Documentary explores the fight that followed big T-Rex find
This has been one of the more barren years for Hollywood film. Not much worth seeing has been released in theaters the past few weeks, beyond the re-released anniversary editions of both “Ghostbusters” and “Forrest Gump.” This lack of major release, quality films makes it difficult for the discerning critic.
I try to avoid films that I know will be a negative experience—like most everyone, I pay for my tickets and have no desire to waste money on something I’m going to hate. There are weeks where I have no choice, but increasingly Video On Demand has become something of a haven for good film. More and more, VOD is including early or same-day-as-theaters releases with smaller movies that likely wouldn’t make it to places like the East Ridge 18 or the Majestic.
“Dinosaur 13” is one such film. One might think that a documentary about the property rights surrounding the world’s most famous fossil wouldn’t make for an enthralling movie experience. And yet, “Dinosaur 13” is an engaging and emotional film, hindered only by being completely one-sided.
In 1990, the world’s largest and most intact Tyrannosaurus Rex specimen was found in South Dakota. The Black Hills Mineral company had been searching the Cheyenne Indian Reservation for fossils all summer when Sue Hendrickson left the group to check some cliffs while the others changed a tire on their Jeep. The bones were embedded in the cliffs, nearly unmistakable, and the company immediately began excavation.
The remains were found on land that belonged to Maurice Williams. He agreed to sell them to Black Hills for $5,000 on the condition that they be displayed in the dinosaur museum in Hill City, SD. Nicknamed “Sue,” after Hendrickson, the T. Rex was an incredible find. It significantly increased the scientific understanding of these creatures and was later sold at auction for $7.6 million dollars. However, the road from discovery to auction was a rocky one.
“Sue” stayed at the Black Hills Mineral Company for two years, while the group cleaned and preserved the specimen. It was without a doubt their greatest find and required the utmost care and attention. However, in 1992, the federal government sent the National Guard to Hill City to seize all remains and records related to the dinosaur. Evidently, “Sue” was actually found on public land. Property rights are tricky things, especially in regard to Native American reservations.
Technically, all Native American reservations are federal land. Even land “owned” by Native Americans requires federal permission before anything found on those lands can be sold. Because neither Black Hills nor Williams requested permission to remove the fossil, it was the property of the U.S. government. Additionally, in the intervening years between discovery and seizure, Williams realized what he had and began to claim that Black Hills hookwinked him into the sale.
What follows is a long, convoluted legal battle determining property rights as well as the U.S. Attorney’s office filing felony charges against individuals within the Black Hills Mineral company and the corporation itself. The prosecution tried to establish that Black Hills made a habit of removing property without permission from federal and Indian lands for profit. Of course, the film makes the case that none of this is true, or at least that any laws broken were done so unintentionally—and it makes its case well. The outcome ultimately cost one archeologist his freedom for two years due to a failure to properly fill out a form. “Sue” was returned to Williams, who sold the dinosaur at Soethby’s for untaxed millions.
As I mentioned, the film is entirely one-sided. It tells the story of the Black Hills Mineral Company and the scientists who worked there. Maurice Williams is seen only in home video footage, surveying the excavation. Listening to the interviews gives the impression that there is no reason to doubt Pete Larson and their crew; their concern seems to be entirely focused on the preservation and study of “Sue” and not the inherent monetary value of the specimen. They argue that prior to “Sue’s” discovery, no one had ever paid more than $5,000 for a fossil. But still, it might have been useful to hear the arguments of both Williams and U.S. Attorney Kevin Schieffer, if only to dismiss them later.
Property rights and inherent value are difficult things to justify in the face of discovery. I spent most of the film wondering what difference it makes who owns the dinosaur—the information that can be learned from it should trump any red tape or lines on a map. Technically, all land is federal land, especially when eminent domain becomes an issue, and it seems that the ownership of such a discovery should go to the person who found it and pulled it out of the ground. But then—what if someone only sees dollar signs where they should see scientific advancement?“Dinosaur 13” might have asked these questions better, but the film is worth seeing nonetheless.