The grisly true story behind Martin Scorsese’s Killers of the Flower Moon

Scorsese’s new film is based on David Grann’s 2017 book about the Osage Indian murders

Tom Murray
Saturday 21 October 2023 22:05 BST
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Killers of the Flower Moon trailer

Martin Scorsese’s long-awaited new picture, Killers of the Flower Moon, is finally out in cinemas.

The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio as World War One veteran Ernest Burkhart alongside Native American actor Lily Gladstone, whose performance has been singled out by critics, as his wife, Mollie Kyle. Robert De Niro plays Burkhart’s uncle, William K Hale.

The Western true-crime thriller is an adaption of David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book of the same name, which documented the murders that plagued the Osage Indian tribe in Oklahoma in the 1920s after oil was found on their land. The case was deemed the FBI’s first homicide investigation.

In a recent interview with Time magazine, Scorsese admitted to overhauling the script for the film after realising he was “making a movie about all the white guys”.

DiCaprio was originally set to play FBI agent Tom White, who investigated the murders; however, the role was recast (given to Jesse Plemons) after the pair realised that Burkhart and Kyle’s relationship should be the core of the movie.

“The movie’s faithful to the history,” Grann told The Independent in a new interview. “Scorsese did a masterful job. I could not be happier with the way this all worked out.”

(From left) Lily Gladstone, Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

The Osage Indian murders

In 1897, oil was discovered on the Osage Indian Reservation in Oklahoma. At the time, each tribal member had been granted 657 acres of land, what would come to be called a “headright”, and profited enormously from royalties in oil production, becoming some of the richest people in America.

As Grann wrote, “In 1923 alone, the tribe took in more than thirty million dollars, the equivalent today of more than four hundred million dollars. The Osage were considered the wealthiest people per capita in the world. ‘Lo and behold!’ the New York Weekly Outlook exclaimed. ‘The Indian, instead of starving to death… enjoys a steady income that turns bankers green with envy.’”

In 1906, a bill was passed that directed the inheritance of headrights to the deceased’s legal heir, even if they were not Osage.

As a result, many white opportunists such as Burkhart arrived in what is modern-day Osage County seeking to ingratiate themselves in Osage families and separate them from their wealth.

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Lily Gladstone and Leonardo DiCaprio in ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’

In the early 1920s, 18 Osage were reported murdered within a short period of time, sparking what is now known by the tribe as the Reign of Terror.

By 1925, at least 60 affluent Osage had died and their land had been inherited or deeded to their guardians, who were predominantly local white lawyers and businessmen.

Hale and Burkhart were arrested in January 1926 for the murders of Rita Smith, Bill Smith and Nellie White. Ernest ended up confessing to his role in the crimes and identified Hale as the mastermind of the plot. They were both sentenced to life imprisonment, but later received parole despite protests from the Osage.

Lily Gladstone and Martin Scorsese

To prevent more deaths, Congress passed a law in 1925 prohibiting non-Osage from inheriting headrights from Osage who had half or more Native American ancestry.

The majority of homicides involving Osage individuals in the early 1920s remained unresolved.

In a five-star review in The Independent, Clarisse Loughrey wrote: “Killers of the Flower Moon, despite the weighty presence of DiCaprio and De Niro, is ultimately framed around the perspective of the Osage Nation, who worked extensively on the production as consultants, craftsmen and actors (Gladstone herself, to clarify, is not Osage but of Blackfeet and Nimiipuu heritage). [...] In this quietly apocalyptic retelling of history, white America’s destruction will not end at its own borders – eventually, it will consume itself, too.”

Killers of the Flower Moon is in cinemas now, with a release on Apple TV+ to follow.

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