Robert Redford’s The West – History Channel


This is a rather strange programme. It’s supposed to be about the history of the American West, but most of it is about the producers’ fanboy obsession with Jesse James.  Not that Jesse James isn’t interesting, but he was hardly the only person or even the most important person in the history of the West.  Incidentally, every time he’s mentioned (which is an awful lot), I get earwormed by that Cher song.  And it’s actually narrated by a British guy called Bert Morris, not by Robert Redford at all, although I suppose that including Robert Redford’s name in the title made it sound more glamorous.  There are a lot of interviews with actors who’ve played cowboys in films.  Mainly older people like Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds, but also Kiefer Sutherland, because of Young Guns … which set me off reminiscing about the days of the Brat Pack (and being earwormed, as an alternative to Cher, by Bon Jovi).  What happened to the Brat Pack?  You never hear of most of them these days.

The series started with the premise that President Grant wanted to encourage people to move west because he thought it would stop Jesse James from restarting the Civil War! Excuse me?  Yes, there were bands of ex-Confederate insurgents, for lack of a better word, hanging around, but I hardly think they were likely to restart the war.  The South was on its knees.  And the war’d been over for nearly four years by the time Grant became president, anyway.   And associating the focus on the West with the issues in the South – caused by the utter balls-up that Andrew Johnson’s administration made of Reconstruction, but that’s another story – doesn’t really follow.  However, the producers have obviously got a major thing about Jesse James!   We heard an awful lot about him, and about his gang and what they got up to.  We heard absolutely nothing about settlers moving West.

Anyway, eventually, they did get on to the West, and the peace treaty agreed between Grant’s government and the Lakota Sioux. And then the coming of the railroads.  Ah, this was more like it!  Er, no.  The focus then switched to Jesse James and his partners in crime attacking the railroads.   And, apparently, the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression of the 1870s were all due to Jesse James!  Forget the Franco-Prussian War, forget all the issues over silver currency, forget the failed harvests (I was rather narked that they didn’t even mention the locust plague, the one that everyone knows all about because of Laura Ingalls Wilder): it was all to do with Jesse James.  The railroad speculation bubble and its collapse happened because the US government had got the needle with the railroad companies, and that happened because it was investigating them after the railroad bosses complained that the US government wasn’t doing enough to protect the railroads from Jesse James.  So now we know.  Still no settlers.  Except the ones who were on the trains which were attacked by Jesse James.

BTW, I’d either forgotten or never known that Jesse’s mum and Jesse’s wife (his wife was also his first cousin, and named after her auntie) were both called Zerelda. So that’s where Enid Blyton got the name from!  Well, I’ve never come across it anywhere else.

Then we moved on to the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, and the betrayal of the treaty of the Lakota Sioux by Grant’s government. This bit was good.   Crazy Horse was presented as being uber-cool, and General Custer as being an annoying idiot.  I don’t like General Custer.  Probably because John Jakes presents him as an annoying idiot in Heaven and Hell.  However, before you knew it, we were back to Jesse James.  And we still hadn’t seen anyone actually settling in the West.

Next week, we’re getting Little Big Horn.  And Buffalo Bill Cody.  I bet they won’t mention that his ancestors came from Preston, so I’ll just mention it here 🙂 . And, you guessed it, more about Jesse James.

It’s all very dramatic and exciting. Lots of reconstructions with everyone shooting each other.  Lots of shots of people galloping across the plains.  And they are making the point that the Native Americans got a horrendously raw deal out of it all.  But what is the obsession with Jesse James?!  If you want to make a series about Jesse James, call it something like … er, “Jesse James”.  And where, oh where, are the pioneers?  Where, oh where, are the cowboys?  The Gunfight at the OK Corral was 1881, so we haven’t got there yet and presumably that will come up in later episodes, if the producers can tear themselves away from Jesse James long enough, but it really would be quite nice to see some pioneers.

Oh well. It’s good entertainment.  And I really must see if Young Guns is coming up on any of the Sky Movies channels any time soon …

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