I'd Rather Plead To A Texas Jury Than Preach To This Gang: Cimarron (1931)

I am willing to excuse a lot in regards to film historicism, given the amont of courses I have taken and reading I have done regarding cultural shifts in America.  For example, I can respect both Holiday Inn and The Jazz Singer detached from their unfortunate uses of blackface, where as I have trouble forgiving and overlooking the racist and sexist elements of The Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind in favor of their cinematic exuberance.  A film like Cimarron is doubly problematic, because while it does have a few moments of genuine cinematic magic, it is attached with the fate of being a silent film forced into the mold of a the still newly working talking pictures, and does not manage to take its moments of experimentation and unique camerawork farther than the occasional captivating side shot.  While it is an issue all its own, the fact that the film makes egregious use of racist and sexist imagery to get its message across, only to embrace, in the end, the aid of white America in racial freedom, Cimarron is an insanely problematic and particularly offensive work.  It could be, in a sense, seen as the Western epic thirties version of The Help, a film so infuriatingly frustrating when it comes to race relations that I actively petition it when given an opportunity.  Yet, even the problematic The Help suggests that the white figure in question has a deep-seeded understanding that racial injustice is wrong, in Cimarron all the characters begin as racist and learn to evolve away from such issues.  I want to emphasize here that I am not a person who quickly dismisses the films of the thirties, which are decidedly mixed in results, in fact, I thoroughly enjoy a lot of the output from classic Hollywood in this era, after all it did provide viewers with multiple Marx Brothers classics, and the magnificence that is King Kong.  I wanted to get over my decidedly visceral rejection of this work and embrace it wholly as a realized vision of an early western, but, to be honest, it is hardly that either and fails to capture viewers with any coherent plot, instead, aiming for an audacious and lofty multi-decade narrative that ultimately fails miserably in the two-hour time allotment.  However, it should be no surprise that it won the Oscar for Best Picture upon its release, after all, the Academy rarely gets it right.

Cimarron begins with the race for American expansion to the West at the hands of many ambitious American pioneers of all classes.  The particular movement is to the newly established Oklahoma territory which the United States government has recently made available after the relocation of its native populations.  One such settler Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) takes this opportunity to relocate his family, including his wife Sambra (Irene Dunne) and their young son. This movement is seen as frivolous and dangerous by everyone except Yancey who views it as a means to make a bigger name for himself within the newspaper business.  The family servant/slave Isaiah (Eugene Jackson) also sneaks along for the ride, an act that Yancey seems hesitant to chastise, mostly because Isaiah will provide a source of work in the bustling settlement town they make it to upon the end of their travels from Kansas.  Yancey is immediately confronted by the ruff and tumble members of the town, particularly as set of gunslingers who find his Yankee ways and desire to establish social etiquette and respect within the town foolish and an invasion of their lawless existence.  Nonetheless, using a chance sermon as a means to state his goals, and rid himself of the pesky criminals in a very real way, Yancey becomes the most established and respected member within his community, pushing the newspaper and the power that comes along with it, much to the frustration of Sambra who sees her familial structure faltering, particularly when her son falls for a Native American girl, much to her anger.  Yancey grows in stature and engages in multiple violent shootouts only continuing to grow in power and progressive idealism, eventually using his sway to help the native populations and act that ultimately severs his bond with Sambra, so much so that it is not until well after the discovery of oil and modernization sweeps up the rustic world of the new west that they are to reunite.  At this point in the narratives closing, Sambra has become an established politician, one of the first women to do so and has turned away from her discrimination of the Native populations.  Yet when she meets an aging and decrepit Yancey on the streets she comes to the realization that it was his actions that made everything possible, forever immortalized in a statue built in his honor in the closing moment of the film.

This whitewashing, very literally, of the American west is a problem that proves to occupy many westerns of the classic era, whether it be the contentious relationship in both the classic John Wayne vehicles Stagecoach and The Searchers or in the pseudo-western River of No Return.  Yet in these films the Native American population fights against the seemingly unquestioned invasion of White Americans by using physical violence and blocking of their navigation of the space.  The very opposite happens in Cimarron there are seens of Yancey and his family literally walking through the spaces of the so-called "injuns" of the area, expecting them to simply move out of the way of their larger and oppressive stage coaches.  Furthermore, there is a very spoken disregard for the native bodies within the film, Sambra constantly degrading their every action and assuming them to be so savage as to be beyond even basic human respect.  In fact, when a Native American man provides her son with a gift of a feathered hat, she quickly takes it from him and tells him not to talk or even acknowledge any native members.  In fact, she is completely in favor of walking over the space the various natives occupy if it assures the continued advances of the American ideal of whiteness.  When native voices are allowed to speak it is in a problematically demur and incredibly performative, one can recall both versions of Ruby Big Elk speaking in fractured sentences and "native proverbs" that are paired with excessive arm gestures.  The native identity in this film is one of simultaneous exploitation and exoticization, never allowing their narrative even the slightest of value.  I could embrace the film for its earnest depictions of what reality was for Native American populations during this wild time in American History, but that would suggest that the writers and filmmaker had the express intent of drawing attention to such injustice, whereas it is rather clear that they see it as a mere fact of the era.

Key Scene: The opening sequence is quite enjoyable in its action heavy nature, although the metaphor it exudes is far less awesome.

The only way I would suggest watching this is if you were attempting to navigate your way through all the Academy's Best Picture winners, if not, avoid this film it is hardly worth the drawn out two hours it demands.

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