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Friday, January 20, 2017
I love silent movies. They represent over thirty years of great, and not-so-great, filmmaking which is at times either utterly astounding or deeply moving, and often both.
The form itself is fascinating, reliant almost entirely on the visual, inviting the audience to become fully involved and immersed, interpreting the action and meaning rather than simply being passive spectators.
And it's all right there for the film fan to rediscover--at least, the relatively small percentage of it that survives, the rest sadly having been lost over the years.
I love westerns too, so when I saw that producer Thomas H. Ince and star William S. Hart's 1919 sagebrush saga WAGON TRACKS was being released on Blu-ray and DVD by Olive Films, my interest was, to put it mildly, piqued.
I'd never seen any of Hart's films, but I knew that he was born in 1864 during the Civil War and grew up in honest-to-goodness western times, a friend of Wyatt Earp and "Bat" Masterson, and a believer in making his western films as authentic and true to life as possible.
Indeed, in 1919 what we know as the Old West still existed to a large extent, and to make a film about it then was to have access to an amazing degree of first-hand authenticity and realism which drew not from history books but from the memories and experiences of those involved.
In WAGON TRACKS as in his other films, Hart eschews the glamorized, stylized, and somewhat prettified image of the west that would eventually become the norm. His character, desert scout "Buckskin" Hamilton, is rough and unsophisticated, but with a strong sense of decency and a simple code of behavior that is honest and straightforward.
We pick up the story as he travels East through the desert to meet his younger brother Billy (Leo Pierson), a recent medical school graduate, at the Missouri River. But Billy is killed by crooked gambler Washburn (Robert McKim) and his toady Merton (Lloyd Bacon) before their riverboat docks, and Washburn blames the shooting on his own sister Jane (Jane Novak), claiming that Billy had tried to molest her.
In her confusion, Jane goes along with the story, but the heartbroken Buckskin refuses to believe it. As fate would have it, he becomes leader of the wagon train that will carry the Washburns west. During the trip, which is fraught with hardship (Indian attacks, water shortages, etc.), Buckskin discovers the truth behind Billy's death and sets out to get not revenge, but justice.
The story meanders a bit at times and there isn't the frenetic action and suspense we would come to expect from the typical matinee western. Hart, with his long, homely face and soulful eyes, prefers to explore the feelings of the characters--the frontiersman's grief and yearning for closure in his brother's death, Jane's nagging guilt and despair, the daily uncertainties of the homesteaders, and the desperation of the two villains when forced to face up to their crime.
Hart and director Lambert Hillyer (DRACULA'S DAUGHTER) indulge in melodrama only when Buckskin is faced with the grief of his brother's death, and even here Hart's stage training enables him to express sincere emotion. Elsewhere, the exaggerated acting styles of the cast are a valid means of expression in silent film acting although for modern audiences it may take a bit of getting used to.
As for the locations, costumes, and other production elements, they're as authentic as it gets. What we see isn't a simulation of the Old West, but the real thing. The wagon train scenes aren't as grand as those in Raoul Walsh's 1930 epic THE BIG TRAIL, but they're immensely satisfying nonetheless. Cinematography (tinted to denote bright sunlight or night) is fine.
The DVD from Olive Films is in 1.33:1 aspect ratio with stereo sound. The original score is written and performed on piano by Andrew Earle Simpson and retains the flavor of the silent era. Intertitles are nicely illustrated. While containing the usual occasional flaws for a film of this age, the picture quality for the most part is outstanding. No extras.
An encounter with Indians that goes from friendly to hostile due to an unfortunate culture clash sets up the film's resolution, which some might consider anti-climactic since it doesn't involve gunplay or ruthless revenge. William S. Hart's character is a man of deep feeling and integrity, which WAGON TRACKS portrays with understatement and maturity. This is a film for lovers of silent cinema and early westerns to savor.
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