How the West Was Won: Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938 (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Karen Backstein
Treasures 5: The West, 1898–1938
A three-DVD box set, with a 132-page book, including forty films with a total running time of 596 min. A National Film Preservation Foundation release.
It’s almost a given that the Western is the first, and in some ways only, truly American-created film genre. In its classical Hollywood model, it’s defined visually by expansive space and distinctive landscapes, and thematically by its juxtaposition of rugged individualism and encroaching community/civilization. With the concept of nation-building at its core, Westerns of the golden age have also always been concerned with “the others” who owned the land that white settlers wished to possess. So, however much Westerns ultimately ended up influencing moviemaking around the world, from Kurosawa to Leone, they truly emerged from our history, our topography, even our moral ethos.
Fascination with the West’s wild and virgin territory, however, existed long before the best-known works of John Ford, Howard Hawks, and Anthony Mann. One can even trace its beginnings to the earliest Edison films, several of which documented various tribal dances and homelands, as well as Porter’s seminal The Great Train Robbery (1903). Perhaps that’s why, even before Hollywood became the country’s center of film production, directors made eastern-Westerns in the wilds of New Jersey. But during the teens, as studios followed the directive to “Go West, young man,” the camera began capturing more legitimately Western sites and culture—or at the very least, engaging narratively with a West that lived in the imagination. Despite the genre’s literary origins, it was cinema that could best depict the visceral power and scope of the region’s vast deserts, towering mountains, and dense forests. For us today, even the fiction films from the silent and early sound era have a documentary appeal as the images—sometimes quite luscious from that gorgeous nitrate stock—allow us to glimpse a now long-gone world. It’s precisely that confusion of fiction and documentary that makes the three-disc Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938—the fifth set of archival treasures to be released by the National Film Preservation Foundation—so compelling. Treasures they certainly are: the box contains a wealth of fascinating material, all beautifully presented by top scholars in the field, including Tom Gunning, Richard Abel, and others. Featuring ten hours of film gathered from major archives (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, MoMA, the National Archives, the UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the New Zealand Film Archive), the collection gives both cinephiles and Western fans a chance to view the best prints available, all restored and with newly recorded and well-chosen music. Each film can be watched with or without expert commentary, and includes an “About the Film” text to read before viewing. The box also includes a black-and-white illustrated booklet.
The careful selection of works ranges from two-minute actualities to full-length features to promotional films and even amateur footage. One of the great pleasures offered by the set’s diversity is noticing how the same concerns arise again and again, but seen through a variety of prisms. It’s a bit like a fugue where motifs rise and fall and shift over time, yet remain thematically recognizable to form a coherent whole. (The written and spoken commentary help foster this by regularly referring to other films in the package.) For example, Program One opens with The Tourists (1912), a Mack Sennett comedy starring Mabel Normand. The vivacious Mabel, stepping off the train in New Mexico during a break in her trip to California, ignores her friends’ warnings to stay close to the station. Stubbornly, she wanders away from the tourist-friendly market by the tracks to visit an actual Indian village. But the too-familiar Mabel treats the chief as a curiosity and annoys the “squaws” who angrily pursue her, weapons in hand. Mabel and her party barely escape when the next train pulls in and then carries them away. In many respects, it’s a typical Sennett comedy, with plenty of slapstick and a humorous chase to top it off, as well as an adorable but clueless heroine who causes trouble for everyone. At the same time, the shooting goes to great pains to emphasize the real station, with native women selling their handmade baskets. At least one of these non-professional actors can’t hide her amusement at being filmed, and pulls a blanket over her head. There’s even a relatively extended close-up of one of the most famous Indian weavers of the period, called out in an intertitle. Compare that to The Indian-Detour (1926), a promotional film about an actual journey across New Mexico offered to tourists heading from Chicago to the coast at the time. Travelers could enjoy a few days’ break from the long train journey by taking the “Harvey Car” to a number of pueblos and other New Mexican sights. Maps present the itinerary, as well as the hotels, sites, and options available. The women we see in that film maintain a respectful distance from the Indians they encounter and obey the unspoken rules of white/native interaction. Though the filmmaking and genre of these two films have nothing in common, both attest to the fascination with Indian culture that was so fashionable during the Teens and Twenties, and the way Native Americans’ villages and artistry had become consumables in every sense of the word. As stylistically different as the two movies may be, they complement each other and testify to the “museumization” of an entire society.
As always with the Western—based as it is on expansionism and internal empire—one of the fascinations of this collection is encountering potentially alternative representations of race, ethnicity, and gender. Of course, the films feature their fair share of stereotypically fearful and tearful femininity (particularly when the subject concerns worthless, abusive husbands); warpath-bound Indians; and threatening Mexicans. But surprisingly, they do not predominate here, and characters that break the rules don’t always get punished. WhileThe Sergeant (1910) portrays Native Americans as a danger, other works allude to their plight, particularly the Thomas H. Ince-produced Last of the Line (1914), about the tragic effect of white-run schools that forcibly severed Native American children from their culture. Native American actor Joe Goodboy portrays the chief with dignity and beauty, while Sessue Hayakawa gives a poignant and sympathetic performance as his weak and drunken son.
In addition to these fictional representations, the collection offers a series of very short newsreels of Native Americans, made from 1921–1938. Despite their alleged reality, these minute-long documentaries are in many ways equally staged and performative as the fiction films. As the accompanying text points out, Native Americans generally turned up in newsreels “only when decked out in warrior regalia.” In nostalgia lies comfort, and these films served to soothe white audiences suddenly concerned with the “vanishing Indian,” and eager to see them as colorful characters. We see “redskins paying tribute” to their chief, “burying the hatchet” on Custer’s battlefield, “invading” the nation’s capital (and dancing around a group of awkward politicians), and wondering in amazement at the “white man’s” technological savvy.
The women in this collection frequently reveal reserves of physical and moral strength: they’re capable of capturing bandits (Mexican Filibusters, 1911); unfazed by the potential dangers of the “uncivilized” West (Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress, 1912); and willing to overlook their own happiness to do what they believe is morally right. There’s even a female lawyer (Legal Advice, from 1916). In some films, such as D.W. Griffith’s 1910 Over Silent Paths: A Story of the Desert, the landscape itself plays a crucial role in defining the character and her situation. In many respects, this story of a miner’s daughter who unknowingly falls in love with her father’s murderer could easily be transported to the city where the Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) roamed. But without the threatening desert topography that seems to speak of death and violence, the effect would not be at all the same; it’s a radically different visual and moral space that also shapes our view of the woman (played by Marion Leonard).
The fascinating early feature Salomy Jane (1914, from a novel by Bret Harte), showcases the appealing Beatriz Michelena, one of cinema’s first Latina stars. It presents a richly characterized and complex heroine, with abundant smarts and physical energy. Salomy refuses the many (inappropriate) offers of marriage that come her way and reveals reserves of cleverness in achieving her goals. She ventures into male-only spaces when it serves her needs and has an irrepressible streak of independence. She stands as a contrast to the film’s other women, an unattractive spinster comically desperate to land a man and the long-suffering wife whose husband steals her hard-earned money…and the bread out of their children’s mouths. The plight of the married woman, so often isolated and at the mercy of gambling, drinking husbands, is another common theme; in fact, many of these movies almost seem to suggest the so-called “safety” of marriage-and-a-man does not exist. The wide spaces of the West only exacerbate the desperation felt by these poignant female characters, who often live in isolation far from help or services. In both The Better Man (1912) and The Lady of the Dugout (1918), which stars real-life reformed outlaws as themselves, the women are rescued by presumably threatening and violent law breakers while their husbands go off in search of pleasure. The Better Man even pointedly raises the issue of ethnicity as horse thief Miguel—the eponymous “better man”—proves superior to the white husband. Although fears about him are mobilized when he enters the woman’s home, they are erased just as quickly when he responds emotionally to a painting of a Madonna and child hanging on her wall. Meant to signify Miguel’s presumed Christianity as well as the woman’s situation (she needs Miguel to fetch a doctor for her dying daughter), this religious reference and its appeal to pure motherhood likely resonated with viewers at the time. That Miguel shares the audience’s values, while the husband does not, would further help them identify with him.
We can see changing attitudes to Mexican-Americans in two contributions made only three years apart: Mexican Filibusters: An Incident in the Recent Uprising (1911) and Ammunition Smuggling on the Mexican Border (1914). The former work sympathizes with the smugglers bringing arms across the Mexican border to overturn the dictator Porfirio Diaz; among its many interests are the positive depiction of the lead woman, who is instrumental in helping the plot succeed, and the grudging admiration of the United States lawmen who ultimately do not arrest the smugglers and even shake their hands. As Desirée A. Martin eloquently states in her commentary, it was made in a time characterized by a “porousness of the borderlands rather than the rigidity of the borderline.”
The later film is a different and fascinating story. Based on the real incident that inspired Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Ammunition Smuggling on the Mexican Borderdemonizes the Mexican smugglers. At the same time, the film’s martyr, deputy sheriff Candelario Ortiz, is also Mexican, and he inspired wildly divergent reactions at the time. Those who sympathized with the white lawmen would see him as a hero; many Mexicans, as well as prominent leftists in that era, saw him as a sellout who betrayed his own people. Produced by one of the participants, Texas sheriff Eugene Buck, the quality of the filmmaking and acting are significantly poorer than most of the others making it even less convincing than it might have been. Buck, along with Ortiz, was held hostage by a group of arms-smuggling revolutionaries. Buck survived, but Ortiz was killed in the fray. The exact details surrounding his death were contested by the perpetrators, and as it happened, Buck performed very poorly when testifying in court. Released only a month after the event, with the trial still in process, this three-reel reenactment—in which many people, including the sheriff, portray themselves—clearly strives to reestablish Buck’s truth and rewrite the record. (Scott Simmon’s commentary provides particularly valuable context here.)
If we can see the creation of some of the myths that would dominate later Westerns, this collection also includes films that try to establish different mythologies: the promotional films and the travelogues that reveal the workings of contemporary business and industry. Sunshine Gatherers (1921), while ostensibly following the never-named Del Monte company’s workers, has a more insidious underlying religious ideology. It begins with a reenactment of priests arriving in the New World and blessing the land—as if God were blessing del Monte. Everything thereafter, from the fruits and vegetables to the factories is portrayed as “right” in a larger, heavenly sense that perhaps pickers and canners at the time might have disputed. What struck me most were two later, Depression-era documentaries that speak to our world today: one, The Promised Land Barred to ‘Hoboes’ (1936), shows Los Angeles police refusing to allow drifters passage into California because they’d prefer to “encourage better citizens” to come to the city. This effort prefigures some of the more modern attempts to get rid of homeless people by forcibly relocating them. The other, We Can Take It (1935) chronicles FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, which gave work, lodging, and training to thousands of men whose jobs involved preserving America’s national forests. I couldn’t help thinking of this as a slap in the face of today’s politicians. Watching this smart, government program help the unemployed and their families made me feel wistful. Who has the will to do something like this now?
Mythology and reality: this whole collection lets us see both in action, but there’s one film that deals with the issue explicitly. Womanhandled (1925), brilliantly directed by Gregory La Cava, is a witty charmer even in its incomplete version. (Sections have been lost.) Richard Dix stars as Bill Dana, an Eastern boy who falls in love with the beautiful Molly Martin (a wonderful Esther Ralston). He’d like to marry her, but Molly believes that true men exist only in the West and eastern males are “womanhandled.” Having been removed from her Western home as a small girl, Molly views the region through the nostalgic lens of childhood, as a paradise lost. In order to placate her, Dana visits his uncle’s ranch for a little toughening up. Only he discovers, basically, that “everything’s up to date in Kansas City” and the cowboys can’t even ride horses anymore. Dix’s attempts to recreate the old ways meet with amusement—until Molly, with the help of her understanding aunt, has a change of heart and mind.
For anyone at all interested in the Western as a genre, or in American history, this collection will prove enlightening…and delightful.
Karen Backstein has a Ph.D. from New York University's Department of Cinema Studies and has taught at several New York Area colleges.
To purchase Treasures 5: The West 1898-1938, click here.
Copyright © 2011 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XXXVII, No. 1