February 5, 2014

When "based on true story" films go terribly wrong

Soapy gets his throat cut
Screen shot taken by Jeff Smith
Scene from Klondike miniseries

courtesy of Scott Free Productions
(Click image to enlarge)

  can remember the day I saw information regarding Klondike, a Discovery Channel miniseries on the Klondike gold rush. I wondered and asked every where I could think of, to find out if Soapy Smith would be portrayed. The minute I heard Soapy would be seen, Eric James' old warning came to the foreground of my memory, "be careful what you wish for." Eric James, a Jesse James outlaw descendant, knows well of the disappointments Hollywood can being a family member or hardcore historian. Now that the miniseries has aired, there are viewers who accept what they saw on the screen as very close to the truth, and then there are the viewers who want to know more, to seek out the rest of the story along with the truth. Enough of the latter have seen my website and ordered my book as both have shown increases so I can see positives for what the producers created. I can easily disprove that Soapy died in a gunfight, rather than from the knife of an Tlinglit Indian, but some of the untruths told in the miniseries cut deeply, not so much in myself as those who actually live in Dawson, the Klondike, and even Alaska.  

After the airing on Discovery Channel, January 20-22, 2014 I began to receive comments regarding the historical mistakes. One female historian wrote to me about what she noted. Her email follows but her name is being witheld per her request.

The whole story takes place a year before actual events, such as the actual killer snowslide on the Chilkoot, which occurred in April, not June as portrayed. Of course Soapy never "operated" in Dawson and almost certainly never even went there (600 miles overland from Skagway). Of course the Tlingit never waged an attack on the Mountie Jail in Dawson. And there never ever was an old man and a child held there for murder. There were, though, 4 Tagish young men held there for the bushwhacking murder of a Klondiker. The only First Nation people ever hanged in Dawson were two of the Nantuck brothers, for killing for that 1898 killing (see p. 161 GOLD FEVER for a photo of them in chains). They were sentenced to hang, but two died of TB before the hangman's noose could be cinched around their necks. These were Tagish, not Tlingit. (BTW, their bodies were unearthed in Dawson by accident in 2010 while digging to prepare for a new Dawson sewage plant; the bodies were reburied in Tagish in 2011). What a strange mess in KLONDIKE, which could have had some dignity had the the writers applied "historical reason" (as you put it) instead of hog wild abandon. Fiction can be truer than true (in that it has the power to convey human truth), but this production gives fiction a bad name. Even worse was the representation of Soapy as a whiny nincompoop. The man had the manners of a gentleman, not the demeanor of rodent. The person portraying Soapy should have been Tim Roth; he has the gravitas and range to catch Soapy's elusive, mercurial nature. ... Anyway, I agree with you that KLONDIKE is a "piece of crap." The sets were pretty good, looking like a street in Dawson, and the diggings looked good, too. But they can't compensate for the bad history. That was fatal.
I also had some very interesting views from historian Brenda wilbee.
1) The Tlingit are American Natives who lived in Dyea and Haines area of SW Alaska. They never, as a group, went to Dawson City. That would be the Throndike Whech'in who lived in Dawson. They were not a violent people, but retreated under the onslaught of whites to Moosehide, just south of town, down river. They never went after the Mounties; the Mounties never went after them. They are now a vital part of the Dawson Dity community; their reserve is just north of town, where they are able to enjoy home ownership, thanks to the Yukon government and unlike so many of other First Nations people.
2) The Mounties were sent up in 1895, a full year before the gold rush, under Insp. Constantine, and stationed in Forty Mile, down river a few miles and Yukon government seat at the time. They did not arrive after the fact. Sam Steele was sent up at the onset of the gold run in 1897, where after firmly establishing law at the passes into the Yukon, taking away guns and requiring everyone to have a full year's supply of goods and gear, he took over Constantine's new posting at Dawson City.

3) The Mounties were not violent. They upheld the law with little more than sheer guts, heroism, and Canadian authority. You'll not find a single journal of anyone disparaging the Mounties. They certainly did not hold a gun to an old man's head, let alone a child's, behaving like terrorist thugs.

4) William Ogilvy, Minister of the Interior, went up in 1886, as a surveyor a full decade before the gold rush, in anticipation of lawless Americans surging over the border. His job was to define the American/Canadian boundary. At the onset of the gold rush, he was asked to survey Dawson City, and as the rush came on, he was asked by the miners to resurvey their claims to avoid errors, claim jumping, and violence. He did this willingly and without pay, and you'll not find a single miner denigrating Ogilvy. He was, and still is, regarded (along with Sam Steele) a real hero--a man of integrity and utmost honesty. He (nor Steele) ever made a dime off the millions of dollars of gold floating around. Ogilvy certainly did not dictate orders to the Mounties, and he certainly did not luxuriate in hot baths while threatening Sam Steele.

5) The Canadian Mounties were formulated under the model of the Irish Constabulary; meaning they made their own laws as they sat fit, carried them out, and executed the punishments. The most common form of punishment was for drunkenness, and that was assignment to the woodshed. More serious issues involved a pink slip--a one-way invitation to leave town. This pretty much kept people on the up and up.

6) There was, however, political corruption under first Yukon Commissioner. This was remedied under William Ogilvy when he was elected to the position at the height of the gold rush in 1898. He eliminated nepotism, graft, and British aristocracy. None of which was mentioned in the film.

January 17, 2014

I haven't begun to read it yet, but leafing through it I can tell you this: It's probably the most thoroughly documented biography or non-fiction book I've ever seen. I saw enough to know that it's filled with drama and adventure not commonly found in biographies ...
— James David Ellen, speaking of Alias Soapy Smith


1783: Sweden recognizes the independence of the U.S.
1846: The Oregon Spectator (Oregon City, Oregon) is the first newspaper published on the Pacific coast.
1848: Female outlaw Myra Belle “the Bandit Queen” Shirley, alias Belle Starr, is born in Arkansas. She married outlaw James Reed and joined the outlaw Tom Starr Gang.
1861: Samuel Goodale patents the moving picture “peep show” machine.
1881: Phoenix, Arizona is incorporated.
1897: Sylvester Scovel (Friend of Soapy Smith), a U.S. war correspondent for the New York World is arrested and jailed in Sancti SpĂ­ritus, Cuba. He is held on four counts, including communicating with the Cuban insurgents and traveling with forged papers. The World declares Scovel to be “in imminent danger of butchery.”

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