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With: William S. Hart, Jane Novak, Robert McKim, Lloyd Bacon, Leo Pierson, Bert Sprotte, Charles Arling
Written by: C. Gardner Sullivan
Directed by: Lambert Hillyer
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 69
Date: 07/19/1919
IMDB

Wagon Tracks (1919)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Desert Topping

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I'm not sure how many movie buffs are going to buy this 98-year-old, silent-era Western on Blu-ray, but, regardless, fans of silent movies and/or Westerns are urged to check it out. Wagon Tracks features one of the biggest screen stars of the day, William S. Hart, mainly known for his cowboy films, but here dressed entirely in buckskins (and named "Buckskin Hamilton").

He's about to lead a wagon train on the Santa Fe Trail, and is preparing to meet a steamer full of passengers. On that steamer is his younger brother, whom Buckskin raised and sent to medical school. Unfortunately, a lowdown gambler named Washburn (Robert McKim) and his sidekick (Lloyd Bacon) have killed the brother, and have blamed it on Washburn's sister, Jane (Jane Novak).

On the trail, Jane sees how upstanding and gentle Buckskin really is -- singing a baby to sleep, giving his ration of water to his horse and dogs -- and decides to tell him the truth. He walks the two villains out into the desert, determined to get them to admit their wrongdoing. Meanwhile, one of the whites has shot an Indian, and the rest of the tribe demands retribution; someone must die, or the travelers will suffer a full-scale attack.

The outdoor cinematography here is quite striking for such an early production, with a vivid sense of heat, dust, and landscape, with desert mirages, and faces illuminated by campfire. Director Lambert Hillyer makes fine use of close-ups, with lovely lead actress Novak conveying great anguish and Hart unafraid to show tears streaming down his long, rugged face. There's an awkward early sequence in which the murder is intercut with shots of Hart talking playfully to his horses, but after that, the movie comes together in a visceral way that's surprisingly and poetically artful.

The intertitles in Wagon Tracks feature some cute drawings and some wonderful dime-store poetry. The images of blacks (singing on board the river boat) and American Indians (doing a war dance) are, of course, troubling, but no more than any other films of the period.

A review from the Los Angeles Times said "the great desert screen epic is with us at last," and singled out the screenplay as a "masterpiece." Olive Films has released the Blu-ray in January of 2017. The picture looks sharply restored, with lovely grain and vivid tinting, and a piano score by Andrew Earle Simpson; the last reel of the film suffers from some warping, but it's not too bad. Recommended.

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