Chronicling a journey through a man’s conscience as much as across the heat-cracked landscape of the Gold Rush-era Southwest, Wagon Tracks is a stark morality tale that nonetheless garnered a Los Angeles Times decree as Hollywood’s “great desert screen epic.” The designation makes sense insofar as the rugged location photography, captured on the parched earth outside Los Angeles by early John Ford cinematographer Joseph H. August, offers a healthy spread of grandiose high-noon expanses and indelible campfire tableaux. That said, what most distinguishes this parable of manifest destiny is the compactness of its drama, which narrowly squares its attention on a principled frontiersman’s agony over the matter of who shot his brother.
The fatal incident in question—a gambling disagreement gone awry aboard a freighter full of westward-bound hopefuls—is telegraphed early on, so the film becomes less a suspense thriller than a record of a man’s grieving process. Buckskin Hamilton (William S. Hart), a seasoned cowboy trading in cross-country expeditions, is scheduled to act as escort for the ship’s passengers on a pilgrimage to New Mexico, but when he finally arrives at their Kansas City port, he’s greeted by tragedy. The simultaneous actions—Buckskin’s passage on horseback and the parlor-room clash—are shown in Griffithian parallel montage by director Lambert Hillyer, a mostly forgotten studio-hopping genre workhorse who brings a confident and sturdy hand to the material, and nowhere more than in the film’s turbulent first act, when the tense crosscutting resolves in the funereal stillness of Buckskin’s devastated arrival.
The film then follows the pilgrimage across the desert, a set piece at once impressively scaled and paradoxically low on spectacle. There’s a notable scene of wagon-tumbling on treacherous terrain that’s relayed in high-angled wide shots bisecting land and sky, as well as a late-stage skirmish—more cerebral than bloody—between the white colonizers and a native tribe. The latter sequence pushes the ensemble size into the triple digits, but the main focus is a comparatively modest event: Buckskin’s vengeful shepherding—much to the chagrin of his love interest, Jane Washburn (Jane Novak)—of two handcuffed good-for-nothings played by Robert McKim and Lloyd Bacon through the prickly plains in an effort to force a murder confession.
With the exception of a rinky-dink simulation of a watering-hole mirage and a subsequent dust-settling fistfight, it’s not visual trickery or manly combat that carries this lengthy episode. Rather, it’s the landscape of Hart’s face, as pockmarked and scorched as the terrain his character traverses, that drives the narrative’s emotional beats. Hart, just a few years prior to his legacy turn as the titular luminary in 1923’s Wild Bill Hickok, conveys a wealth of torment and madness with the flickering of his wide eyes, even as his character is modeled—in romantically tinged, epigrammatic intertitles—as an embodiment of the nobility of the white pioneer. That instability, borne out of a rush to blame and punish, ends up leaving Buckskin a fatigued and broken man by film’s end, with Wagon Tracks concluding on a note of poignant ambivalence. Here’s an “epic” in which the hero winds up as alone as we found him, and the promise of newborn civilization seems compromised to say the least.
Struck from a monochrome print held at the Library of Congress, Wagon Tracks is presented here with significant color tinting: warm sepia for candlelit interiors and fireside exteriors, and electric blue for daylight and "moonlight" sequences. This is a common process for silent films released on home-video formats, and while it can sometimes result in egregious over-saturation, here the contrasting tones provide an aesthetic analogue to the stormy psychology of the film’s drama, while other times they produce an effect that’s downright painterly—particularly in the artful still-life images set behind the intertitles. With that said, for those that prefer a more dynamic, info-rich image from their early cinema transfers, the high-contrast lushness here may disappoint. For the score, Olive Films commissioned pianist Andrew Earle Simpson for a fresh aural accompaniment to the material. The presentation is fairly run-of-the-mill but nevertheless recorded in sharp clarity.
There are no extras included on this disc.
Wagon Tracks is a surprisingly ambivalent portrait of a purported hero of westward expansion, marked equally by the beady eyes of William S. Hart and the splendid location photography of Joseph H. August.