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The epic saga of a frontier family, Cimarron starts with the Oklahoma Land Rush on 22 April 1889. The Cravet family builds their newspaper Oklahoma Wigwam into a business empire and Yancey Cravet is the adventurer-idealist who, to his wife's anger, spurns the opportunity to become governor since this means helping to defraud the native Americans of their land and resources. Written by
The last and least of Anthony Mann's Westerns, 1960's Cimarron was originally intended by MGM as a Rock Hudson vehicle after the success of Giant. It's at once a lavish film and an undernourished one, not least because of the production problems that saw Mann's run of bad luck with epics repeat itself: after being fired from Spartacus at the start of shooting by Stanley Kubrick, on Cimarron he was replaced towards the end of shooting by an uncredited Charles Walters. It's all to easy to spot the join, with the many early exterior scenes that are very obviously and artificially shot on interior sets at the studio sticking out like a sore thumb with Mann's signature location filming.
Though remembered today, if at all, as doorstop soap operas, in their day Edna Ferner's novels were hugely controversial, and Cimarron was no exception, dealing along the way with racism, anti-Semitism and Indian land rights, though these are treated rather less boldly here than in the 1930 version (especially in the general release and European versions that trimmed a subplot with the leads' son marrying a Native American girl, though these scenes are in the Region 1 DVD). What's left is an ambitious saga, charting the changing face of the wilderness from the Oklahoma Land Rush to the 'civilisation' that comes with the discovery of oil and the big money to be made by a few, taking in the winners and losers strewn along the path of progress along the way, all nominally held together by the restless figure of Yancey Cravat (Glenn Ford). A man who tries everything but can never stay the course before chasing the next dream, he's held as the pioneer ideal, but it's clear that his long-suffering wife (Maria Schell) is the saga's real hero, setting roots and building a future. Structurally it's one of those books better suited to a mini-series than a film, while the rootless nature of its hero who vanishes from the last third of the film almost entirely leaves it feeling very unsatisfying. It doesn't help that the film's most spectacular scene, the truly epic land rush sequence, happens so early in the film that everything that follows seems an anticlimax.
Unfortunately the casting doesn't help. While Ford isn't as insufferably hammy as Richard Dix in the original, he never lives up to the great claims made for his character, and he's not helped by a bad haircut that makes him look like Oliver Hardy after a diet (it's no surprise that this film and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse pretty much ended his career as a top box-office attraction). And for all her efforts, Schell isn't able to exert the kind of charisma or star power that the problematic last third desperately needs. The supporting performances are highly variable too. David Opatashu, Arthur O'Connell, and Charles McGraw offer dependable turns but Russ Tamblyn is shockingly bad.
But ultimately the problem is that the film never seems to quite decide what it wants to be or what parts of the story it wants to tell. It just sprawls out in all directions, never building up much sense of drive or purpose, and even Mann's visual imagination deserts him for much of the film. Instead it's a film with a handful of memorable moments the land rush sequence, played more for chaos and carnage than exhilaration, one terrific shooting after a lynching and an excellent scene with Aline MacMahon at a makeshift grave stranded in a rather forgettable film.
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