Monthly Archives: February 2012

4. Cimarron (1931)

Director:  Wesley Ruggles (Uncredited)

Alex – 6.7   Elliot – 6.8   IMDB 6.1   Rotten Tomatoes 5.7

Alex’s Commentary:

I am a big fan of the Western film genre, thus I was anxiously anticipating this film which I assumed was a Western. Although the film has elements of a Western, it would be inappropriate to consider Cimarron a pure Western. The film is an epic that begins with a classic scene recreating the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and ends in the then modern day 1930. The Motion Picture Academy has always seemed to favor large scale epics and spectacles, and this Academy Award winner is no different. The most famous scene in the movie is one depicting the Oklahoma Land Rush, which involves a cast of hundreds racing across the dusty plains. The story, written by Edna Ferber, traces a family’s travails and evolution over a 40 year period. The changes in the family mirror the changes in Oklahoma from an untamed territory, to entering statehood and finally becoming an industrialized oil behemoth.

Although I realize this is a fictionalized tale, the story of the Cravat family seemed a bit far-fetched. The father would leave for years only to reappear and have the family react like he had just returned from a day at the office. Possibly the novel explained these absences in greater detail then permitted in a 123 minute movie, but to me, the film story was lacking. 016-cimarron-theredlistThe story of the Oklahoma territory was interesting and felt like a reasonable portrayal of historical events albeit with expected cinematic hyperbole. The movie did discuss prejudice and persecution of American Indians which I’m sure was eye-opening to many film-goers. However, the movie was also full of stereotypes regarding blacks, Jews, Indians, gold-diggers and prostitutes which I found amusing, but at the same time somewhat disturbing as these portrayals may have reflected widely held beliefs of this era. This is our second movie with a stutterer; obviously a common character role at one time which today would probably fall into the politically incorrect category – The King’s Speech an obvious exception.

From the perspective of film technology, Cimarron does not represent any advancement from previous Academy Award winners and the choppiness of scene changes may have been a step backwards – possibly this is why the director opted to go uncredited. Although I’m a big fan of Westerns, I will have to wait until 1990’s Dances with Wolves before I see my next Western Oscar winner.

Elliot’s Commentary:

Cimarron is a western of epic proportions that portrays the time period of the Oklahoma land rush.  When I first sat down to watch this film, I really had no conception as to its subject matter other than its Western genre.  However, Cimarron defies the classic classification of the Western genre because of its focus on the more political and social context of this new frontier.  Oklahoma is depicted as the last hurrah of the Wild West, as the land which had been previously been allotted for Native Americans is opened up to settlers from across the country.  The movie begins in a frantic dash of thousands of hopeful settlers, equipped with a myriad of different kinds of wagons and horse-drawn transportation, all hoping to gain a choice claim of the million acres of newly-opened land.

Within the first five minutes of the movie, it is immediately made known that this film was made in the 1930’s through the characters’ attitudes towards race.  The main characters Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) and Sabra Cravat (Irene Dunne) are sitting at a table with Sabra’s parents, and Sabra’s father asks an unseen entity for more air.  The camera then tilts up to reveal Isaiah (Eugene Jackson), the family’s African American servant suspended from the ceiling fanning the family with a palm leaf.  I was personally shocked at such an image being portrayed on film, especially so nonchalantly.  Yancey’s father-in-law next goes on a rant against Native Americans and how they are a dirty people.  While Yancey is a Native American rights activist as shown through his editorials in the paper, the blatant racism is hard to ignore.

The movie actually spans over 40 years, which is fascinating mechanism to allow us to watch the characters develop over such a large segment of their lives.  However, spanning this stretch of time sacrifices significant character development and leaves the audience to try and connect the loosely connected dots.  Yancey, the main male protagonist describes at the beginning of the movie that he can only stay in one place for a maximum of five years.  This curious trope impacts the plot throughout the duration of the film, and the gaps in action are bridged by Yancy returning after 5 year stints of abandoning his family.  While it could be said that he was supposed to embody the rambling and restless spirit of the west, to me his abandonment shows a certain emotional immaturity and resistance to commitment.

The initial sojourn to Osage, the boom-town in Oklahoma where the majority of the action takes place, is the most exciting of the slices of life depicted in the film.  Yancy arrives as the town is struggling to find a moral compass and suppress the outlaw population from ruling the town.  526897212-612x612Yancy, through his career as a writer and a lawyer had become acquainted with many of the new residents of Osage, and quickly become a folk hero.  Keeping the town safe through both his quick draw with his colt pistol and his quick wit in his newly establish Osage Wigwam, Yancy becomes a predominant member of Osage society. However, after his five years is up, Yancy leaves his wife and children in Osage and heads further West.

Yancy’s wife Sabra is left to run the paper, which while at some points shows her exhibiting agency as the empowered female editor of a newspaper, however she reveals that she left Yancy’s byline as editor and proprietor of the paper even in his absence.  Sabra is the real unsung hero of the film, even becoming a congresswoman by the end of the story.  However, the film really cut down the main heroine’s importance, instead focusing on the male’s impact to the town as compared to his wife’s contributions (which were far greater).  Overall, this movie was an outdated but enjoyable look at the history of Oklahoma’s founding, however it does not translate into our modern society.   Despite this failing, I still would recommend it to any fan of Westerns who is looking to see another take on this classically defined genre and also willing to keep an open mind to the early date of the film’s production.

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3. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)

Director: Lewis Mileston

Alex – 8.3   Elliot –8.8     IMDB 8.1   Rotten Tomatoes 8.6

Alex’s Commentary:

All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a quote from author Erich Maria Remarque “This [film] is to be neither an accusation nor a confession, and least of all an adventure, for death is not an adventure to those who stand face to face with it. It will try simply to tell of a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, were destroyed by the war.”

Two of the first three Best Picture Academy Award winners are films about war. However, whereas Wings portrayed the conscription of young men as a proud, noble, patriotic service benefiting the greater good, All Quiet on the Western Front paints a much dimmer picture of the harsh realities and futility of warfare.

The story is narrated by Paul Bäumer, a young man of nineteen who fights in the German army on the French front in World War I. Paul and several of his friends from school join the army voluntarily after listening to the stirring patriotic speeches of their high school teacher. All_Quiet_2_758_426_81_s_c1But after experiencing a brutal boot camp and the unimaginable brutality of life on the front, Paul and his friends have realized that the ideals of nationalism and patriotism for which they enlisted are simply empty clichés. They no longer believe that war is glorious or honorable, and they live in constant physical terror.

The film has a stark and cold feel to its imagery. I am unaware whether this is by the design of Director Lewis Mileston or simply a reflection of the then current cinematic technology; regardless, it is highly effective in portraying Remarque’s message.

The present day relevance of the film’s anti-war message is remarkable. Although the term post traumatic stress syndrome was unknown at the time, many characters appear to display its symptoms. Paul sees his friends die one after another often suffering slow lingering deaths both from wounds inflicted on the battlefield, as well as from gangrene caused by amputations at understaffed and overworked field hospitals. Paul, when home on leave, cannot discuss the carnage, brutality and senselessness of his battlefield experiences with anyone. He even feels compelled to cut his leave short to return to his comrades as they are the only people he can now relate to.

Remarque also challenges the notion that one should blindly accept the authority and wisdom of those in power whether it is parents, teachers, business leaders or higher ranking soldiers simply because of their position – a rather radical concept even in today’s society.

Examples include teachers instructing students to drop out of school to fight in a war because it is their duty and the “right” thing to do. Young men are instructed to listen to their fathers, not their mothers, because no mother would want her son to go to war. One scene shows Paul being asked by a group of successful businessman debating over a map of Europe about the best avenue to attack the enemy. Paul realizes these men have no conception about warfare, the capabilities and condition of the troops, or the better equipped, superior enemy force, and therefore elects not to respond.

I particularly liked the dialogue where one soldier suggests that national leaders should go to a roped off field in their underwear bearing clubs and the country’s leaders that emerge victorious win the war. Seems like a sensible solution to me!

On a different note, Elliot and I have discovered that every movie we are planning to view is available through our local Carnegie Library system. Please support your local library.

Elliot’s Commentary:

The Lewis Mileston classic, All Quiet on the Western Front , is really the first one of the films that we have seen thus far that I would dub a classic of American cinema.  From the stunning long shots to the lengthy action scenes, the movie shows the stunning leap in the technology of sound films from its unpolished predecessor, The Broadway MelodyThis 1930 classic is also the first film to embody the melancholy of America after 1929’s Stock Market Crash.  Rather than focusing on a particular main character, the film is also the first ensemble piece to win the award.  Delving into the psychological conditions of soldiers in the trenches in WWI, the futility of world war, as well as the conditions on the home front, the film really provides a snap shot of German culture as it comes to terms with the repercussions of being involved in such an all encompassing war.   It is particularly fascinating to me that the film is made from a German perspective instead of an American one.  While this more closely mirrors the German book of the same name that provided its source material, it was also released only 12 years after a war that had decimated America.  In my personal opinion, this was a method of commenting on the state of the Depression-era America without having to deal with the political connotations of directly tackling the social problems that existed in America at this time.  The scenes of Germany when a soldier returns to the homeland on leave especially resemble a depression-era America.   The soldier had to bring home food from the front to feed his starving family, since the majority of the country’s food was being shipped to the front to feed soldiers.

One of my favorite shots in the film is a long shot through a window looking out at a shell attack occurring as the new recruits arrive to the front.  This window symbolizes the divide of a country watching the war from afar compared to having the war fought on home soil likeAmerica’s allies and enemies experienced.  The film also had a glaring anti-war message that was truly indicative of a world struggling to recover from the overall economic and emotional devastation that the war inflicted.  There were moments when the soldiers were sitting by a lake chatting about the very reason they were fighting and not many could really answer the reason why, or whether they should have any animosity towards French and British soldiers that they had never met before.   all-quiet-on-the-western-front-1930-02One of the most emotionally moving moments in the film came after a German had just stabbed a French man as they both hid from incoming shells in the same bunker.  The German confesses that he had nothing against the man, and they were both just humans obeying orders from their respective governments.   After the French man dies in the trench, the German looks through his things and discovers a picture of the French man’s wife and son which strikes an emotional chord with him.  As he sits in the trench with the corpse of the man he just killed, it was hard for him to differentiate the man’s humanity from the previously perceived enemy that he had stabbed just 12 hours before.

Overall, the film was spectacular for the era in which it was created.  Even compared to the very enjoyable, Wings, produced only two years earlier, All Quiet on the Western Front  far surpasses its two predecessors in technology, cinematography, storyline, acting and every aspect of filmmaking.  For this film to be made at this time in history is a truly remarkable feat and places it easily within the category of the classic American film lexicon.

 

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