Harrowing true story behind Martin Scorsese's new movie Killers of the Flower Moon

20 October 2023, 13:51

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Martin Scorsese's new film which is based on the true story of the Osage Nation
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio star in Martin Scorsese's new film which is based on the true story of the Osage Nation. Picture: Alamy

By StephenRigley

New epic Killers of the Flower Moon is based on a true, chilling story. What’s the real history behind the 1920s murder case?

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The movie, based on David Grann’s 2017 non-fiction book, recounts how a wealthy Native-American community was victim of a murderous scheme in 1920s Oklahoma known as The Reign of Terror (after the zeal for executions in France that came in the aftermath of the revolution)..

While the book focuses heavily on the FBI's investigation, Scorsese makes sure Osage voices are heard in the movie, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert de Niro and Lily Gladstone.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon
Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon. Picture: Alamy

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How did the Osage Nation become the richest on Earth?

The Osage tribe had become stunningly wealthy after finding oil that earnt them more than $30million in annual revenue at the peak of the boom.

Subsurface minerals within the Osage Nation Reservation were tribally owned and held in trust by the government.

Mineral leases earned royalties that were paid to the tribe as a whole - with each allottee receiving one equal share also known as a headright. But these headrights could only legally be attained by outsiders if they married into the tribe.

Rancher William Hale (played by Robert De Niro) put a plan in motion to be at the receiving end of this inheritance, securing into his corrupt network most of the lawyers, doctors and judges in the area.

Although many different Osage people were murdered to achieve it, Killers of the Flower Moon focus on one of the most affected families, the Brown-Kyle family.

Poisoning, home explosions and a mysterious "wasting illness" ended the lives of many people in the following years, creating a collective panic among the community.

It was during this time that Hale, encouraged his subservient nephew Ernest Burkhart (played Leonardo DiCaprio) to wed Osage member Mollie Kyle (later Mollie Burkhart).

Following his uncle's orders, Ernest started to poison her whiskey to slowly get rid of her. However, Hale's plan didn't come to fruition.

Killers of the Flower Moon is a 2023 American epic Western crime drama film directed and produced by Martin Scorsese
Killers of the Flower Moon is a 2023 American epic Western crime drama film directed and produced by Martin Scorsese. Picture: Alamy

Was Bill Hale brought to justice for the Osage murders?

After the Osage Tribal Council begged the federal government to intervene in March 1923, the FBI finally took on the case, appointing Thomas White (played by Jesse Plemons in the movie) as lead investigator.

Several agents worked undercover in Osage County to gather enough evidence to bring William Hale to justice and eventually in May 1926, one of the criminals involved in the plot confessed.

The trial period was packed with interferences, with multiple witnesses being killed and several appeals and hung juries delaying its resolution.

In 1926, Ernest Burkhart pleaded guilty, blaming the whole conspiracy on his uncle and accepting his life sentence in jail. Three years later, Hale and some of his associates were convicted of murder and also sentenced to life imprisonment.

Ernest was paroled in 1937 although was jailed again shortly after for robbery while Hale was released in 1947 to the Osage people's outrage.

Mollie Burkhart recovered from the poison and divorced Ernest. She died in 1937, with her children inheriting her wealth.

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