If this ranking was based entirely on the first opening sequence of the films, then ‘Cimarron’ would be somewhere near the top of the list. The first sequence shows the start of the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 and it is fantastically filmed, giving the viewer the impression that they are about to engage in an adventure of mammoth proportions. The rest of the film does not live up to this exciting opening.
The film then deals with one family, and the role that they play in their new surroundings, over the course of the next four decades, ending in 1930, the year that the film was made.
My main problem with ‘Cimarron’ is the husband and father of the family, Yancey Cravat, played by Richard Dix during his silent to talkie transition. He is one of the least appealing hero figures in film: chauvinist, boisterous and does not appear to really care about his family at all, but despite this, the film seems to portray him as a hero and we are supposed to care about him, which is hard to understand. Dix’s acting is over the top and almost comedic: the role is played as if the film is a silent comedy, and not an epic western.
Irene Dunne as his wife and centre of the family and the community is better to watch. She plays the supportive wife with subtlety and style and comes into her own towards the end of the film when she finally has enough of her husband constantly disappearing for years on end, and stands on her own. Aside from the opening sequence the scenes featuring Dunne are the strongest.
There are a variety of supporting roles that come and go in a seemingly aimless manner: the town prostitute with a big heart, the noisy neighbours and the assortment of western characters, but these are too small to make a difference one way or another.
One of the main criticisms of the film, historically, has been how black characters were treated. The portrayal of the simpering Isaiah is, by modern standards, appalling, and although not all films of this era treat black characters in the same way, these characters were not unusual for such films. It also needs to be considered that this film was lifted from the Edna Ferber novel, and the film only replicates the treatments that are found in the book.
In short, ‘Cimarron’ is only really worth watching for those interested in seeing an early western. If you want a great epic then look elsewhere.