The Great Indian Wars 1540-1890 Review

I never got to play Cowboys and Indians when I was young. I was a couple of generations too late for that, but even if the genre had still been in vogue during my schooldays I have a sad suspicion it wouldn’t have made much difference in my playground, where the game of choice was the regrettably unambitious Neighbours. Nowadays I’ll hear stories about how kids my age used to take on the Evil Empire as Han Solo or - heaven! - the Daleks as the Doctor and Peri or Ace, but that never permeated to my own schoolyard. There was something profoundly unsatisfying about pretending to be Paul Robinson and Des Clarke (plus I never got on with the show since they killed Daphne off) and if it hadn’t been for my best mate, who somehow also knew about Thunderbirds, my early playtimes would have been barren indeed. But I still regret the fact the Western never really entered my youthful consciousness - looking back, it seems an especially good game for youngsters, with clear goodies and baddies and room for imaginative Red Indian names and loud noises and shoot-outs and (for the more adventurous) even cooking the odd paleface over smouldering camp fires.

For nearly a century, that was the mythos that built up around this most iconic of sagas, one kids learnt at the youngest age and never challenged throughout their adult lives. The story of the Western settlements, and the resultant eradication of native American culture over the course of two centuries, is one of the cornerstone tales of American history and culture, as part of the background fabric of its society as the story of the Revolution and Emancipation. Driving the immigrants was the idea (or excuse) of Manifest Destiny: God, it was declared, had ordained that the country was there especially for the religious newcomers, and that the heathen native people would just to have put up and shut up with the will of the Almighty. That was how it was justified anyway, even though by the time the expression was first used, in the mid 1840s, the battlelines had already been well drawn. The story of how the Americans gradually brought the idea to fruition, their slow but sure emigration across the whole expanse of the continent, is one of the most absorbing in all of world history. It’s full of rich characters, pivotal battles and terrible ironies, with at its heart a great tragedy as a simple civilisation were overwhelmed by a force they could never really understand and, ultimately, didn’t have a chance to stop.

This is the story of General Sherman, Red Cloud, Custer’s Last Stand, the Salt Creek Massacre, the Long Walk of the Navajo and more. Over the course of fifty years there were noble men on both sides of the fence, who tried to compromise, do their best for the opposing side, honourable figures who struggled to find solutions to problems that were virtually intractable. Time and again those natives who tried to play by the rules were betrayed, while equally some on the side of the US Cavalry found themselves ringing their hands in despair when the natives proved themselves their own worst enemies. It’s a history which we are hugely fortunate to have detailed records about and, even more impressively, a huge archive of early photos, showing the faces of protagonists both American and Indian, the places they lived in and, sometimes, even the aftermaths of major confrontations. For historians relating the story, it should be narratively bomb-proof: it’s incredible to believe that any documentary could fail to make the saga anything other than gripping, terrifying, heroic and sad.

And yet, this five-part series from 1991 somehow manages. Although it covers most of the key moments, it does so in such a leaden and monotone way as to render them almost meaningless. We hear about Wounded Knee, for example, but don’t get anything like the feel for what it was actually like to be there, or appreciate just how tragic an incident it was. Many of the leading characters are introduced, but, despite the odd reading from reports written by them and so on, there’s no sense of what these men were actually like. George Custer, for example, was a pretty terrible fellow all things considered, but that doesn’t come across at all, so that his eventual fate on the Little Bighorn is not put into context. Drained of all such colour, the series ends up coming across as passionless as an army report into one of the battles would no doubt have been. Indians came, there was a fight, people died. The end. Even the narrator, sounding like a bored James Earl Jones, can’t muster up any signs of interest in what he’s talking about.

It doesn’t help that the episodes evidently don’t have a lot of money spent on them. Making enormous use of often irrelevant stock footage of modern day native Americans, not nearly enough is made of the photographic material available from the time. There are plenty of maps thrown in showing tribe movements which is something, but overall the visual presentation matches the narration for sheer insipidity. One could complain about other things: despite its title, it really only covers in depth the Wars following the American Civil War, which is fair enough but not quite what’s advertised on the box (the first Thanksgiving and the Battle of Tippecanoe, two of the most important pre-Civil-War events, are passed over in a matter of moments). The episodes aren’t arranged as well as they might have been, occasionally going over the same events again in different instalments, while the first wastes a huge amount of time detailing the differences between the various tribes, which, again lacking context, is a pointless exercise. Conversely, the only two advantages I can think of is that there aren’t any historical howlers which I spotted, and that it maintains a studiously impartial tone throughout, leaving the viewer to make up their own mind about the rights and wrongs of the stories. It’s just a shame anyone watching this won’t be engaged enough to want to do that.

Before sitting down to this I could not have believed that it was possible to make the Indian Wars dull, but this has proved me wrong. As an introduction to many of the most famous incidents it serves, just, but won’t make anyone want to read further. Thank goodness I didn’t see this as a child - far from inspiring me to give Cowboys and Indians a go, it might well have driven me to the corner of the playground that was forever Ramsay Street, never to return.

The DVDs
The documentary features five episodes which have variable running times between forty and fifty minutes. They are split across three discs, the first two of which have two episodes each, the last the final episode and the meagre extras, which seems somewhat wasteful: everything could easily have fit onto just the two discs. The packaging is attractive: a covering sleeve holds a fold-out pack which is generously illustrated with a “timeline” in which key dates are highlighted, with appropriate pictures. The discs themselves, too, are pleasant to look at and easily distinguishable, each having a unique photograph from the period.

Each disc has the same layout. After getting past the studio logo, we arrive at the Main Menu which is largely static, aside from a running medley of images in one corner, the rest being filled with one large photo, accompanied by some small snatches of suitably American Indian music. The options consist of watching each episode directly or selecting its chapters (which are also listed on the packaging). Overall, the set is well designed and matches its subject matter well.

The Video is not a joy to watch. When we’re concentrating on static photos or illustrations it’s fine enough, if somewhat dull and very occasionally blocky, but whenever the thing switches to the stock footage the quality drops through the floor, leaving us with a bleary, low definition, second-or-third generation image which is not well converted and is somewhat painful to watch. Even the footage shot especially for the programme (ie the historians’ talking heads pieces) is flat and harsh to look at, as though overexposed. These sections suffer somewhat in the Audio department too, with wind exposure not making what is being said very easy to understand. Other than that, the sound is fine if flat. Regrettably, however, there are no subtitles.

The Extras are a throwback to the early days of DVDs when, to pad out their extras list, companies would throw in some production notes that consisted of a couple of pages of text which no one ever read. The best of the three pieces on offer is The Indian Wars Timeline which splits the period up into manageable chunks, such as 1860-66. Clicking on a pacific period “zooms in” on that time, which is then further split up into further sections, each with a brief paragraph detailing the main events of that time. The other two, Military Men and Plains Indian Leaders, offer (very) short bios of various personalities from the era. It’s an odd collection - the Military Leaders concentrates mainly on the names of famous cowboys who feature only briefly in the programme (or at all: I don’t recall Wyatt Earp being mentioned once), while the politically correct might be annoyed there’s one more bio for the Military than the Indians (seven versus six) - and in truth utterly useless, but at least a bit of an effort has been made.

A series which doesn’t do justice to its subject matter gets a release that looks like it’s trying hard but ultimately comes up very short. If you’re interested in the subject but not especially knowledgeable it might be worth a look, but if you’re not don’t go near it - it’ll put you off for life.

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