What is it that makes a Western a Western? Is it purely matter of a location – that is, a movie that takes place somewhere in the Western United States? Or in a particular era, in that nebulous time of the “wild west,” when Europeans spread westward over indigenous lands, claiming the “unspoiled territory” as their own? The time of pre-state lawlessness and exciting gunfights, which are the sorts of things that make good stories on film.
Surprisingly, in the decade or two that I most associate with the Western film genre (1950s-60s, let’s say), there were no Oscar winners for Best Western. Wait, that’s a hotel chain. Granted, most of the Westerns I’ve seen fall into the realm of today’s superhero flicks – maybe an entertaining way to spend an evening, but probably not something that’s going to stick with you. This week, I’m going to look at the films that bookend the Western movie era.
Cimarron starts at a moment of literal Manifest Destiny, in the first great land grab of Oklahoma in 1890. The U.S. has apparently decided that the various Indian tribes they shunted off to a barren land aren’t making good enough use of the territory, and there’s all these white people who’ve worn out their welcome back east. So we join Yancy and his new wife, Sabra, as they start out on a new life in the boom town of Osage. Eventually, the film takes us through decades of their life (together, and not) amid the changing times of Oklahoma, from territory to statehood. It’s like Gone with the Wind, except that nobody remembers this movie.
If you’re interested in playing a fun/cringey game when watching old movies, you might try “Count the Stereotypes.” We have a loyal black servant boy (and a watermelon joke, in case that wasn’t enough for you) who I desperately hoped would strike out on his own once they reached the wilderness, but instead met a bleaker fate. And you’d be lucky to find a Native American with a voice, despite the film’s (and Yancy’s) supposed “Indian-lover” sympathies. Trump would probably appreciate the short-lived Mexican character’s representation. It’s possible the minority that comes out the best is the Jewish guy – and I was totally shipping him with Sabra later in the film, after Yancy flakes off somewhere for an unexplained five or twenty years.
I wish the movie had put a bit more effort into exploring Sabra. As wife to the adventurous Yancy, she initially likes the idea of setting off for new territory, but gets quickly overwhelmed. Finally, though, she takes over Yancy’s abandoned business in his absence, and ends up a member of Congress by the film’s end, in the late 1920s. You might wonder how all that happened, but you would again be disappointed, because the director found it more imperative to show us where Yancy ended up after twenty years (but didn’t deign to explain why the hell he was such a flake). Women are great and all, but really, wouldn’t you rather watch a dude die horribly? Well, come to think of it…
What does Cimarron refer to, you might ask? You’ll be disappointed to know that Yancy’s son, a minor character at best, is named Cimarron, perhaps in honor of his father who may or may not have used the name at some point. But otherwise, it’s a complete mystery! Maybe read the book if you want some kind of answers. I certainly don’t care enough to find out, though, so let me know what you discover!
First Time Watching? Yes
Final Verdict: Smiling as a basket of chips