Archive for Sunday, August 18, 2013

Hollywood on the Kaw: the raid in movies

August 18, 2013


Other television and film depictions of Quantrill’s Raid

—”Red Mountain”: the 1951 movie tells the fictional story of “General Quantrell,” who has fled Kansas after the raid on Lawrence for the Colorado Territory, where he tries to form a gang of Native American tribes to build a “Western empire.”

—”Gunsmoke”: an episode from the long-running television series’ first season, in 1956, centers on a cowboy from Lawrence who seeks revenge on one of Quantrill’s raiders, who is now a hardware dealer in Dodge City.

—”Bandolero!”: the 1968 film stars Dean Martin as a member of Quantrill’s gang who confesses to participating in the raid on Lawrence.

—”Lawrence: Free State Fortress” and “Bloody Dawn: The Lawrence Massacre”: docudramas produced in 1998 and 2007, respectively, feature re-enactments of the raid.

—”Into the West”: the 2005 historical-fiction TV miniseries, produced by Stephen Spielberg, depicts the massacre.

—”Psych”: a 2006 episode of the USA Network series features a Civil War re-enactment in which a nurse whose family was killed in Lawrence murders Quantrill.

Hollywood loves a villain. What it often cherishes less is accuracy.

And so it goes with the film industry’s depiction of Quantrill’s Raid. In some films, the citizens of Lawrence beat back the advancing guerrillas; in others, William Quantrill is portrayed as a hero.

“Quantrill himself is just the kind of historical phenomenon storytellers dearly love,” wrote John Tibbetts, a professor of film and media studies at Kansas University, in an essay titled “Riding With the Devil: The Movie Adventures of William Clarke Quantrill.” “A man of many contradictions, he seems to have been equally at home plotting a guerrilla raid as he was teaching English poetry.”

He was also an outlaw, making him juicy fodder for early Westerns. Tibbetts quotes historian Richard Slotkin in explaining how, after his death, “Quantrill gradually was transformed in the popular consciousness from a local hero into a figure of western and frontier mythology, ‘the hero of a national myth of resistance.’”

Many of the men who rode with Quantrill have been glorified in popular culture as well, including Jesse James (who is thought to have joined the gang after the Lawrence massacre) and his brother, Frank; Cole and Jim Younger; and Kit Dalton. Jayhawkers, with their fighting for a moral issue (even in an at-times immoral fashion), just weren’t quite as sexy.

“We love outlaws. We love Bonnie and Clyde. We love bank robbers,” explained Jonathan Earle, a history professor at Kansas University.

Most of the films involving Quantrill’s Raid highlight Hollywood’s penchant for stretching the truth.

In 1940’s “Dark Command,” “Will Cantrell” is a Lawrence schoolteacher who becomes dispirited after losing the sheriff’s race, vowing revenge against the city. However, when he arrives, the citizens are armed and able to hold their own against the guerrillas for a time. Cantrell is killed in a showdown with a romantic rival, played by John Wayne.

The people of Lawrence apparently didn’t mind the historical errors: According to some reports, as many as 70,000 spectators turned out for the film’s world premiere in Lawrence, which was attended by such Hollywood heavyweights as Wayne, Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. The event even featured a reenactment of the raid in South Park; actors dressed as Quantrill and his raiders robbed and shot down the fake townsfolk before burning down replicas of the Eldridge House, a stagecoach house and log cabin.

To that point, all the Quantrill films had depicted the raid as a “relatively bloodless affair,” Tibbetts writes. Then came 1950’s “Kansas Raiders.” In the film, the guerrilla fighters ride into Lawrence, firing wildly, bodies falling to the ground. A woman crouches over her husband’s lifeless corpse and screams, “Murderers!”

Contrast that with 1958’s “Quantrill’s Raiders,” which, according to Tibbetts, “enjoys the dubious distinction of being the only Quantrill picture in which Lawrence, Kan., emerges completely unscathed from the raid. The citizenry are so well prepared and so heavily armed that they turn away the small band of raiders with little effort.”

Tibbetts argues that the filmmakers were less thumbing their noses at history than dealing with the realities of the time. For instance, the raid scene in 1954’s “Quantrill and His Raiders” recycles footage from “Dark Command”; what was in real life a gang of 400 guerrilla fighters became, in “Quantrill’s Raiders,” a tiny force of 25. “The standard western formulas and stereotypes were growing tired through repetition. Moreover, the cheap budgets enforced cost-cutting procedures,” Tibbetts writes.

The filmmakers also had to deal with the political and moral sensitivities of the time, producing their movies under the watchful eye of the Motion Picture Production Code, state censors and religious groups.

Ang Lee’s 1999 feature “Ride With the Devil” is widely thought to be the only film about the raid that gets it right — especially in how the filmmakers portrayed the look and feel of the period. “They took pain to try to get the material culture of the time right,” said local historian Katie Armitage, who advised filmmakers on the type of food served in that era. In addition, the movie was shot in the area — the old Quantrill westerns were mostly filmed on Hollywood backlots — and depicts the raid as it actually happened: defenseless citizens, caught off-guard, victims of bad luck more than anything else.

“Ride with the Devil” also is one of the only Quantrill films that deals with the actual complexities of the time. The film features an African-American ex-slave riding with the bushwhackers. In reality, three African-Americans — John Lobb, Henry Wilson, and John Noland — were with Quantrill when he raided Lawrence. Noland actually had spied on the city prior to the attack.

Daniel Woodrell, who wrote the novel on which the film was based, “Woe to Live On,” once said in an interview that, after reading the first-person account of a black man who rode with Quantrill, he discovered what many of these border skirmishes were actually about. “He wasn’t thinking about the big political issues, he was thinking about his friends,” the author said. “That began to help my comprehension about what the Border Wars were really like. It revolved ultimately around issues of family loyalties rather than ideology.”


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