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Killers of the Flower Moon: The shocking true story behind Leonardo DiCaprio's new film

Martin Scorsese’s latest film recounts how the murders of Osage native American people over oil by white settlers led to the modern day FBI

JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers and Jillian Dion in Killers of the Flower Moon. (Apple TV+)
JaNae Collins, Lily Gladstone, Cara Jade Myers and Jillian Dion portray Osage natives in Killers of the Flower Moon. (Apple TV+)

Martin Scorsese’s epic, Killers Of The Flower Moon, starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Robert De Niro and Lily Gladstone, is out in cinemas across the UK now.

The film, written by Forrest Gump screenwriter Eric Roth, is based on the non-fiction book, Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by American journalist David Grann about the Osage Indian murders.

It debuted at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year where it was met with rapturous critical acclaim, with many calling it a 'masterpiece'.

Originally, the script focused on FBI agent Tom White, played by DiCaprio, investigating murders among the Osage Nation in the 1920s, mirroring the book. However, during the film's development, DiCaprio and Scorsese made a significant change to the film perspective because they felt it didn't capture the heart of the story by failing to convey the Osage story.

Now, it tells the story from the perspective of the Osage people.

Watch a trailer for Killers of the Flower Moon

DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone star as husband and wife Ernest and Mollie Burkhart, an interracial couple living in 1920s Oklahoma, on the Osage Reservation.

The film explores the harrowing tale of the ruthless murders tied to white settlers in their bid to seize Osage land, the world's most desired oil fields.

“It’s a completely forgotten part of American history, an open wound that still festers.” DiCaprio recently told British Vogue.

Who are the Osage people?

Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in Killers of the Flower Moon. (Apple TV+)
Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone have both been praised for their performances in Killers of the Flower Moon. (Apple TV+)

Known for their rich culture and history, the Osage people are a Native American tribe who inhabit a region that includes parts of present-day Arkansas, Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma, from pre-1600s.

European contact with the Osage began in the 17th century as French explorers and fur traders ventured into Osage territory, by the early 1800s they were forced westward by encroachment from European settlers and other tribes, and the Osage began to settle in parts of what is now Oklahoma.

In the late 1800s, oil discovery on the Osage Indian Reservation in what is now Osage County, Oklahoma, led to the Osage Nation earning royalties from oil sales.

It’s a completely forgotten part of American history, an open wound that still festers.Leonardo DiCaprio

With the oil market's growth, they became exceedingly wealthy.

"They rode in chauffeured automobiles, built mansions, and sent their children to study in Europe," according to Grann’s meticulously researched book.

President Calvin Coolidge posed, full-length portrait, standing, facing front, with four Osage Indians, White House in the background, 1925. (Photo by National Photo/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)
Osage people meeting with President Calvin Coolidge at the White House in 1925. (National Photo/Buyenlarge/Getty Images)

This newfound wealth attracted opportunists who were willing to go to extreme lengths, including murder, to separate the Osage from their riches.

“Where will it end? Every time a new well is drilled the Indians are that much richer...The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about it”, quoted Grann in his book from a report at the time in Harper’s magazine of the Osage’s oil wealth.

The Osage Indians are becoming so rich that something will have to be done about itHarper's Magazine, November 1920 issue

Reign of Terror

In May 1921 when Anna Brown, 35, an Osage Native American, was found dead with a bullet hole in her head.

Her mother Lizzie Q suspiciously passed away just two months later. Over the next two years, several more Osage, including Henry Roan, were murdered.

Portrait of Osage Native American woman Anna Kyle Brown (1886 - 1921), Oklahoma, early twentieth century. She was one the first recorded victims in a series of more than 60 killings, between 1918 and 1931, which came to be referred to as the 'Osage Indian murders.' (Photo by Vince Dillion/Oklahoma Historical Society/Getty Images)
A portrair of Anna Kyle Brown who was one of the first recorded victims in a series of 60 killings between 1918 and 1931 that came to be known as the 'Osage Indian murders.' (Getty Images)

In March 1923, Rita and Bill Smith, Anna's sister and brother-in-law, were killed when their home was bombed.

Mollie Burkhart, Anna's last living sibling, was left devastated and fell mysteriously ill. More than two dozen people, including Osage Native Americans and others in the area, met unexplained deaths.

Those who raised suspicions or presented evidence faced death threats or met a grim fate, like attorney W.W. Vaughn, who was thrown from a train.

Newspapers of the time dubbed this era the "Reign of Terror."

The FBI Investigation

William K. Hale, the mystery man of Oklahoma, who is on trial here for the third time in connection with the death of Dewey Roan, Osage Indian and Ward of the government. The picture shows, left to right, Mrs. William Oller, daughter of Hales, the accused man, and Mrs. Hale.  hale is one of the most colorful characters in Oklahoma history and  now is waging a battle to free himself of charges that he participated in an alleged plot that brought death to several Osages who were rich in oil land rights.  
 (Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)
William K. Hale (centre) who faced trial when it was accused of participating in an alleged plot that brought death to several Osages who were rich in oil land rights. (Bettmann Archive/Getty Images)

In 1923, the Osage Tribal Council sought help from the federal government to investigate the series of mysterious deaths in their community, involving wealth from oil on their reservation.

Suspicion fell on William Hale, a man who sought control of valuable oil rights through a sinister plan.

Hale's connection to the victims was through his nephew, Ernest Burkhart, who was married to one of the victims' sisters, Mollie.

If the family members died, their head rights would pass to Ernest, allowing Hale to gain immense wealth, according to FBI files.

Solving the case was difficult due to Hale's influence and false leads.

Robert De Niro and Leonardo DiCaprio in Killers of the Flower Moon. (Apple TV+)
Robert De Niro is William K Hale, while Leonardo DiCaprio is his nephew Ernest Burkhart in Killers of the Flower Moon. (Apple TV+)

Agent Tom White and his team infiltrated the community, gaining trust and eventually getting confessions.

They uncovered Hale's involvement in ordering murders for financial gain.

In 1929, Hale and his associates, including a hired killer and corrupt lawyer, were convicted and sentenced to prison.

In his closing argument prosecutor Roy St. Lewis, said that "the richest tribe of Indians on the globe has become the illegitimate prey of white men," according to American historian Douglas Linder.

Robert De Niro and Jesse Plemons in Killers of the Flower Moon. (Apple TV+)
Robert De Niro's William K Hale faces a grilling from Jesse Plemons' Tom White, the FBI agent investigating the murders. (Apple TV+)

Robert de Niro who took on the role of Hale in the film compared his character to Trump. "It's the banality of evil," the Taxi Driver star told press at Cannes Film Festival, where the film debuted to critical acclaim.

"It's the thing that we have to watch out for. And we see it today, of course, with, we all know who I'm going to talk about, but I won't say the name. Because that guy is stupid. Imagine if you're smart. Even Hale was smart in many ways. And so, it's something that is systemic, and that's the scary part about it."

The Osage murder investigation was the FBI's first major case but the Osage people had to pay $20,000 for justice.

Osage Nation on Killers of The Flower Moon

USA. Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone  in a scene from the (C)Paramount Pictures new film : Killers of the Flower Moon (2023).  Plot: Members of the Osage tribe in the United States are murdered under mysterious circumstances in the 1920s, sparking a major F.B.I. investigation involving J. Edgar Hoover.  Ref: LMK110-J10072-270723 Supplied by LMKMEDIA. Editorial Only. Landmark Media is not the copyright owner of these Film or TV stills but provides a service only for recognised Media outlets.
USA. Leonardo DiCaprio and Lily Gladstone in a scene from Killers of the Flower Moon (2023). (Photo: PA)

According to the Osage Nation, Scorsese’s film uses language taught by Osage teachers, traditional Wahzhaze clothing and the landscape in the film is on Osage Nation Reservation.

“I don’t want to label this a western. I’m happy that it’s being labelled a tragedy,” said Gladstone of the film.

She is of Native American heritage, raised on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana.

The film’s name routes back to chapter one of Grann’s book, where he explains the title of his book comes from when flowers die in May on Osage territory, and that time is referred to as the flower-killing moon.

"We are not relics," say the Osage Nation, "A people of strength, hope and passion."

(L-R) Osage Nation Princess Gianna
Director Martin Scorsese welcomed members of the Osage Nation to a preview of Killers of the Flower Moon in New York in September 2023. (AFP via Getty Images)

Scorsese changed the perspective of the film from the head investigator Tom White, to the story of the Osage people because he "realised I was making a movie about all the white guys," Scorsese explained in Time magazine.

The Osage Nation believe in honouring the stories of the past and building the world of the future, Killers of the Flower Moon honours a forgotten dark part of America's history.

Killers of the Flower Moon is out in UK cinemas and IMAX now, with an Apple TV+ release to follow.

Read more: Killers of the Flower Moon