The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Monday, July 16, 2012

Cimarron (1960)

My typical stance on an epic film is 'Bring it on.' You can't have too many of them, especially from the age of the epics, the 1950s through the 1960s. These are big, big movies. Then, I think of my favorite genre; the western. I can't name many quality epic, classic westerns. One exception is How the West Was Won, but I'm drawing a blank as to others. One that aspires to be an epic but ultimately fails is 1960's Cimarron.

Having put his wild cowboy drifting days behind him, Yancy 'Cimarron' Cravat (Glenn Ford) hopes to settle down with his newlywed bride, Sabra (Maria Schell). Yancy's plan starts with an impossible offer from the government, one that seems too good to be true. The Oklahoma territory and its millions of acres will be open to anyone who can stake a claim (the 1889 Land Run, read HERE), and Yancy has a spot all picked out to start a family with Sabra. Things don't go quite as planned though, forcing the couple to improvise and adjust. Setting up a small newspaper in Osage, Oklahoma, Yancy and Sabra are to become part of an era in American history full of drastic and modern change.

From director Anthony Mann, this is an appropriately big epic. The scale is impressive with scenes of hundreds of extras filling the screen behind the biggest names in the cast. None is more impressive than the depiction of the Oklahoma land rush. Literally hundreds of riders and wagons fill the screen from edge to edge as all these hopeful land owners race to stake a claim to their own land. Scenes like this make you appreciate what an epic is in all of its glory on such a large scale. The look of the movie is a beauty from the open prairies of the 1880s to the settled cityscapes of the 1910s. But that is where the positives end unfortunately.

Even with a movie clocking in at 149 minutes, it feels like Cimarron tackles too much. The story covers 25-plus years, but doesn't cover any of those years adequately. The script has jumps in times that come fast and furious, jumping a few months one time and then ten years the next. An episodic, somewhat drifting story can be a necessity dealing with a film of this scale, but at some point it has to be interesting even just a little bit. The tinier episodes here lack any of that interest with an exception here and there. Mann was at his best with smaller scale stories -- The Naked Spur, The Man from Laramie -- but struggles with stories of this magnitude. There's little heart, little emotion, and little interest to see a budding America growing from the wild west to the modern world.

That lack of emotion can be chalked up to any number of things, but the most glaring mistake was the casting. From top to bottom, 'Cimarron' lacks the huge star power of other epics, but that's not a deal breaker. It is though when almost to a man the characters are miscast. Ford and Schell don't have a great chemistry; a problem when these two characters are magnetically drawn together by their unexplained love. Ford's Yancy is trying to put a somewhat checkered past behind him, but that past is never even remotely dealt with, only hinted at. His character ends up being this icon of a growing America, and I'm thinking 'Really?' He bails on his wife for five years at one point, ten years at another. Schell too is trying here, but a character that could -- and probably should -- have been sympathetic comes across as shrill and whiny. When the two leads aren't especially likable, we could be in for a long ride.

The rest of the cast is hit or miss, and as is the case with epics gone bad, it's not always their fault. The ones given more screentime include Arthur O'Connell and Mercedes McCambridge as Tom and Sarah Wyatt, parents of a brood of eight trying to start a new life, a family that befriends Yancy and Sabra. Russ Tamblyn is a scene-stealer as the Cherokee Kid, a troubled youth Yancy tries to help with Vic Morrow as part of his gang. Anne Baxter is wasted as Dixie, a former love of Yancy's who now holds a grudge against him, a businesswoman who opens a whorehouse (a classy one at least). Potential for a cool character, but she's gone halfway through the movie. Also throw in Robert Keith, Charles McGraw, Harry Morgan, Edgar Buchanan, L.Q. Jones and David Opatoshu in supporting parts, some gone in a flash so don't blink. The problem is not the actors, but the lack of any character development. They drift in as needed and disappear as quickly as they appeared. Lots of potential for some very interesting characters, but nothing comes of it as Yancy and Sabra's story develops.

Once again, this won't sound like it makes a whole lot of sense, but there's both too much and not enough going on in a 149-minute movie. It's dull. The story moves along far too fast, glazing over significant portions of the story. I can't think of an epic with characters as unsympathetic as the ones here. I didn't care for most of the characters or how things ended up, and in the end, nothing comes of it. The resolution (using that term loosely) is disappointing and seemingly hypocritical for what we've seen up to this point. An epic attempt, but ultimately a disappointing failure.

Cimarron <---TCM trailer (1960): **/****

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