Home Entertainment The inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s new masterpiece Killers of the Flower Moon

The inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s new masterpiece Killers of the Flower Moon

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At a glittering party on Saturday night, following the Cannes Film Festival’s premiere of Martin Scorsese’s epic new film Killers Of The Flower Moon, Leonardo DiCaprio was in suitably sparkling form.

Although the Hollywood star couldn’t quite bring himself to whip off his designer sunglasses, he cheerfully posed for selfies and listened graciously while the compliments flowed as copiously as the champagne.

There is already talk of a second Oscar for DiCaprio after his performance as a dim-witted, murderous sleazeball with yellow teeth. 

His name is Ernest Burkhart and, in the true yet little-known story of one of America’s most scandalous crimes, he is in thrall to his manipulative, duplicitous uncle, William Hale, played by Robert De Niro.

Together, DiCaprio and De Niro had appeared in 14 Scorsese movies before this one, yet the director’s two favourite actors had never shared a scene. In Killers Of The Flower Moon, finally they do. 

Tainted love: Leonardo DiCaprio (left) as Ernest and Lily Gladstone (right) as Mollie, the wife from whom he hides a murderous secret. Left, De Niro and DiCaprio

Tainted love: Leonardo DiCaprio (left) as Ernest and Lily Gladstone (right) as Mollie, the wife from whom he hides a murderous secret. Left, De Niro and DiCaprio

Together, DiCaprio (right) and De Niro (left) had appeared in 14 Scorsese movies before this one, yet the director's two favourite actors had never shared a scene

Together, DiCaprio (right) and De Niro (left) had appeared in 14 Scorsese movies before this one, yet the director’s two favourite actors had never shared a scene

For everyone who hoped Scorsese might one day find a vehicle for these two screen giants, this is the film they have been waiting for.

Inspired by David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction bestseller Killers Of The Flower Moon: The Osage Murders And The Birth Of The FBI, it is, despite its vast length, a superb picture.

It tells the shocking story of how, in the 1920s, a cabal of white Oklahoma businessmen plotted to steal the wealth of the Osage Native American tribe, who had become astoundingly rich following the discovery of oil on their land more than two decades earlier.

The plan was to steal their wealth by first murdering them by means as varied as shooting, poisoning and even blowing up their homes. Hale was the ringleader, with Burkhart one of his sleazy accomplices.

But the film is also the story of America’s original sin: the egregious mistreatment of its indigenous population.

This is an enormous subject and, at three and a half hours, Scorsese gives it commensurate length. There aren’t too many directors who can get away with such a mighty running time.

Perhaps Scorsese, 80, has grown too powerful for anyone to dare restrain him. It may also be that he looks enviously at how television these days tells great stories over many hours, and yearns to devote the same space to his own art.

Yet whatever his justification, and despite its bladder-challenging duration, Killers Of The Flower Moon is still a triumph.

The Osage’s land was originally between the Missouri and Arkansas rivers in the heart of America. In the early 19th century, they were forced to move to a reservation in southern Kansas. 

But when white settlers started arriving there in the 1870s (among them the family of Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the autobiographical Little House On The Prairie books), the Osage were again brutally forced out.

This time they managed to fund the purchase of a reservation in neighbouring Oklahoma — and because they bought it themselves, they retained the mineral rights.

The land was hilly, mostly wooded, difficult to cultivate and therefore affordable. But in 1897, after the discovery of an ocean of oil beneath the ground, those mineral rights overnight became jaw-droppingly lucrative.

Within little more than a decade, with each member of the tribe receiving a quarterly share of the oil revenue, the Osage were, per capita, the richest people on Earth. They had mansions and servants and sent their children to expensive East Coast schools.

The film tells the shocking story of how, in the 1920s, a cabal of white Oklahoma businessmen plotted to steal the wealth of the Osage Native American tribe, who had become astoundingly rich following the discovery of oil on their land more than two decades earlier (pictured: male dancers from the Osage tribe in Gray Horse, Oklahoma, in 1913-14)

The film tells the shocking story of how, in the 1920s, a cabal of white Oklahoma businessmen plotted to steal the wealth of the Osage Native American tribe, who had become astoundingly rich following the discovery of oil on their land more than two decades earlier (pictured: male dancers from the Osage tribe in Gray Horse, Oklahoma, in 1913-14)

In the early days of motorised transport, the Pierce-Arrow was the most luxurious car money could buy and, as a caption informs us at the start of Scorsese’s film, there were more of them in Osage territory than anywhere else in America. Mostly they were chauffeur-driven.

But where there is extreme wealth, there is usually extreme envy. Indeed, it wasn’t even concealed. One publication at the time, Harper’s Monthly, actually reported that ‘the Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it’.

And something was done. The Osage were deemed unfit to spend their money freely, so white local guardians were appointed, to whom they had to appeal every time they wanted to buy something.

According to Grann’s book, that extended from a Pierce-Arrow to a tube of toothpaste. It was, he writes, ‘a system rooted in racism, done under the pretence of enlightenment that the Osage needed protection’.

The Osage were soon the richest people on Earth 

Their so-called guardians sold goods to the Osage themselves at vastly inflated prices, or forced them to buy only from approved businesses, receiving under-the-counter payoffs in return.

But such swindling wasn’t enough for Bill Hale and his co-conspirators. Hale, the self-styled ‘king of the Osage hills’, was a cattle baron who learned to speak the Osage language and depicted himself as their friend, champion and protector.

He was deputy sheriff of the town of Fairfax and a well-known benefactor in Osage County, donating to schools and hospitals. Yet privately he craved the ‘head-rights’ to Osage oil — and the only way to get those rights, he decided, was to have the Native Americans killed.

When one Osage man, Henry Roan, was shot in the back of the head in February 1923, an apparently distraught Hale led the mourning and acted as pallbearer at his funeral. Yet it was Hale himself who had ordered the murder.

To maintain Osage ownership of the land, the head-rights could not be directly sold to white people. But they could be inherited.

Hale’s plan was to secure the inheritance rights from the Osage before killing them, and another way of doing that — certainly as the film tells it — was by encouraging his nephew, Ernest, to woo and marry the wealthy Osage woman Mollie Kyle, played superbly by Lily Gladstone (who is actually of Blackfoot heritage).

Many white men married Osage women purely to get their hands on their money, later killing them. The film suggests, however, that in his way Ernest genuinely loved Mollie, and she him.

Yet he was pathetically weak and biddable, and feigned sympathy as she mourned the sisters whose deaths, as he well knew, had been organised by his uncle.

In May 1921, Mollie’s sister Anna was found in a ravine, shot through the head. Another sister, Minnie, having always enjoyed excellent health, died aged 27 of a ‘peculiar wasting illness’ that was almost certainly the result of poison.

Mollie’s mother perished in the same agonising way. Another sister, Reta, was murdered along with her husband when a huge explosion destroyed their house. 

The film doesn’t spare us the gruesome horror of that episode; we see body parts littering the wreckage.

Between 1918 and 1931 at least two dozen members of the Osage tribe, and probably many more, died violently or suspiciously in what became known as the ‘Reign of Terror’.

While the authorities weren’t exactly quick to investigate, those who did, or who tried to whip up interest in the case, also came to untimely ends. Hale’s long tentacles extended precisely as far as they needed to.

In August 1922, a white oilman, Barney McBride, was found dead during a trip to Washington DC. He had agreed to go there to urge a full federal investigation of the Osage deaths. 

Instead, in an attack described by The Washington Post at the time as ‘the most brutal in crime annals in the District’, he had a sack thrown over his head before being stripped, beaten and stabbed more than 20 times.

In June 1923, a man called Henry Grammer — with incriminating evidence against Hale — died when the brakes on his car mysteriously failed. In the same month, a lawyer with ‘critical new information’ on the case was killed and his corpse thrown off a speeding train.

Finally, in 1925, J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Bureau of Investigation (forerunner of the FBI), appointed agent Tom White (played by Jesse Plemons in the film) to take over the investigation. This time, not even ‘the king of the Osage hills’ could do much about it.

White, a former Texas Ranger, quickly assembled an undercover team, including a Native American, and found all the evidence he needed to bring Hale, Burkhart and the ‘hitmen’ they had hired (local drunks, invariably) to some kind of justice.

The Osage suffered a final indignity. For one thing, they had to pay for justice; Hoover’s organisation, exploiting their wealth just as the Oklahoma ‘guardians’ had, presented them with a bill for more than $20,000 (almost $350,000 in today’s money).

My people have suffered greatly and they still do 

For another, Hoover was in a rush to close the case, so many of the killings stayed unsolved.

What the Osage do have now, though — albeit a hundred years later — is Martin Scorsese’s formidable film.

Significantly, it did not end up as the movie he set out to make. It was intended to focus less on the Osage and more on the early years of the FBI, with DiCaprio originally cast to play the ‘good guy’ Tom White. But then DiCaprio said he would rather play Burkhart, and Scorsese agreed.

The script was rewritten accordingly, with extensive input from the Osage people.

The result of those changes is that, as more and more Native American tribes seek reparations for historic civil and human rights abuses, the Osage and their tribulations are front and centre of the narrative.

‘My people have suffered greatly and to this day those effects are with us,’ said their nation’s chief, Standing Bear, after Saturday’s Cannes premiere. 

‘But I can say on behalf of the Osage, Marty Scorsese and his team have restored trust, and we know that trust will not be betrayed.’ 

  • Killers Of The Flower Moon will open in UK cinemas in October. 

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