Few time periods in American history have as much lore, (mis)perception and culture around them as the so-called "old west." The term triggers unique images, thoughts and memories about this historic time for most folks, and whether or not you know more facts than myths surrounding these years, you probably have some visual depictions that come to mind. Horses, guns, bandits, sheriffs, saloons and more pop up vividly, but are these triggers inspired by fact or fiction?
Mill Creek Entertainment's new five-part documentary release, "Outlaws & Gunslingers," tackles this issue and many more from a critical thirty-five year period in American history. A follow up to the already released "The Great Indian Wars: 1540-1890," this series profiles a specific era by emphasizing the principle events and people who lived and breathed it. To ensure accuracy and offer some perspective, Mill Creek enlists assistance from seventeen top western historians during the documentary's five separate parts.
What's funny about the old west is that, historically speaking, it isn't really that old. Sure, things have changed just a bit since those days. We don't rely on horses as our primary transportation anymore, and speakeasies with blacksmith shops and burlesque houses on either side have pretty much dried up. But some elements are still around, including reliance on rail transportation, local law enforcement hunting down fugitives and individual citizens taking matters into their own hands on occasion. Whether or not things today are that drastically different is another conversation for another time, but it's safe to say the foundation planted centuries ago still has some influence in our modern, tech savvy culture.
I appreciated how this set came out early on and stated that the old west as depicted in Hollywood and the old west as depicted by historical fact are two different things, but often have some overlap. There are only a few time periods or genres from history that have developed into successful film genres (war, for example), but I'd argue that westerns are the best known. As "Outlaws & Gunslingers" suggests, western films and the factual old west depict cowboys, and cowboys are without question an American phenomenon still richly popular today. They represent the rugged, daring side we all have but rarely put forward, yet it's a side so influential to our nation's past, present and future it's likely to hold its ground forever.
Many traditional big names from this time period have a place in "Outlaws & Gunslingers," as they do in Hollywood's countless depictions from this era. There are bunches you'll recognize, and a handful you may not. The series aims to inform and educate, but not entertain. The experts who offer their two cents throughout aren't exciting at all, and the narrator's copy sounds and feels forced throughout. Thankfully all episodes are under an hour's length. The content is interesting, but it isn't presented in a manner that draws you in as well as it should. Having real interviews or factual accounts would be spectacular and simultaneously enhance the documentary's entertainment value, but that's a stretch.
As a whole, "Outlaws & Gunslingers" feels like something that could support a history teacher's lesson plan during a unit on this time period. It probably shouldn't be relied on for the main event, as it's somewhat broad and general, and focuses on primarily the "good guys" versus the "bad guys" while not giving the changing American backdrop the emphasis it deserves. I was somewhat frustrated that it indirectly neglects the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era, which was occurring simultaneously as the old west itself was unfolding.
Have a look at the five episodes and their content:
Program 1: "Origins of the Gunslinger" – Texas Rangers Captain John Coffee "Jack" Hayes, Texas Ranger Captain Samuel Hamilton Walker, Samuel Colt. As Clarence Boddicker (Kurtwood Smith) states midway through "Robocop," "Oohh, guns, guns guns!" We get an up close and personal look at how weapons evolved over time, and had a significant impact first on combat between Natives and westward settlers, and second between bandits and law enforcement.
Program 2: "Jesse James and the Southern Guerillas" – William Quantrill, Bloody Bill Anderson, Detective Allen Pinkerton, Cole Younger, Frank and Jesse James, the Civil War, the Lawrence Kansas Raid. Early outlaws with primitive goals and methods are the focus in episode two, and help set the stage for increased attention from federal, state and local lawmakers. It might not have been about the money or prestige for these pioneering bandits, but rather the thrill they got from their actions.
Program 3: "Billy the Kid and the Lone Outlaws" – Ben Thompson, Clay Allison. My favorite episode in this set also profiles my favorite outlaw from this era. Billy the Kid was an aggressively violent hothead who is also remembered by some as a hero during these turbulent decades. While you can debate the actual number of persons he killed, you can't argue his lasting popularity.
Program 4: "Wild Bill Hickok and the Lawmen" – Boomtowns, Origin of the Lawman in the West, Wild Bill Hickok, Bat Masterson. Along with W.H. Harris, Charlie Bassett, Neal Brown, Frank McLain, Wyatt Earp, W.F Petillon and Luke Short, Masterson served on the (in)famous Dodge City Peace Commission, and was determined to get results and restore law and order. Wild Bill Hickok, on the other hand, lives on in the poker world for his well known Dead Man's Hand, where the player holds two aces and two eights, all black (the fifth card Hickok was holding when murdered by Jack McCall remains a mystery to this day).
Program 5: "Wyatt Earp and the Gunfight at the OK Corral" – The Gunfight, Tombstone, the Old West Today. The most well-known gunfight from these years, the Gunfight at the OK Corral didn't actually happen there. It did, however, symbolize the entire era in a nutshell as a violent conflict between order and disarray, law and criminal, and decency and recklessness. Plus, it all went down in a mere thirty seconds.
Clearly there is more to this time period the set did not hit on, but its contents are solid and well-known. This is a good, general glimpse into a critical era that remains popular because it is shrouded in fact, mystery and legend. The set isn't terribly engaging, but it is informative and concise.
"Outlaws & Gunslingers" looks decent in its 1.33:1 full screen video transfer. We get an extreme emphasis on bright colors more so than anything else, and it works so well you might think night never actually fell during these years. Being a documentary, there's reenactments, old footage, still photographs and some new computer generated interactive maps. It all comes through with good clarity.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 audio soundtrack is adequate. I didn't think it emphasized the sounds you'd anticipate from the old west well enough, including gunshots, horses galloping and saloon glasses clinging together. The documentary's narration is easily audible, but some interviews from the experts presented sound clearer and louder than others.
None on the record, a bummer considering these years have many unique stories, relics and trinkets to them.
A Final Word:
It's tough to bring in every element from so many years in American history, and this set isn't overly successful. It does highlight some big names you're likely to recognize, and my guess is something new will probably make your ears perk for a moment or two. Unfortunately, the five episodes aren't presented in the most exciting regard, making it informative but not extremely interesting to watch.