Et tu, Cimarron?; or More Rules for Epic Westerns

As I was saying before paying work and Valentine’s Day and the call of the West in the form of watching The Stalking Moon, starring Gregory “Awesome Gimlet-Eye” Peck, epic westerns aren’t my cuppa tea. Or joe.

I’d just finished spinning my snark about epic westerns in an earlier post when Nuts4r2 “Awesome Gimlet-eyed Film Reviewer” called my bluff, which meant I had to lay my cards on the table and admit I’d not delineated a couple crucial elements of the epic western (which I had forgotten to do, having had one rye too many).

My #1 rule for an epic western? Scope.

Westerns like Stagecoach and True Grit take a microscope to the West, focusing in on a short span that contains the essence of a specific-yet-universal time and place, and with those, a specific conflict.

Epic westerns take a long view of events and corral a hundred years and/or a paradigm shift into a multihour span, so long that they often require narrative titles and voice-overs and dissolves to powdered-gray hair and putty-nosed makeup. The setting is a shift from frontier to town, from wilderness to civilization, from biblical darkness to godly light, if you take the western settlers’ view of it.

Cimarron is a case in point. It begins at the Land Rush and ends with a celebratory fancy dinner inside a genteel brick-and-mortar building on a paved street. Once Upon a Time in the West begins with the town of Flagstone barely a cowtown and ends with a railroad and its promise of a prosperous future clanging through the Western landscape. Leone’s is a classic opera of the West. Cimarron is…well… it has a stirring score. But it also has fine actors such as Glenn Ford, Mercedes McCambridge, and Anne Baxter. And lots of good moments.

Cimarron! Cimarron!

  • The land grab scene is sharp and brutal, and it sets up the beginning of one of the best storylines in the film, a former flame of Yancy’s (Glenn Ford) getting the strip of land they had both wanted when they were together. (Just desserts for that guy as he chose the prim Sabra Cravat–Maria Schell–over Anne Baxter’s Dixie Lee, the fool.)
  • The lynching of the Native American family man early on during the land grab is shocking. No other way to describe it. The lurid colors and the relentless, slow escalation of violence followed by the off-screen murder are cinematic but highlight the tragic racism in the settling of the West. The message here is earnest–racists are assholes. Yancy, our hero and the one we are to identify with, rides up and swiftly wreaks vengeance in the name of law and order, and I dare you not to feel satisfied.
  • Cimarron has a Jewish guy! And although he lends money (ho hum), he is very much a part of the community and the love life of the heroine, Sabra Cravat. Sol, played by the character actor David Opatoshu, is one of many typical townies that age and mature into fine, upstanding citizens.
  • The virtuous Sabra Cravat verbally spars with Dixie in Dixie’s brothel–both revealing they love and feel used by Yancy Cravat, who’s kicking up his oat-sowing heels somewhere between San Francisco and Cuba. What’s also revealed is that they actually admire each other. (This, my western friends, is a chick flick in disguise.)

My #2 rule: Sequins. Whoops *hic* I meant sequence.

The best directors of westerns had a laconic confidence in their story–they picked one damn storyline and stuck to it through to its resolution. Epic western directors were under pressure from studios to make overloaded star-studded extravaganzas. Sometimes with sequins.

Cimarron has many, many scenes the run the gamut of Historic Moments in Western History (like gushing oil wells) but it has the crucial theme of an epic western: wilderness vs. civilization, or masculine vs. feminine. The icily beautiful Sabra Cravat marries an up-and-coming lawyer (Glenn Ford) against the wishes of her aristocratic, European parents. They marry and head West, then miss out on the land grab but begin a newspaper business that sees them through statehood, strikes of oil, and paved streets. Sabra brings the best of the civilized world–a cultured and educated and nurturing presence–with the worst of civilized world–a preference for the status quo. Glenn Ford’s Yancy is the protypical male that counters, frustrates, yet is loved by Sabra. After setting up the newspaper and ridding the town of racists and thugs, Yancy can’t help gazing off to the horizon, always and forever an adventurer and knight in shining armor, despite knowing that this might destroy his marriage.

Glenn Ford as Man in Cimarron, 1960

Early on in the film Sabra appears unsuited for the frontier life of principled independence:  She wants Yancy to take reward money for killing a family friend-turned-thug and, later, begs him to accept the position of governor although it would mean agreeing to backroom deals to cheat the nearby Indian tribe of their share of oil revenues. Her reasons? She wants raise her child in a real house and pay for his schooling, and she wants to finally live a life of ease, which she believes she deserves after years of making do with dust, rowdy cowboys, and living hand-to-mouth. (This is a good touch–we get to hear the woman’s POV.)

Then Yancy disappears, no one knowing for sure where’s he’s gone. Like an elemental being, throughout the rest of the film he is heard from but rarely seen, while Sabra stays at home to care for their son and keep the newspaper running. At last, after years of living within the small town and helping it grow into a prosperous place, she feels largely regret for losing her husband and her son, who has married the daughter of the Native American man who had been killed early on and moved away from her stuffy rules of propriety. “Where is my man?” she asks. “Where are my children?” Lesson: In seeking to cultivate the West, the filmmakers are saying, she’s snuffed out the very essence of the place, the independent, restless, democratic, freedom-loving spirit of it. So when Sabra is honored by the community for embodying the true spirit of the pioneer (having in a sense renounced her old ways and become surrounded by old friends and her son’s new family), she points out that the true spirit of the pioneer was Yancy. The End.

*insert sound of eyes being poked out here*

OK, I have to admit a WTF moment. The moral of the story is…confusing. (And it started out so well.) Are we to identify with Yancy, the deadbeat dad who gets a statue honoring him? Or Sabra, the pragmatic businesswoman who sacrifices all to keep things going on the homefront and endures sacrifice and ridicule because her husband is gallivanting with the Rough Riders in Cuba? Or–happy thought–are we to identify with both, appreciating the complexities of the choices they make and empathizing with their struggles?

Um…no. This was 1960 when the movie was made. Sabra gets old and ugly and cranky and sees the error of her ways, and learns a lesson in not being so headstrong or something while Yancy gets to perpetually be young and handsome and never have to deal with consequences. Grrrrrrr.

Is there a rule #3 for epic westerns? Sometimes they are just plain SEXIST.

However, would I recommend it? Well, sure. It’s a western, not a utopian vision. Which, if I had a time machine, I would have liked to proclaim in a self-righteous fashion to 1960’s theatergoers–although soon enough the decade would turn their carefully ordered world upside down…

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