Directed by: Wesley Ruggles
Written by: Howard Estabrook & Louis Sarecky
Starring: Richard Dix, Irene Dunne, Estelle Taylor, Nance O’Neil, William Collier Jr.
American western expansion remains one of the most harrowing actions citizens of this nation have done to others in hopes to take stolen land. The heroics of this era from the American side gently sidestep the atrocities involved with this epic journey they went on and Cimarron plays right into this with characters not worth rooting for in any other fashion.
With Oklahoma up for grabs for anyone willing to venture out there, Yancey Cravat (Richard Dix) asks his wife to leave behind their stable like in Iowa to start something new. As they settle in this area, Cravat opens up a newspaper and attempts to build a community, which will eventually result in the formation of the state of Oklahoma.
Opening with a spectacular shot of settlers getting ready for the race to take land in Oklahoma, Cimarron promises to be an epic journey along with the examination of a man’s ego. Outside of the first ten minutes, it fails in being epic and the exploration of this ego should be a tragedy but proves everyone in this settlement should not be rooted for any stretch of the imagination.
As the story progresses we learn more about both Cravat and his wife and it further establishes why both of them are awful. It becomes baffling as the story sets them up as heroes in this tale of freedom and achieving great feats. To start, they’re part of an occupation of land taken from indigenous folks but they have the gall to believe this occupation will make them great somehow. Cravat seeks to be a trailblazer of “discovering” this new land and his wife sets out to make roots and cultivate a strong community. Their intentions would be somewhat admirable if not for the single fact of their horrific racism. Now, some may defend the film because it was “of its time” but the narrative establishes arguments against the oppression of Indigenous folks and the film continually sets up these characters in direct opposition to the more progressive viewpoint. These characters do not get set up as a complicated protagonist much like John Wayne’s character in The Searchers, but both Cravat and Sabra get presented as people we should respect and the film loses its ground at that moment.
Looking at this feature for its merits displays the story has nothing interesting to tell. Sure, it goes on about the expansion and how Cravat can never truly settle for anything in life, but the way it gets presented comes off in such a lifeless way. This comes down to the direction and the acting on display. This may be a product of the way Hollywood films were constructed in this particular era but other movies released in this same year crafted far superior feats with a fraction of the budget this film had. With a 1.4 million dollar budget in 1931, this film picked up the accolades, including a head-scratching Best Picture victory, but it could not recoup all of its exorbitant budget. Outside of the opening sequence, I can’t discern exactly where all of this money went but I know it did not help the story overall.
As a western Cimarron fails to bring anything remotely impressive within the genre as we hear about the journey of Cravat to explore more land when he should stay with his family but we don’t necessarily see any of it. Instead, we focus on a racist woman trying to keep things together for her family in a lifestyle she originally did not want. Truly lovely stuff to watch. You almost feel bad for her when Cravat heads off to the “new” land but then you remember she thinks of indigenous people as not even second-class citizens but people her family should not even fraternize with.
Truly a Best Picture winner to forget and one of the worst among an interesting list of films with this honor, Cimarron feels like a film they chose because the Academy was unaware of other films released in the same year. I find it comical to believe they looked at this film and thought, yes, this represents the best cinema has to offer for the given year. It displays shambolic filmmaking outside of an opening 10-minute sequence and fails to create anything else with the budget allotted.