When it comes to classic films there’s not a genre that personifies the American experience like Westerns. It’s a time when men were strong and upright and gunfights were a sign of your prowess. Sweeping shots of the prairie and awe inspiring landscapes which are sadly escaping us are on full display. In short, there’s nothing like a classic western.
One classic film that I’ve just been able to catch up on is Wagon Tracks which has just been released on Blu-ray thanks to the folks at Olive Films. The film was released in 1919 and was directed by Lambert Hillyer who ironically (at least these days) was a former journalist who stepped behind the camera and eventually specialized in westerns.
I was never a fan of silent films, I’m going to say that right upfront. I appreciated the filmmaking but as a connoisseur of modern cinema I find it difficult to focus on the film. Ah, short attention span theater. I’m happy to report that I didn’t have that issue here. I was sucked into the story immediately and I was struck about how relevant and layered it is.
Buckskin Hamilton (William S. Hart) is a rugged man from the mountains who has to guide a wagon train across a barren terrain. He has to make sure the pioneers that he’s helping make it there safely but also deal with the murder of his brother. It’s a simply story, yet emotionally complex. Joining in this journey are the villain (Robert McKim) and the damsel in distress (Jane Novak).
The barren landscape and the glistening heat are part of the appeal of Wagon Tracks. We, modern audiences, see the stereotypes and the characters who are not allowed to show different levels. It’s a staple of older and classic filmmaking, but what struck me the most is Buckskin’s emotional journey. He has to help the people in his charge and yet life is in question because of the vengence he feels for his brother.
I found this journey very interesting and shockingly still relevant. The performances are very good, the directing seems to be on the side of someone who is behind the camera to get things done and shot on budget and not of an auteur but it didn’t detract for me. The cinematography really helped carry the film in spite of the obvious flaws.
The transfer to blu-ray was stunning. Films that date back this far rarely survive intact. The preservation work here is so well done, it really is something to be commended. The film itself looks natural and not over processed and it’s really amazing. Being that this is actual fzlmstock it’s interesting to compare it to more modern films that shoot on digital.
There is some damage that can’t be fixed, scratches on the film stock and some slight fading as well. It doesn’t detract from the overall experience for me, in fact as a product of it’s time these flaws actually enhanced the film experience, like you are given a peak into another time.
There are sadly no special features on this release, not that one would expect anything to have survived from this time period.
Overall, I really think you should give Wagon Tracks a look. It’s a very interesting and unique look back at a different way of telling a classic story. I really enjoyed this look back and I think you’ll equally find this to be a unique experience.
Wagon Tracks is out now on Blu-ray