Horizon: An American Saga – True Story of Kevin Costner’s Western

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KEVIN COSTNER TAPS into some of his long-held fascinations for Horizon: An American Saga, a planned four-part (!) movie epic and the Hollywood legend’s latest giant gamble, with a reported $100 million budget (just for the first two entries!) that was partly funded by Costner himself. But unlike his ’90s fiasco Waterworld, this premise hews more closely to history. More in keeping with his Best Picture Oscar-winning Dances with Wolves, it covers the various communities and tensions within the Western United States during the Civil War.

Horizon’s first chapter (out now in theaters), co-written, directed, and produced by, as well as starring Costner—and clocking in at a sprawling three hours—kicks off in 1859, just before the Civil War (1861 to 1865) began in earnest. Other actors include Sam Worthington, Sienna Miller, Michael Rooker, Michael Angarano, Jena Malone, and Jeff Fahey.

Costner fans, including this writer, are naturally questioning why he left a successful and lucrative job on TV Western Yellowstone for his own challenged yee-haw adventure. But his ambitions seem sincere. While he and cowriter Jon Baird have concocted a fictional narrative, it’s deeply informed by the knotty reality of the West during the time. Popular movies have done a pretty bad job at reflecting the West as it was during the 19th century (hint: it wasn’t all tumbleweeds, saloons, and gunslingers). Costner is trying to better grapple with the complicated facts of this era.

Horizon follows different characters headed to the settlement town of the film’s title. They’re driven by the promise of a flier offering free land to those who make it there. Costner’s dedication to accuracy isn’t all bluster: he consulted with several experts on Native American culture, and Native American cast members learned the White Mountain Apache dialect to play Apache characters. For one, Tatanka Means—you may remember his performance in Killers of the Flower Moon—depicts an Apache living in what is now Arizona.

But what about the true, largely underrepresented story of the West during the Civil War do you need to know before or after (or never?) watching Horizon? We’ve got all the relevant details you should learn when riding into Costner’s Western.

What was really happening in the West during the Civil War?

horizon an american saga

Warner Bros.

Many may not realize how critical a role the Civil War and the competing visions of the Union and Confederacy played in shaping the American West as settlers encroached on land that had long been home to Native American tribes. Conflict broke out not just among Native Americans and white U.S. citizens trekking that way, but also Asian immigrants and descendants of Spanish settlers who forged new lives in these parts.

The massive upheaval of the Civil War shook up the West. In fact, the frontier territory was always top of mind among the major players in the war.

“All of the fights over slavery between northern and southern politicians are about expansion of slavery into territories,” Civil War historian Megan Kate Nelson told Time magazine in an explainer on Horizon’s historical basis. “The Confederacy was very interested in taking control of the West because they wanted gold mines. They wanted Pacific ports. And the Confederacy wanted a coast-to-coast-nation so that they would be more legitimate and more recognized.”

What exactly took people out West, as seen in Horizon?

horizon luke wilson

Warner Bros.

Okay, so, it wasn’t all about gold. But in the Time piece, Nelson notes that settlers migrating west were indeed primarily seeking its riches. In addition to the California Gold Rush of the 1840s, another gold rush occurred in Colorado during the late 1850s, and yet another struck Montana in 1863.

Opportunity for land, too, fueled people voyaging for a better life in the West, as seen in Horizon. Per the National Archives, “The notion that the United States government should give free land titles to settlers to encourage westward expansion became popular in the 1850s.” This led to the Homestead Act, signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862.

“The Homestead Act encouraged western migration by providing settlers with 160 acres of land in exchange for a nominal filing fee,” the Archives state. But not all were able to take advantage. “Among its provisions was a five-year requirement of continuous residence before receiving the title to the land and the settlers had to be, or in the process of becoming, U.S. citizens. Through 1986, when the last claim was made in Alaska, the Homestead Act distributed 270 million acres of land in the United States making it arguably one of the most far-reaching pieces of legislation in American history.”

How did the Civil War spur violence out West?

kevin costner horizon

Warner Bros.

There’s no shortage of violence in Horizon, which is pretty faithful to the bloody Civil War years even in the West. Union and Confederacy aside, the different factions at odds in trying to develop the territories were primed for battle.

Chinese laborers originally landed in California for the touted Gold Rush, according to Nelson. Many then moved to mining towns in Montana and Utah. The film largely presents the Chinese here as destitute workers targeted for their lack of English and understanding of their adopted country. That was true to an extent, but Nelson points out that Chinese immigrants were also able to build their own businesses, such as restaurants and laundries.

The Civil War spilled out into full-on combat in New Mexico, which was enveloped in a civil war in the 1860s over the opposing sides. The Union recruited Native American, white, and Hispanic men in their cause. And the Confederacy captured what we now know as Arizona. That is, until the Union handily defeated the Confederacy and determined the future of the pioneering West.

Yet Native Americans were always on shaky ground even with Union members who sought to bring them into the fold. To indigenous folks, these newcomers were ultimately intruders. Which, well, they obviously were. Costner doesn’t shy away from this context. He sought to show how Native Americans fiercely defended their lives and property, including by attacking white settlers. Though Costner admits in the Horizon press notes, with a nudge of self-awareness: “I don’t pretend to be the best person to do that exactly.”

That’s undoubtedly true. Now audiences will make their own judgment about how Horizon tackles such a sweeping, blood-stained chapter in the mythology of the West.

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