A new docudrama series from TV network that brought us Hell on Wheels is as expansive as the West itself.
“From the ashes of the Civil War,” the narrator solemnly intones during the intro to The American West, “a new breed of American emerges. Determined to grab a piece of the nation’s untamed frontier.”
Famous players such as Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid, Ulysses S. Grant, George Armstrong Custer, and Jesse James loom large in this true-life drama. But so do Native Americans like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull — warriors with a deeply personal stake in pushing back against Manifest Destiny. All of these icons, along with many others, race toward their dates with destiny during the eight episodes that comprise the highly touted limited-run series, which debuts June 11 on the AMC cable network.
The American West — which has been shrewdly programmed as the perfect companion piece for the final season of AMC’s Hell on Wheels — comes to us from executive producers Robert Redford (yes, Mr. Sundance Kid himself), Laura Michalchyshyn (a veteran of CNN’s Death Row Stories), and Stephen David, who previously produced such notable documentary/drama hybrids as The World Wars, The Men Who Built America and The Making of the Mob: New York.
As Elliot Goldberg, AMC’s senior vice-president of unscripted programming, explains: “These are really dramatic documentaries. What they do is they tell a factual story, with a dramatic element and high-end production values.” While relatively little-known actors portray famous (or infamous) personages in sequences of historical re-enactment, a narrator provides running commentary that is frequently supplemented by the testimonies of academics and historians.
“And we try to mix the experts with some famous actors and celebrities,” Goldberg adds, “to give a little bit of a pop culture flavor to it.”
In the case of The American West, the talking-heads lineup features several actors who have worked in TV and movie westerns (including Tom Selleck, Mark Harmon, Kiefer Sutherland, Burt Reynolds, and, of course, the aforementioned Mr. Redford) along with well-known politicians (Sen. John McCain speaks admiringly of Ulysses S. Grant, former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson comments on the Indian Wars), and contemporary scholars.
Chief among the actors appearing in multiple episodes throughout the series: Jonathan C. Stewart (who portrayed gangster Bugsy Siegel in The Making of the Mob: New York) as Wyatt Earp, David H. Stevens as Billy the Kid, Will Strongheart as Oglala Lakota war chief Crazy Horse, David H. Stevens as Billy the Kid, and Moses Brings Plenty as Sitting Bull. Longtime Hell on Wheels viewers may be amused to see railroad tycoon Thomas “Doc” Durant, a real-life figure who’s been played for five seasons by Colm Meaney on that show, portrayed here by Eric Rolland (whose previous credits include playing J.P. Morgan in The Men Who Built America).
And even if you think know all there is to know about the people and events depicted in The American West — well, producer Stephen David thinks you might still be surprised by certain aspects of his series.
“What we found in our research,” says David, “is that there's a cause and effect among all these names you know, and all these events you know, that led to what America is now. Essentially, over a 25 year period from the end of the Civil War, you see how each event had an effect on another event. And what’s surprising is that, sure, you know these names, you know these events — but in the full context, you get a picture of, ‘Oh! That is what that happened.’”
For instance? David points to the fallout from the “peace policy” toward Native Americans instituted by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1868. “Basically,” he says, “there's a point where the U.S. government had a treaty with the Indians. Then, in 1873, there was a giant railroad scandal. The railroad scandal threw the whole country into a depression.” And just as Grant and others struggled to find a road to recovery, “It was discovered, or at least widely thought, that there was gold in the Black Hills area that belonged to the Indians. Custer was sent in by Grant to find out if this was true — and, basically, the treaty was broken so that the government could go get that gold to bring us out of the depression.”
“What’s fascinating to me is that all of this came out of a railroad scandal. It's that cause-and-effect thing. And, of course, it’s always related to money.”
David, working in concert with his writers and researchers, was determined to offer a fair and balanced portrait of the Indian Wars.
“The fact is that at that point in time, no one needed more land. There was too much land. It just so happens that the Indians’ holy land sat on gold, and Washington needed the gold to get out of the depression. It’s a sad story. But the Indians were badass. They were great fighters. We wanted to portray both sides of it, so that while you’re watching this, you’re rooting for both sides.
“We had some Native American experts on set with us, and they told us that this was the first time that they were seeing this story actually being told — the full story — in what they considered a correct fashion.”
In a similar manner, The American West gives outlaws like Jesse James and Billy the Kid their fair due, telling the story behind the story of their lives and crimes while examining, if not excusing, their notorious activities.
“Who was an outlaw and who was the law in the West often was a matter of who had the most money, and who was winning,” David says. “I found that the reason why so many of these people we think of as outlaws today were so revered back then is that, a lot of times, they pushed into being outlaws.
“It’s almost like the super heroes in comic books, later in the 20th century, were modeled off of people like Billy the Kid.”
The American West airs at 10 p.m. ET/9 p.m. CT starting Saturday, June 11, on AMC.