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  • by Gavin Weightman
  • 08-05-2011
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I was enticed by excellent reviews to see the Canadian "art house" film Meek's Cutoff recently. It was one of the most tedious pieces of cinema I have ever endured without a beginning, an ending or a plot and featuring only two just about recognisable characters. The director, Kelly Reichardt , was quoted as saying she wanted to portray a different, feminine view of the great trek westwards in mid-nineteenth century America. Sure enough she has a heroine who challenges the macho trapper and guide Stephen Meek's crude and bloodthirsty attitudes towards Native Americans and attempts to bring some civility to the desperate lost wagon train that is the cast of the film.

In itself, the film made no sense at all. We just saw the three ox-drawn wagons rumbling over a barren landscape not at all sure where it was headed as their guide seemed to have lost his way. What they are short of is water. We have no idea where their food comes from or what it is. A lone Indian appears on the horizon, sometimes standing, sometimes on horse back. Trapper Meek sets off with a wagontrainer to get him and brings back the hapless Native bound like some kind of human steer. Meek wants to kill him: the heroine points her musket at Meek to stop him. They all wander on with the Native who from time to time emits a chant the meaning of which is known only to himself and Kelly Reichardt the film's director.

At the end we do not know what happens to the wagon train. I was reminded of the old satirical re-working of the introduction to radio crime series: " These stories are true: only the facts have been changed to protect the innocent. " I knew nothing about the real Stephen Meek so I looked him up to see if I could make sense of the film. Sure enough there is a modicum of truth in it, but much more in the way of blatant and inexcusable distortion. The experiences of the huge wagon trains that crossed Oregan in 1845 are pretty well documented. Stephen Meek was a well known and respected trapper who was paid $5 dollars a wagon.

In the film Meek is a loner. In reality he was married to one of the women on the wagon train. At one time there were 198 wagons, 2299 head of cattle, and 811 head of oxen and more than 1,000 pioneers being led by Meek. They ran in to trouble when he offered to take some of the party on "short cut" and they could not find water. About twenty pioneers, adults and children, died. Meek was blamed. However, the majority survived and they did so partly, if not entirely, with the assistance of native Americans with whom Meek was able to converse in a simple way. In time the Meek Cutoff became a recognised detour on the Oregon trail.

In short, as a depiction of the experiences of pioneers on the Oregan trail in 1845 the film Meek's Cutoff is a travesty. Nothing in it is true to character nor does any of it seem to be derived from the many first hand accounts left by these rugged pioneers.

A contrast is the film The King's Speech. There are innumerable historical inaccuracies and a few anachronisms, but the relationship between the therapist and the timid and reluctant King, whose stammer makes public speaking terrifying, is essentially true and believable. There are some very odd aspects to the film. Why, for example, would a man with rooms in Harley Street live in the East End of London? Of course, he didn't. It was daft invention but it did not seem to matter.

There is an excellent website which monitors the depiction of real historical events on film put together by the historian Alex von Tunzelmann for the Guardian newspaper Reel History.