1. the current revisionist Westerns, like the Coen brothers’ “No Country for Old Men” and their remake of “True Grit”;
2. the traditional Westerns of yesteryear that made stars of John Wayne, Roy Rogers and even Clayton Moore; and
3. the spaghetti Westerns of Italy that build a bridge from No. 2 to No. 1, not to mention making an international household name out of Clint Eastwood.
But there’s a fourth that predates them all that few ever talk about, likely because few know of their existence: the largely silent Westerns as old as cinema itself.
That’s what the National Film Preservation Foundation has collected for the impressive, three-disc box set “Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938.” For the release, it has rounded up a mix of 40 fiction films and documentaries, both in long form and as short subjects, all never-before-seen on video and featuring expert audio commentaries which discuss each entry’s place in history, both in cinema and the country at large.
At roughly 10 hours, “Treasures 5” is — not can be, but is — intimidating and exhaustive, offering a wealth of programming options. For example, you can watch old newsreels of Native Americans negotiating land outside the U.S. capitol, capped with a tribal dance as a senator sits awkwardly on the grass. You can take in “Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress,” part of one of film’s oldest franchises, with this entry finding Billy concocting a fake hold-up at the expense of the teacher, she of the teeny-tiny pistol.
From 1926, “Mantrap” bears a double-meaning title, not to mention Hollywood legend Clara Bow as its star and Victor Fleming in the director’s chair, more than a decade before he made “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” in the same year. A clip from the travelogue “The Golden West” offers a rare glimpse of color and a look into the future with the Goodyear blimp.
Of interest to Oklahomans in particular will be “The Lady of the Dugout,” a biopic about Oklahoma outlaw Al Jennings, produced by the man himself, and pieces from the lost “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw,” from Bill Tilghman, the U.S. Marshal turned Oklahoma senator and Oklahoma City chief of police. Bill Moore, retired Oklahoma Historical Society archivist, provides worthy commentary on both.
Actually, everybody provides worthy commentary, and the set’s included book of notes, at more than 100 pages, is an excellent guide to steer you toward items of interest, as well as provide background information on each selection. It’s a shame such efforts don’t go into presenting our modern classics this extensively (Criterion excepted).
“Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938” is not for the casual viewer, not even for those who used to play cowboys and Indians as a kid while waiting for reruns of “The Lone Ranger” to start. It’s for film lovers who like to think of themselves of historians, plus hardcore Western fans and history lovers in general. I’d recommend interested parties sample some of the selections first to make sure it’s accessible to them. And if it is, they’re in for an invaluable treat. —Rod Lott