The new Martin Scorsese movie masterpiece lays bare a shocking chapter in American history and thrusts Oklahoma and the Osage Nation into the Hollywood spotlight.
At a small bookstore in Oklahoma City in May 2017, bestselling author David Grann spoke about a chapter of Oklahoma history I had never heard before despite being a native of the state. His new book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI, had just been published. Little did I know at the time that it would thrust the state into the spotlight of Hollywood yet again.
Now a major motion picture from Apple Original Films, releasing in theaters in October and later on Apple TV+, Killers of the Flower Moon tackles the true story behind a string of brutal murders of the Osage tribe in Oklahoma that came to be known as the “Reign of Terror.”
The tragic sisterhood: During the Reign of Terror, Mollie Burkhart (second from right) lost all three of her sisters. Rita Smith (left) died in a suspicious explosion, Anna Brown (second from left) was shot in the head, and Minnie Smith (right) died of what doctors could only identify as a "peculiar wasting illness." (Image courtesy of the Osage Nation Museum / from the collection of Raymond Red Corn.)
I regretted that I hadn’t encountered this bit of American history in my studies, and I was shocked as Grann led us on that journey of the Osage tribe, who, after being forced from their homelands and almost exterminated, purchased patches of rough, uninhabitable land totaling nearly 1.5 million acres in Northeast Oklahoma, then part of Indian Territory.
When crude oil was discovered in 1894 on that same seemingly worthless land, everything changed. By the 1920s, the Osage had become incredibly wealthy, earning royalties from oil sales through their “head rights.” Then they began to die under mysterious and violent circumstances.
One of many vehicles owned by members of the Osage Nation. (Image courtesy of the Osage Nation Museum / from the collection of Raymond Red Corn.)
“In the 1920s, oil royalties had made the Osage the wealthiest people per capita in the world,” then senior editor Jesse Hughey wrote in C&I’s October 2017 issue when the book came out. “But a paternalistic federal approach wrested control from the owners of mineral rights and gave it to white ‘guardians,’ many of whom swindled money from their wards through various schemes such as outrageous price markups and kickbacks. Worse, some whites would marry into the tribe, as ownership of the mineral rights could only be passed on to tribe members, and then their Osage spouses would die under suspicious circumstances. In response, the newly formed FBI investigated the murders, with former Texas Ranger Tom White leading the team using a combination of straight-shooting frontier lawman tactics and newfangled forensics and undercover work.”
J. Edgar Hoover, then 29 years old, at the Bureau of Investigation in December 1924. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)
Officially, the body count would rise to more than 20, but Grann believes that many more Osage were murdered because of their ties to the oil money. An article called “Murder and Mayhem in the Osage Hills” on the official government website fbi.gov begins by referencing the “badly decomposed body of Anna Brown — an Osage Native American — ... found in a remote ravine in northern Oklahoma,” with what the undertaker would later discover was a bullet hole in the back of her head. “One by one, at least two dozen people in the area inexplicably turned up dead. Not just Osage Indians, but a well-known oilman and others.”
When initial investigations by private detectives and other investigators were foiled or proved fruitless, the Osage Tribal Council sought federal help. “Early on, all fingers pointed at William Hale, the so-called ‘King of the Osage Hills.’ A local cattleman, Hale had bribed, intimidated, lied, and stolen his way to wealth and power. He grew even greedier in the late 1800s when oil was discovered on the Osage Indian Reservation. ... Hale’s connection to Anna Brown’s family was clear. His weak-willed nephew, Ernest Burkhart, was married to Anna’s sister. If Anna, her mother, and two sisters died — in that order — all of the head rights would pass to the nephew, and Hale could take control. The prize? Half a million dollars a year or more.”
An auction held under the Million Dollar Elm for access to the Osage Nation's oil. There is currently not a mechanism for non-Osage people or organizations that hold one of the original 2,229 Osage headrights to convey the headrights back to the Osage Nation. The Osage Tribe and the federal government are currently working through this process so that such conveyances might be accomplished. (Image courtesy of the Bartlesville Area History Museum.)
But, the FBI site goes on to explain, solving the case was another matter. “The locals weren’t talking. Hale had threatened or paid off many of them; the rest had grown distrustful of outsiders. Hale also planted false leads that sent [FBI] agents scurrying across the Southwest.” Ultimately, four agents went undercover as an insurance salesman, cattle buyer, oil prospector, and herbal doctor and eventually gained the trust of the Osage and built a case. “Finally, the nephew talked. Then others confessed. The agents were able to prove that Hale ordered the murders of Anna and her family to inherit their oil rights, cousin Roan for the insurance, and others who had threatened to expose him.” In January 1929, Hale was convicted and sent to prison. “His henchmen — including a hired killer and crooked lawyer — also got time.”
The ugly and murderous rampage not only cemented the role of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as we know it today but also exposed one of the most chilling conspiracies in American history.
In real life: Mollie Burkhart (right, played in Killers of the Flower Moon by Lily Gladstone), seen here with her sisters Anna Kyle Brown (center, played by Cara Jade Myers), and Minnie Smith (left, played by Jillian Dion). Mollie's first husband was Henry Roan, who was shot to death during the Reign of Terror; she then married Ernest Burkhart (played by Leonardo DiCaprio). In was Ernest's uncle, William Hale (played by Robert De Niro), who was the prime mover behind the Osage murders. (Image courtesy of the Osage Nation Museum / from the collection of Raymond Red Corn.)
Bright Lights, Little Towns
Even though the book telling the tragic tale has been out for six years, it will take the release of the film to make most Americans, and even Oklahomans, aware of the terrible true story. The heartbreaking glimpse into a dark and deadly tale of greed will also introduce a wider audience to the important story of a state that is in the modern era becoming a hotspot for Hollywood movie production.
Growing up in the small northeastern city of Bartlesville, I had no sense of the role my home state played in this horrific chapter of American history. Nor could I have imagined my town would become the central hub for a Martin Scorsese feature film. A critically acclaimed 3-hour, 26-minute masterpiece that received a rapturous nine-minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May, the movie was filmed nearly exclusively in Northeast Oklahoma with scenes shot in Bartlesville, Pawhuska, Fairfax, Grayhorse, near Osage Hills State Park, and other locations. During pre-production, Scorsese’s Instagram account featured photos of him out in cattle pastures, scouting locations.
Along with the famous director, Killers of the Flower Moon brought well recognized actors and entertainers to the state including Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro, Lily Gladstone, Jesse Plemons, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson. Indigenous actors Tantoo Cardinal, Cara Jade Myers, Jillian Dion, and JaNae Collins lend their talents and perspectives to the production, as well.
The Oklahoma Film + Music Office (OF+MO) began strategically working to recruit Killers of the Flower Moon when it was announced that Imperative Entertainment had acquired the novel’s film rights in 2017. Hosting the production in Oklahoma would not have been possible without the collective efforts of state, tribal, and city leadership as well as Oklahoma’s film incentive program, says Jeanette Stanton, director of the Oklahoma Film + Music Office.
“The production wanted to respectfully honor the origins of this true story and filmed in many of the actual communities within the Osage Nation and outlying areas where these incidents occurred, including Pawhuska, Fairfax, Bartlesville, and Tulsa to name a few,” she says.
The production was intentional in connecting with the communities in which they filmed, particularly in their direct collaboration with the Osage Nation, whose lives remain affected by the events that transpired over a century ago. Those same communities also reaped the benefits of the film.
“Killers of the Flower Moon was the largest motion picture to be produced in Oklahoma’s history, and subsequently the economic impact of the film, particularly on rural communities within the Osage Nation, was unprecedented,” Stanton says. “The final numbers are still being accounted for at this time, but many local businesses reported making more money during the duration of the production than they have on an annual basis.”
It isn’t the first major Hollywood movie to be based out of Bartlesville, a city of 37,384 near the site of the first commercially productive oil well in Indian Territory. Once the hub of the oil giant Phillips 66 Petroleum Company, Bartlesville has also been deeply involved with such movies as August: Osage County, a 2013 film starring Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts, Ewan McGregor, Abigail Breslin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Juliette Lewis, and Dermot Mulroney and written by Tracy Letts; and To the Wonder, a 2012 film written and directed by Terrence Malick and starring Ben Affleck, Olga Kurylenko, Rachel McAdams, and Javier Bardem.
And for each production, they all turned to Bartlesville native and executive director of Visit Bartlesville, Maria Swindell Gus.
“In my role as the director of our destination marketing organization, I have served as the community liaison between any film that has been made and shot here in the area. When we had Killers of the Flower Moon — as with To the Wonder and August: Osage County —the main production office was located in Bartlesville,” Gus says.
Most of the filming for Killers took place in Osage County and the surrounding communities, but the main soundstage was located in a refitted airport hangar at Bartlesville Municipal Airport, and most of the crew, support staff, actors, and even Scorsese himself were housed in the small town.
“Both Scorsese and DiCaprio rented large homes in Bartlesville,” Gus says. “And then there were three hotels that were completely rented out for the entirety of the shoot. So it was about 500 room nights. The catering director worked with local companies, the actors and crew hung out at the local eateries and watering holes, and local businesses helped provide props, locations, and extras.”
While the soundstage and much of the production work were based out of Bartlesville, the actual filming of Killers of the Flower Moon was done in little communities like Fairfax and Pawhuska, where the downtowns are home to some of the still-standing historical sites. Other sets for the film were temporarily constructed throughout the Osage Nation. Osage Hills State Park also hosted a portion of filming. In the limited time the cast and crew had outside of working, they visited some of Oklahoma’s unique cultural attractions, including the First Americans Museum, Woolaroc, The Outsiders House Museum, The Philbrook Museum of Art, and more.
Most of the top talent for the film kept to themselves, but DiCaprio was a particular fan of Woolaroc, once the 1925 ranch retreat of oilman Frank Phillips, the only white man officially adopted by the Osage Tribe. It’s now a 3,700-acre wildlife preserve and houses a world-class museum of Western and Native American art.
“Bob Fraser, the former director of Woolaroc, said DiCaprio came so often that when he came back and brought his parents, he was able to tell them all about the paintings. He was really into Woolaroc,” Gus says.
Author Grann, who spent five years doing research for his Killers of the Flower Moon book, is glad about the increased exposure that the film will bring. “Part of the reason I told the story was that, outside of the Osage, it was kind of lost and neglected, forgotten by so many Americans,” he told C&I shortly after the book’s publication. “It would be so wonderful, if it does become a movie, that it would become part of our national conscience, which is where I think it belongs.”
This article appears in our November/December 2023.
Images courtesy of Apple TV.