On February 13th, 1983, a group of U.S. Marshals attempted to arrest a man named Gordon Kahl in North Dakota. Kahl was an outspoken tax resistor. He had already served time in Leavenworth for refusing to pay his taxes. When he was released, he continued to refuse to pay and, in violation of his parole, started to attend meetings of the Posse Comitatus, an organization that refused to recognize the authority of any government above the county level. Because Kahl was so prominent in anti-government circles, the plan was to make an example out of him by arresting him as he left a Posse Comitatus meeting. Instead, Kahl, his son, and an associate opened fire on the U.S. Marshals, killing two of them. Kahl escaped and, for several months, was the subject of an FBI manhunt.
To make clear, Gordon Kahl was not a good man. Gordon Kahl was a white supremacist and an anti-Semitic conspiracy theorist who was a follower of the Christian Identity movement. While Kahl’s supporters claimed that Kahl originally fired on the marshals in self-defense, eyewitnesses testified that Kahl personally executed one marshal after he had already been wounded and was no longer a threat. Gordon Kahl was no hero but, at a time when many farmers were struggling financially and felt helpless as they watched the banks and the government seize their land, many locals did sympathize with him. The government’s attempt to publicly arrest Kahl and make an example out of him was seen as a classic example of government overreach. The government was so eager to catch Kahl and Kahl was initially so successful in eluding them that Gordon Kahl became a folk hero. When Kahl was discovered hiding out in an Arkansas farmhouse, it led to Kahl killing another deputy and the the government firing over a thousand rounds into the house before eventually setting it on fire. In their effort to capture Gordon Kahl, the government behaved just as destructively as Kahl always said they would.
The hunt for Gordon Kahl served as the basis for the third of NBC’s In The Line of Duty films, Manhunt in the Dakotas. Rod Steiger played Gordon Kahl. Michael Gross, fresh off of playing a tax resistor in Tremors, played the FBI agent who headed up the manhunt. Dick Lowry, director of the previous two installments of In The Line of Duty, returned to direct.
Manhunt in the Dakotas is a fair and even-handed look at the search for Gordon Kahl. The film doesn’t shy away from Kahl’s racism and his paranoia but, at the same time, it also shows why many people instinctively distrust anyone who says that he’s from the government. The film shows why so many supported Kahl without supporting Kahl itself. Gross’s FBI agent may start out as rigid and by-the-book but he quickly learns that’s not the best way to get people to answer his questions. Having come to understand why the people of the Dakotas don’t trust the government, he can only helplessly watch as the government does everything in its power to make Kahl’s paranoid claims seem plausible. The FBI agent is determined to bring Gordon Kahl in alive but Kahl would rather be a martyr and it seems that the rest of law enforcement is all too happy to help Kahl achieve that. Other than a few scenes were he indulges in his tendency to overact, Steiger gives a convincing performance as Kahl and he is well-matched by Michael Gross as the agent who comes to realize that there’s more to enforcing the law than giving orders and threatening to send people to prison.
Manhunt in the Dakotas would be followed by In The Line of Duty: Mob Justice, which I will review tomorrow.