This was quite dissappointing given that Robert Redford produced it. I expected a much more discerning and in depth history, not just another collection of Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Wyatt Earp, Custer, Sitting Bull, and Crazy Horse lore.
I gave it two stars because it is factually correct, entertaining, and it does teach some history – but it is grossly over simplified and romanticized and not a very accurate portrayal of either Grants Presidency or the settling of the west. First of all, the documentary’s unifying theme that Grant sought to settle the West to salve the wounds of the Civil War seems incorrect. This is not advanced by Ron Chernow’s very thorough and detailed biography of Grant. The United States had been looking West since the days of Washington and Jefferson. The term “Manifest Destiny” (the settlement of the entire continent) became part of the national vocabulary in the late 1840s. In fact, the migration west was not inspired by the Civil War, it was interrupted by it. The issue of slavery in the new Western territories was a flash point for the war. The role of Jesse James in national politics seems grossly exaggerated and romanticized. He also is not even mentioned in Chernow’s biography of Grant – much less being at the center of chaos after the war and the inflammation raging through the occupied South that Grant was dealing with. He did seem to justify his murderous robberies as being a continuation of the war, although how much he really felt that was probably exaggerated by the newspaper man Edwards who glorified his exploits. Jesse was in reality hardly fighting a war against the North any more than Clyde Barrow was fighting an oppressive banking system during the Depression. Both rationalized their robberies and murders, but in fact they were killing and stealing from people who came from similar backgrounds to theirs, and who suffered the same grim economic struggles as they had. In the end, Jesse made no pretense that he was anything other than a train robber. The wars against the Lakota Sioux were in fact a major chapter in the settlement of the West – but to portray the Sioux as the only barrier was again a romantic oversimplification. No mention was even made of the treaties with Cochise and the Apaches, of the Modoc War, of the Nez Perce, the Comanches, the Cheyenne, etc. The genocide of the Sioux and other plains Indians by Sherman was an accurate portrayal of government policy near the end of Grant’s Presidency. The collapse of the Sioux and the ultimate surrender and murder of Crazy Horse is accurate, but to portray him as “one man doing all he can to stop Western migration” is an exaggeration. He was trying to stop it in his homeland and he became perhaps the greatest symbol of native Americans trying to protect their land and their culture – but the struggle was ongoing in other places. The return of Sitting Bull and his murder would come later, and was also consistent with facts I have read in several references. I think the documentary is correct in that the death of sitting Bull and the massacre of the Sioux at Wounded Knee did indeed represent the end of attempts by Native Americans to try to preserve some of their culture. Even Geronimo had surrendered in 1886 – the last resistance to living on a reservation by native Americans was gone.
I did watch the rest of the series, but mostly for entertainment value. I did not fact check anything after the Grant Presidency. I assume it was factual, but like the first 4 episodes, over simplified and romanticized. The facts and folklore are very difficult to separate when it comes to Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, etc. I was disappointed they made no mention of Endicott Peabody’s short time in Tombstone. Nor did they mention John Slaughter. In fact, a major disappointment of the documentary was that it simply repeated the well worn stories in our folklore, excuse me, history, and offered nothing of the struggles, sacrifices, lives, hopes, dreams, successes and failures of ordinary Americans who risked everything they had to trudge across this continent.
The speeches at the end were hardly more than propaganda, and disappointingly romanticized, even lionized murderers, genocide, and cruelty. There was a lot of cruelty in the West that was not even mentioned. The de facto slavery of Chinese to work on the railroads and in the mines, for example, was not even mentioned. The incredible racism, exploitation, corruption, and cruelty of wealthy landowners, timber barons, railroad owners, mine owners, was almost completely ignored. I would like to see a documentary where we learn about the people who really suffered the hardships of settling the West – the farmers, miners, ranch hands, railroad workers, etc - who were mostly immigrants. I would like to see those who lived honest, decent, and very hard lives be so respected in our history. They, and not a gaggle of gunslingers, outlaws and Indian fighters were the real story behind the settling of the West. That is what I expected from Robert Redford. This does not deliver it.