Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jesse James, and Wyatt Earp, and the Massacre at Wounded Knee: AMC’s #TheAmericanWest

When I was a kid playing ‘Cowboys and Indians,’ most of us wanted to be ‘Indians.’  But whatever roles were play that old wild west fascination stays with you, and for good reason. Naturally, I was attracted to the AMC 8 – part Series called “The American West,” which wrapped up last night with gusto.

America’s move to the west was bloody and unpredictable. Law and order were rare commodities beyond the frontier where the valiant Lakota Sioux fight to maintain their lands and their fierce independence. Disenfranchised southerners like Jesse James continue their rebellion against the north by robbing trains and banks.  His notoriety becomes so great that the governor of the state of Missouri puts out a tempting 5,000 reward for his death or capture. In Tombstone Arizona, Wyatt Earp has built a reputation as a staunch law and order man but some people out west see no difference between him and the outlaws he challenges.

The season finale, last of eight episodes, did a nice job of putting things together.  We begin with the reminder that, with a bounty on his head, Jesse James has become paranoid and withdrawn. As he re-emerges from the shadows to plan new robberies, the only people he trusts are the Ford brothers, Charlie and Rob.  Big mistake to trust either of them, but his brother Frank has given up the outlaw life and returned to farming. He has to have someone to help him rob banks. Unfortunately, Rob Ford hears the jingle of cash in his head and goes to the governor of the state to get clearance for what he plans.  If he’s to kill Jesse James, he wants to be sure he gets the reward money and immunity from prosecution. The governor is only too willing – and the Ford brothers, working together according to this presentation, concoct a ruse to disarm Jesse and then Rob Ford murders him by shooting him in the back of the head.

The great thing about the latter part of the 19th century is that great strides were made in photography. With the martyred outlaw (he was a hero to the southern rebels after the Civil War) laid to rest in his coffin, we can see in still photos all over the internet how Jesse James looked, just as 2,000 morbid onlookers passed by as he was displayed on the main street of a town in Missouri. Google it.

Ike Clanton is still bristling over his encounter with Wyatt Earp whom he feels cheated him out of the three thousand dollar reward money he was supposed to get for giving up the names of some outlaws Wyatt was chasing. Said outlaws ran out of luck before Wyatt could get to them. They were shot down by some other outlaws, and there was no reward money to be paid. By his interpretation of events, Wyatt Earp still owed him money and when he’s humiliated publicly in a saloon, Clanton threatens to kill all three of the Earp brothers. In the Tombstone of that day, it was well to take such threats seriously, and the Earp brothers, joined by the notorious gambler Doc Holliday, were headed for the showdown known as the ‘Gunfight at OK Corral.’  While it’s called that, the gun fight didn’t happen at the corral; it occurred several blocks away on Fremont Street. On the face of it, Fremont Street doesn’t have the same ring to it as does the OK Corral.

The gunfight was likely over in less time than it would take to describe it.  In thirty seconds and thirty shots, three of Clanton’s gang lay dead, both of Wyatt’s brothers and Doc Holliday were wounded, while Wyatt walked away unscathed. It was something Ike Clanton wasn’t willing to forget. The road to revenge was long and arduous with Clanton getting the edge at one point by killing Morgan Earp.  Here’s where the life of Wyatt Earp poses some really difficult philosophical and moral questions.

What is to be done in lands without laws?  Who is the outlaw and who is the righteous man? The law was so arbitrary in Tombstone that Wyatt took it upon himself to avenge his brother’s death, tracking down and killing several of Clanton’s gang.  The Earps had already spent two weeks in jail for the OK Corral gunfight before a judge released them for lack of evidence.  Both sides, the Clantons and the Earps declared that the other side fired first.

Consider that the real Wyatt Earp, who can be seen also in internet still life photographs, had learned hard lessons during his years as a lawman and an outlaw. He thought it best to get out of Dodge (actually Tombstone) and headed to California where he got a job as a consultant to the burgeoning film industry. In one of the great ironies of the American west, Wyatt Earp takes under his wing a young actor named Marion Morrison. Morrison would later change his name to John Wayne and become an icon of western movies, making good use of the tales Wyatt Earp told him of the ‘bad old days.’

But what about Sitting Bull?  The American West closed out the tale of the rise and fall of the great Lakota Sioux Chief in its tragic ending in captivity. When Sitting Bull returns from the east where he’s been traveling with Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, he’s disillusioned in what he has seen. The teeming industrialized cities are a far cry from the freedom and independence of the plains.

While he’s been away from home, the Ghost Dance movement has inflamed the passions of the proud Lakota Sioux. The religion of the Indians, the dances and the songs, are meant to revive the spirit and the old ways of the Indian nation, but they have worried the U.S. government with fears of a major uprising. Sitting Bull being the best known leader of the Sioux is a particular worry and a detachment of troops is sent to arrest him.  The chief’s followers resist and Sitting Bull, aged 59, is shot to death by a soldier in the melee that follows.

Government policy has been to differentiate ‘hostile’ Indians from others according to whether they live on the reservations provided them or not. In other words, if you’re caught by the Army off the reservation, you’re a hostile.  But hundreds of Indians were not willing to give up their freedom and traditional ways of life to adopt the life styles of the eastern intruders into their traditional homeland.

A few hundred gather their belongings and march off from the reservation to make camp at Wounded Knee, South Dakota.  When the president orders the 7th Cavalry to round up hostiles, there is a bitter confrontation at the Sioux settlement.  Versions of the massacre may vary, but the result was more than 200 mostly unarmed Sioux men, women, and children killed by the Army, with 65 Cavalry casualties.

There were many famous names who provided interest and insight into the series – people like Kiefer Southerland, Sen. John McCain, and of course Robert Redford who produced the series. There were also a phalanx of distinguished wild west historians who commented on various aspects of the westward movement.

Perhaps the most stirring commentary was provided by  Lakota Sioux writer/filmmaker Larry Pourier. We find out toward the end that Pourier is one of the direct descendants of Sitting Bull. He is deliberate and calm in demeanor but unbroken in spirit as he tells the tale of his ancestors. “The death of Sitting Bull marks the death of our culture,” he says at one point, in his deliberate and measured way of speaking. This final bookending of the series is especially hard hitting when it shows real life still pictures of the December 1890 Massacre at Wounded Knee.  In this case, a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, and perhaps that is why Pourier’s  commentary is more about wisdom than words.

The pictures themselves can be found on the internet and are horrific in their impact: One still picture of the scene shows two men standing in a mass grave dug for the pile of Indians who lie in a heap outside the pit. A line of grizzled cavalry veterans stand by with guns and beaten expressions.Another still is of  Chief Big Foot, half sitting up in the snow, frozen into his rigor mortis shape, his arms and fingers positioned as if he is holding a rifle or a bow.

Speaks for itself.

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