This is the film which inspired me to start blogging this project. Cimarron is technically impressive, packed with visual subtleties, and it helped to define an incredibly popular genre of talkies, the Western. Yet the film is fraught with problems, notably the touchy racial depictions and the jerky story-telling. It’s a tough film for a young man to work out.
Cimarron is an epic, a kind of prototype Gone With The Wind perhaps, which details the life of a pioneering entreprenuer, Yancy Cravat, and his family. I have come to understand ‘epic’ as a style intimately linked to the plays of Bertolt Brecht. An epic is a story which uses a long narrative, often focussed on the toils of one central character, to make a point about the nature of humanity. By the time we reach the end of an epic, the story’s purpose has a much greater impact because we’ve spent such a long time in this person’s life. The idea behind ‘the epic’ is pretty basic, but it’s a fundamental foundation in a lot of Hollywood films.
Cimarron must perform this function well because upon reaching its conclusion, relaxing in my living room in New Zealand in the 21st Century, I’m given a sense of nostalgia for a time and era that I have nothing to do with. It’s a great feeling, the sense that you’ve built a business, a family, and even a city with Yancey Cravat. But there are problems with how we’ve arrived here. Despite gaining a Best Actor nomination, the guy playing Yancey would do better on an airport runway the way he flails his arms around and yells. He’s not acting. It’s no wonder Stanislavsky had such an illustrious career teaching in the States – the idea of an inner truth seems lost on actors such as Richard Dix. And about three quarters of the way through the film, when Yancey returns from fighting Indians, the film grinds to a halt in the courtroom scenes. I don’t believe my problem watching these scenes are a result of an MTV- (or perhaps YouTube-) generation attention span. I think that the story-telling in these scenes, from the dialogue and editing to the characterisation, is quite poorly executed.
And another massive issue; no matter which way you look at it, Cimarron is fraught with problematic racial depictions. I find I can enjoy this movie only if I pretend that there isn’t anything racist about a white businessman telling his black servant to eat his watermelons. Watching this movie with a Sherpa and a Tahitian felt too awkward too many times for this white dude.
Yet there are moments when, in keeping with the film’s rather noble assertion that it takes all of us to build a family, a city and a nation, these characters of different backgrounds are embraced, and quite beautifully. ‘If you know anything at all…’ says Yancey, ‘…you’d know that a Cherokee Indian is too smart to put anything in the contribution box of a race that’s robbed him of his birthright.’ And in the final part of the film, Yancey’s grandson goes on to marry an Indian girl, symbolising, I take it, that all the people of America are one big family. This is a touching and progressive theme to include. The problem is that these racial depictions are so uneven that I just can’t work out where the film stands and if it means what it says or if it says it quite by accident.
Here’s the deal; not every film can be a masterpiece. Nor can every year have a masterpiece, for that matter. While it may be flawed, it is these very problems which make this film such a fascinating watch. Seeing Cimarron is a look into a time when filmmakers were still working out how to execute a lavish historical epic. Cimarron doesn’t quite get there, but hey, someone had to be the first one to give it a try.