notice him. He boasted of the killing of the bank teller in Gallatin (though in fact he had murdered the wrong man). James’s huge ally, the alcoholic editor JN Edwards, was an unrepentant Rebel and portrayed Jesse James as totally innocent of all crimes. Jesse was religious, kind to animals, and all the rest. Many people believed this. The film underlines the support James got from the populace: after train robberies it was easy for him and his accomplices to get fresh horses to outrun pursuit.
 
Jesse Woodson James (1847 - 1882)
 
The media profile of Jesse James grew as Republicans increasingly made him a campaign issue. It’s really quite a modern story in many ways, with politics and the media latching on to an issue and making headway out of it.

And James himself appears to have been increasingly unable to distinguish the ‘legend’ from the reality. He loved reading newspaper stories about himself. He became his image. “Jesse James began to inhabit the myth that Edwards created.”

A key change point in the whole story occurred when the Pinkertons got involved. Allan Pinkerton made it a personal mission to track down and capture the James gang. And despite the catastrophic raid on the James farmhouse with its murderous firebomb attack, which turned even neutrals into pro-James partisans, the inexorable pursuit ground the Jameses down. In a time when regular official police forces were incompetent or downright non-existent, it was the Pinkertons who provided a professional detective force.

The later gangs that Jesse James put together were no war veterans. They were just low-grade criminals. Even JN Edwards began to cool in his support. When politics shifted and ex-Confederates took power in Missouri and even they were determined to put an end to the depredation of the James gang, Jesse’s time had passed.

Governor Crittenden actively conspired to kill a citizen. It worked. The killing of Jesse James, which was instantly to become the subject of an enormously popular ballad and huge press interest (Oscar Wilde commented on the sale of James possessions) finally put an end to a criminal career which had in fact already all but petered out. But it didn’t put an end to the legend. Far from it.

This documentary says little new or revealing about Jesse James, but it does sum up well the story and go a long way to throwing the cold light of reality on the myth. It’s worth a look if it comes on. You can get it on DVD too.

 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Walking Hills (Columbia, 1949)





Contemporary Western noir




 
 
At first sight this movie looks like a late-1940s black & white cops & robbers drama, and purists won't consider it a Western at all. The opening frame shows (then) modern trucks in a city street and we see John Ireland in suit and tie. Is he a hoodlum? He looks like one (but then he always did). Is he a cop? No, he’s a private eye. He’s being paid by a father to find a son’s murderer. So you think we’re in for a classic noir. And we are, in some ways, but as soon as the plot gets past the first scenes, and the band of ten goodies, baddies and in-betweenies ride out of Calexico/Mexicali into the desert, we realize we’re in for a Western. A contemporary Western, but a Western.

In fact the goodies (Randolph Scott, an Indian, the girl) wear cowboy hats while the others wear more modern headgear.

The pedigree of The Walking Hills is pretty good: produced by Harry Joe Brown (with Scott), written by Alan Le May, directed by John Sturges and starring Scott, Ireland, Edgar Buchanan and Arthur Kennedy, with Ella Raines as the female lead, the movie shaped up to be good from the get-go. And it is. Former theater actor and director Brown moved to Hollywood and in the 1930s directed for Universal first, then Paramount, before moving into producing. He partnered up with Randolph Scott and together they were responsible for some first-class movies, notably the Budd Boetticher-directed Westerns of the late 1950s.
  
Classy contemporary Western
 
Le May is of course very well known as a novelist. The Searchers and The Unforgiven, both absolutely superb Westerns, were based on his stories, and he wrote original screenplays for other oaters such as North West Mounted Police, San Antonio and Cheyenne. He also wrote TV Western shows. He did an excellent job on The Walking Hills, bringing in tension, developing character and pulling off the difficult trick of balancing a fairly static, almost play-like ensemble with Western action.

Director Sturges will be always honored in the halls of Valhalla (whither he departed in 1992) for The Magnificent Seven, one of the greatest Westerns of all time, of course. But don’t forget he also did Bad Day at Black Rock, so he knew all about ensemble pieces of tense character interaction bursting into violence. He also directed one of the most famous Westerns of all time, Gunfight at the OK Corral. It is true that he did make some so-so oaters, like Hour of the Gun, and even some downright bad ones (Sergeants 3, The Hallelujah Trail, Chino) but all in all his record was pretty damn good. I am a great fan of Escape from Fort Bravo, for example, and Joe Kidd.
 
John Sturges
 
As to the cast, Randolph Scott was developing into a superb (and much underrated) actor, capable of great subtlety, transmitting a persona of stoicism, compassion and authority. He was ideally suited to intelligent Westerns. In this movie he is an ex-rodeo star more concerned with his mare in foal than either girl or gold. He is quiet and restrained but steely when it's called for. Two moments in particular show his strength: when the PI (Ireland) shoots a young man, member of the group (Jerome Courtland), Randy says, "If that boy dies, you better hold on to your gun" in a way that seethes with menace, and when he slaps an hysterical Kennedy and knocks him to the floor, Ireland asks, "What did you do that for?" and Randy quietly rolls a cigarette and answers, "I ran out of words." Scott brilliant underplayed his parts in an almost Gary Cooperish way, and although he in fact has less screen time than some of the other actors, he dominates the picture completely. 

I’ve always liked John Ireland, especially as the tough guy, and while most of his Westerns were B movies or TV shows, we shouldn't overlook the fact that he started off in My Darling Clementine and Red River, two of the greatest Westerns of all time, and he was Johnny Ringo for Sturges in OK Corral.
 
Kennedy and Scott play penny-ante
 
Regular readers of this blog, both of them, will know what a fan I am of Edgar Buchanan, and it’s great to see him here doing his classic act of slightly roguish but basically good old-timer, this time a wily prospector. Arthur Kennedy is not my favorite Western actor it must be said but his performances were certainly memorable in the likes of They Died with their Boots On, The Man from Laramie, Bend of the River and Day of the Evil Gun.
 
Buchanan deals
 
Seriously glam Ella Raines had been signed by Howard Hawks and was Randy’s love interest in Corvette K-225. She wasn’t a Western specialist, far from it, but she had taken the female lead opposite John Wayne in Tall in the Saddle five years before. She does a good job in Walking Hills.
 
Ella Raines - surprisingly, maybe, doesn't get to ride off with Randy. Randy ends up with a foal in his arms, not Ella.
 
So producers, writer, director, cast: all from the top drawer.

The hills of the title are the shifting sand dunes and if you have ever been to the White Sands in New Mexico you can see how they would indeed appear to walk. This movie, though, was shot in Death Valley (with 140-degree temperatures for the actors and crew), by Charles Lawton Jr., one of the great Western cinematographers, in a glowing black & white. Some scenes of the dunes are stunningly good and the sandstorm is remarkably well done. Lawton worked with Delmer Daves a lot (3:10 to Yuma may have been his finest work), and for John Ford. The series of Westerns he did with Scott and Brown and director Budd Boetticher, Comanche Station, The Tall T and Ride Lonesome, were absolutely superb.

It’s a treasure-hunting plot. The group get wind of the whereabouts of a lost wagon train that had foundered in the desert and was reputed to be carrying gold. The small party digging for it includes the private eye, who is ready to abandon his employer and the mission to get his hands on the loot. Violence explodes as rivalries and disagreements flare. A fight in the dunes with shovels is brilliantly done.
 
Staged publicity still has Ella wanting to throw a punch at John Ireland
 
There is no doubt that the success of Warners' The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948 influenced the making of this film. Columbia got gold fever and put out the excellent Lust for Gold (with Glenn Ford and Ida Lupino) and The Walking Hills in 1949 with similar gold-hunting/skullduggery/tension plots.

Josh White is in it and he is great but he is only there to sing and dig – well, he was a Negro after all. That’s the 1940s for you. Still, the blues he sings are very, very good.
 
Josh White sings the blues
 
The bad guys get killed and the good guys get gold, so all’s well that ends well, and Edgar Buchanan wraps it with, “Well, that’s ‘at.”

Indeed it is.

 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Ridiculous 6 (Netflix, 2015)


Next




 
 
The comedy Western is a notoriously difficult genre to get right. Humor is such a personal thing and trial audiences or focus groups aren’t always good judges. What some find hilarious might be dull as ditchwater or plain silly to you or me. A few comedy Westerns got it right (think of ¡Three Amigos!, the Bob Hope pictures or the sublime Blazing Saddles) but many got it hopelessly wrong, and it is with regret that I tell you that for me anyway, The Ridiculous 6 is in the Hopelessly Wrong category.
 
 
We are about to receive The Hateful Eight and of course we had The Magnificent Seven, so I suppose The Ridiculous 6 was next. (And of course Two Rode Together for John Ford in 1961, Ford had Three Godfathers in 1948, there were Four Guns to the Border in 1954 and Five Guns West in 1955, The Magnificent Seven, now The Ridiculous Six, Tarantino’s soon-to-emerge The Hateful Eight, in production there’s The Notorious Nine and Randolph Scott was after Ten Wanted Men in 1955, so Westerns assuredly like numbers in their titles).

One thing, though: parodies only work if the object of the parody is current or strongly established in the mind of those watching them. To me, it is an illustration of the strength of the Western as a lasting film type that a pay-TV company can produce one in 2015 destined at a young adult audience, with pastiche figures appearing in it like General Custer and Wyatt Earp, and with many of the clichés of the genre being rehearsed. It shows how deeply rooted in the American psyche (and in fact world psyche) the Western movie and its accoutrements really are. You only have to put Earp and Custer at a poker table and drop in a remark or two about the fastest gun in the West and dealing with Injuns, and everyone instantly understands where you are coming from.
 
 
The Ridiculous 6 is, by the way, aimed at a young adult audience, specifically, I would say, a college boy audience. The humor is earthy, sometimes crude, and the ensemble is likely to appeal to late teen or early 20s males (girls will find it less funny). Not being, any more, a young-adult male (Eheu fugaces labuntur anni) I must say I found it less than hilarious and at times in fact quite repellent.

It seems to be a fairly personal creation: Adam Sandler produced, wrote and starred in it. Mr. Sandler, you probably know, is a comedian who moved from stand-up and Saturday Night Live into the movies. Many people find him very funny.
 
 
The cast is strong. Nick Nolte is the patriarchal outlaw central to the plot (the absurd sextet of the title are all his sons by different mothers); Harvey Keitel is the smiling but murderous saloon owner; Steve Buscemi the unfastidious barber-surgeon; John Turturro makes up the rules of the new game of baseball as he goes along, to suit himself; Danny Trejo is, obviously, an evil bandit killer, Cicero; and a certain Vanilla Ice plays a rapping Mark Twain. From his name I guessed that Mr. Ice might be a popular singer and when I looked him up it turned out to be so. Apparently, "Ice Ice Baby was on the number #1 spot for 16 weeks” and he appeared in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II (doubtless you already knew that).

However, although the cast list contains some famous names, the principals, the 6 themselves, are less well known (to me anyway) and both in terms of thespian skills and the lines they have to deliver they do not exactly shine.
 
I only laughed once, when one of the half-brothers who had been Lincoln's bodyguard at Ford's Theater dived in front of the hero (Sandler) to take a bullet, in the best Hollywood tradition. It wasn't so much that action that I found amusing but the vision the courageous man had in his concussed state of the hero dressed as Abe and the sight of the burro morphed into Mrs. Lincoln.

To be brutally frank with you, though, the movie is junk.

 

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The West (PBS, 1996)


The not so Wild West


Recently re-aired by PBS and also available on DVD, The West is an eight-part documentary produced and directed by Stephen Ives on the history of the American West. It was written by Dayton Duncan and Geoffrey C Ward. Mr. Ives is of course an experienced producer, writer and director and has given us many films on different aspects of American history. Mr. Duncan has written films on Mark Twain, America’s national parks, the Dust Bowl and Lewis & Clark, among others, and Mr. Ward has written on Prohibition, the Roosevelts, Abraham Lincoln, etc. Ken Burns was a “senior producer” and he needs no introduction.
 
Another kind of shootin' in the West
 
What’s in a name?

The first insight in The West is in the name: it was, of course, only “the West” to the American explorers, soldiers and settlers from the eastern states. To the Mexicans it was the north, to the French-Canadians and British it was the south, and to the Chinese and Asian immigrants it was the east. To the indigenous peoples, the various Indian tribes, it was none of these things but the center of the world. The very name “the West”, then, presupposes a certain Frederick Jackson Turner-ish ‘American imperialism’.

But American heroes are largely Western heroes and the West exists as much in Americans’ imagination as it does in historical fact. In a way, a peripheral region has become central to American thinking.

Politically correct

This film was made in the mid-1990s, when the ‘new school’ of American history was in full spate, and indeed the likes of Richard White and Patricia Nelson Limerick are among the talking heads. So we get a good dose of the point of view of those who used to be pretty well ignored when talking about the history of the West: women, religious minorities, Native Americans, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, Asian-Americans and so on. Of course, many of the Native Americans’ ideas on the history of the West were also myths, just different myths.

The narrator is the splendidly-named and slightly Henry Fonda-voiced Peter Coyote.

The beginnings

Episode 1 is entitled The People and we start, rightly enough, with the Indians, perhaps about 3 million of them, divided, we are told, into seven language groups. They were traders: those who had never seen a bison wore buffalo robes, and seashells have been found a thousand miles inland. The Anasazi built roads and rock cities. All tribes referred to themselves as “the people” or “human beings” or simply “we”, “us”, while foreign or new people were called “the other” or simply “they”, “them”.
 
 
Worthy, informative, serious
 
Then we move to Galveston and the first incursions in the West of the Spanish. We are given the remarkable story of Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca and then the equally astonishing Francisco Vázquez de Coronado. The Pueblo rising comes next and a discussion of the importance of that crucial import, the horse.
 
 
Off for a spot of conquisting
 
The devastating impact of smallpox, cholera, tuberculosis, measles and diphtheria are described. These and other diseases killed far more of the indigenous population than any army.

A chronological rather than thematic approach is adopted, so we dot back and forth, for example returning to Spanish-Mexican themes every now and then. Personally I would have preferred to stick to one aspect and trace that through but that may be just me.
 
Large-scale
 
The importance of the North-West Passage is underlined, and the fact that when Lewis and Clark were, they thought, “the first” to meet certain native peoples, they found that these people often knew English words (musket, powder, shot, knife, son-of-a-bitch) learnt from the British sailors who had landed on the Pacific coast.

America, coast to coast

Episode 2 starts with William Gilpin (1813 – 1894) who is often quoted. He gives us the classic nineteenth century American view. “The destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent.” Yet certainly before the Louisiana Purchase and even for some time afterwards, the ‘destiny’ of the continent was far from manifest, with the Mexican-Spanish power from the south, the British and French in the north and the vast undefined territory of Oregon which need not necessarily have become American at all. California could have stayed with Mexico, or gone to France or Britain; there was no ‘inevitability’ that it would become one of the United States.
 
Gilpin
 
We have a look next at the mountain men. There were black, Mexican, Indian and even Hawaiian trappers but Joe Meek is used as an example. The danger of the life is highlighted, and the crucial importance of Eastern fashion: when beaver hats gave way to silk ones, the trade in pelts collapsed.
 
Joe Meek
 
America grabs it all

Indians were no stranger to conquest and taking over or being pushed out of lands they felt they owned, or controlled. We see, for example, the Lakota pushing the Kiowa out of the Black Hills. These peoples understood the white invasion, when it came, though naturally they resisted it to the utmost.

Texans and Mormons

The point is made that the Mexican-Americans were an independent-minded people, often antagonistic to rule from Mexico City, to central authority generally and even to the institutional Catholic church.

We get Stephen Austin, Sam Houston and the Alamo. We also get quite a lot on Narcissa Whitman and the sheer arrogance of the assumption that anyone born West of the Mississippi was a heathen who needed to be converted, saved and made more Eastern. I never liked her and find it hard to lament her fate too much.
 
Whitman
 
The Mormons come next, with Brigham Young as a Mormon Moses.

Episode 2 closes with the sonorous assertion that in only one generation Americans had seized it all.

Indians and gold

The next part is pretty well devoted to the Indians and the Californian gold rush. The Treaty of Fort Laramie was a bigger affair than I previously knew. Against a background of increased competition between Indian tribes for dwindling game, ten thousand from twelve different tribes gathered at Laramie. But the lack of understanding on the part of the whites was evident: in order to halt Indian-Indian conflict and protect settlers and travelers, they wanted to draw lines on a map and talk to a single chief. They thought that by promising fifty years of regular supplies and confining the Indians to certain reserved areas, they could achieve their aims. But that was fundamentally to misunderstand Indian culture and way of life.

Of course the gold rush looms large. Racial discrimination was rife among the miners - against the Indians, of course, and if the word genocide could be justly used anywhere it was in California, but also against any non-American miners. With huge numbers of prospectors competing for claims (there had been two thousand in the fall of 1849; there were thirty-five thousand a year later) the ‘American’ miners swiftly forgot that many of them had been immigrants or sons of immigrants. A crippling $20 monthly tax was imposed on non-American miners.
 
 
Massacres, from Mountain Meadows to the Washita

In episode 4 we go back to the Mormons. The Mountain Meadows massacre is dealt with, and its aftermath of shallow graves and auction of the settlers’ belongings, and we learn of Brigham Young tearing down the makeshift memorial to the victims that had been erected, which bore the legend Vengeance is mine, I will repay, sayeth the Lord with the comment that vengeance had been his, Young’s.
 
 
An early view of Mountain Meadows
 
After a brief excursion into the story of Juan Cortina in 1859 we get to the Civil War in the West, particularly the Confederate invasion of the West, Glorieta Pass and the odious Chivington. We hear of the massacre of Sand Creek, which the ‘Reverend’ Mr. Chivington never denied or regretted (“I stand by Sand Creek,” he said twenty years later) and for which no one was ever punished. We go to Kansas and Missouri to hear of Jim Lane and William Quantrill, and the 1863 attack on Lawrence (Lane’s home) with 183 men and boys killed and 185 houses burned.

And we hear of the so-called Fetterman Massacre (the death in battle of 80 men who had disobeyed orders and rashly charged Red Cloud’s band) which prompted Sherman to refer to “these Indians, the enemies of our race and our civilization.” And Custer’s ‘victory’ at the Washita, four years almost to the day after Sand Creek, when his forces charged into a village (Black Kettle’s again: this time the chief did not survive), a village which was flying the white flag (the American flag flying at Sand Creek had not protected them) and cut down women and children.
 
You shouldn't mention Fetterman and Sand Creek in the same breath, really
 
Assuredly, episode 4 is not one that recounts a glorious past for Americans.

The iron horse

Next come the railroads, and we are reminded that they accelerated the already rapid pace of change. The narrator tells us that “the West couldn’t be settled without railroads and the railroads couldn’t be built without the government.” However rich and mighty private corporations were, the huge investment and necessary land grants required federal intervention. Massive amounts were involved: in 1862 Congress granted $16,000 per mile for the flat rising to $48,000 for mountainous terrain, and these sums soon doubled. 6400 acres per mile of federal land were set aside, and when you consider the thousands and thousands of miles of railroad constructed, this represented land the size of whole countries.
 
Promontory Point, UT: historic day for the nation-building, manifest-destiny story of the West
 
Of course the film concentrates on the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific, and their construction of the trans-continental line culminating in the meeting at Promontory Point, Utah, but it also highlights the mushrooming of other railroad companies to criss-cross the continent with rails, linking previously remote places, speeding up communication and shifting huge tonnages of freight.

Buffalo hunters and cowboys

And all sorts of aspects of American life were affected by the railroads, from buffalo hunting to cattle driving. In spring 1874 Congress, alarmed by the near extinction of the buffalo herds, passed a law restricting hunting but President Grant vetoed it and indeed, hunters were often given free ammunition.
 
The romance of the buffalo hunter
 
Grant himself did not say expressly that the elimination of the staple food of the Indians would eliminate “the Indian problem” by starving them to death or forcing them to live on hand-outs, but others did say so, explicitly. And the cowboys, so iconic of the “Wild West” to all of us, are discussed too, average age 24, Indians, vaqueros, blacks and every other background besides.
 
Not the cowboy Hollywood showed us
 
The romance of the West

The romantic idea of the West as a land of opportunity, ambition and success is tempered slightly when one considers the number of farms that failed and settlers who moved on repeatedly, the high suicide rate and the fact that 40 out of every 1,000 whites were treated for alcoholism. And the inevitability of defeat of the Indians by the army also came to be called into question for a brief moment when Custer and his men were killed in 1876, the soldiers suffered another significant defeat at the hands of the Nez Perce at White Bird Canyon in 1877 and were driven back at Big Hole the same year. Of course with the benefit of hindsight we know that it was only delaying the inevitable but it didn’t seem that way to whites in the West in the 1870s. The capture of tourists in Yellowstone illustrated perfectly the clash of cultures and, if you like, the old and the new West.

In the long story of perfidy and broken promises which the whites, military and political, glibly gave to the Indians and then ignored when it was convenient to do so, General Nelson Miles’s anger when his promise to the Nez Perce that they may return to their homeland was overruled in Washington (or by Sherman anyway) is less understandable when one reflects on Miles’s own rescinding of his predecessor Crook’s promises to the Apache a few years later…

Immigrants and minorities

Episode 7 describes the extraordinary influx of whites of all kinds into the West, perhaps 5 million in the twenty years after the Civil War, swamping the few Indians left, by a ratio of approximately 40:1 by the 1880s. It wasn’t only the Indians who were swamped: in the 1870s Los Angeles was a small market town of perhaps 10,000 Hispanics. The arrival of the railroad and the speculators and settlers it brought turned LA into an Anglo town with the Hispanics confined to a barrio.
 
Exodusters
 
Some of the immigrants to the West, especially Kansas, were black and the movement of so-called Exodusters after the collapse of Reconstruction and withdrawal of Federal troops from the South is a fascinating one. Encouraged by the colorful figure of Benjamin ‘Pap’ Singleton, and rumors of $500 and free land, these settlers sought a different kind of freedom from the one they thought they had got from Abe Lincoln but which turned out to be illusory.

The laws designed actively to discriminate on the basis of race and the anti-Chinese mob violence are an especially unpleasant chapter of the history of the West. Less offensive to modern thinkers perhaps was the outlawing of polygamy (it became a federal crime) but there was even a move to disenfranchise Mormons. These changes led to the exodus of some Mormons to Canada and Mexico, though the Elders of the church accepted the inevitable, divested the Mormon church of many of its business interests and separated church from state. Utah became the 45th state of the Union.

Various interesting figures are discussed in this episode, such as FH Cushing, for example, but an illuminating comment on the West is provided by Richard White when he says that Buffalo Bill was “the one true genius the West produced” and I must say, that nearing the end, as I am at the moment, of Don Russell’s great biography of Cody, I tend to agree. Here was a genuine plainsman (for there was nothing fake about Cody’s frontier youth) who nevertheless made it his business (literally) to peddle the myth of conquest: in the Wild West show it was the Indians who did all the attacking. Buffalo Bill showed the conquerors as victims. It was an extraordinary conjuring trick, and it worked.
 
True genius
 
The end of the West?

The last episode opens with the Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893, which wad the context for Frederick Jackson Turner’s paper on the ‘closing’ of the frontier, and this provides the only mention in the documentary of Turner. The commentary underlines how self-congratulatory the exposition was, and how bizarre in some ways: a huge conquistador made of Californian prunes. 24 million people came to visit, a quite remarkable figure when one thinks about it. By that year there were only 63 million Americans, and 17 million of them lived west of the Mississippi. The 1889 land rush is described, the last flurry of land-grabbing in the West when 1.9 acres were claimed in a single day.
 
Buffalo Bill was considered too showy and commercial to be included;
the Wild West show set up outside
 
The devastating effects of the Dawes Act are described. Many of the motives for this legislation were admirable, at least in white Eastern eyes: turn the Indians into decent landowners and farmers. But it was also, of course, a giant excuse for snatching away huge tracts of the land that had been granted to them “in perpetuity” (perpetuity had a rather short life-span in American treaty-making terms). About 150 million acres, about two thirds of all the land, was taken away.

The appalling affair at Wounded Knee occurred against the background of the new West, a populated, industrial West (the town of Butte is taken as an illuminating example) and you are rather left with a sour taste in the mouth as this series of episodes ends. We are all so used to the myth of the wide-open West, land of opportunity, land of the free, where men made their own law with six-shooters on their hips and rode off into the sunset, that when we reflect in a sober way on the real history of the region and conclude that it really wasn’t like that – or anyway it was rarely like that – we are left with an abiding impression of – well, sadness.

The series rather peters out, I thought, with the The Virginian-ish story of Wyoming schoolma'am Ethel Waxham, and you kind of expect another episode to sum it all up. But all in all it’s an excellent documentary that anyone interested in the West would enjoy watching.