A new DVD showcases the Wild West that was first seen on the silver screen.
Treasures 5 presents the West as it was recorded and imagined in America’s earliest motion pictures. The three-disc set features 40 films, from shorts lasting 2 – 10 minutes to feature-length dramas, all of which have never previously been available on DVD. Scott Simmon, author of the acclaimed book The Invention of the Western Film: A Cultural History of the Genre’s First Half-Century, served as curator on the project.
Cowboys & Indians: How did you become involved with the Treasures series?
Scott Simmon: I’ve been doing this for a while now. In the 1990s I put together the first videotape series to make available films from the Library of Congress’ collections. I also curated the first three DVD sets produced by the National Film Preservation Foundation [NFPF]. The early westerns that people have generally been able to see over the last couple of decades are such a small part of the full range of films about the West that I’ve long thought such a DVD set as this one could be revelatory.
C&I: How were the films chosen?
Simmon: One principle of film selection for all of NFPF’s Treasures DVD sets is that the film has never previously been available to the public before — at least on any professional-quality videotape or DVD format. There are so many wonderful but forgotten films preserved by America’s archives that it has always seemed best to use these DVD sets to bring such films to light.
C&I: It’s such a diverse assortment of films. Is there a theme that runs through the collection?
Simmon: Taken together, the films are intended to show just how surprisingly wide and varied early films about the West were. One knock against westerns by unsympathetic viewers is that they are “all the same” — the same stories of gunfights and cowboys, the same cavalry-versus-Indians battles, etc. Whatever else one can say about early films about the West, this isn’t true. For instance, early westerns so often feature surprisingly active female heroines, have Hispanic and even Asian-American stars, and it’s the one time when Native Americans often played [members of] Indian tribes.
C&I: How should a modern moviegoer approach these films?
Simmon: With an open mind, with a sense of fun, and, I’m tempted to say, with a cold beer and a comfortable couch. It’s far too easy to assume that silent films are no doubt “educational” but a lot of work to watch. It seems to me that, especially with the lively new music here, all that viewers need to do is sit back and allow themselves to be entertained.
C&I: What kinds of surprises are in store for a viewer not familiar with movies from this era?
Simmon: In the early years of movies, the line between fiction and nonfiction was fluid and up for grabs — a film such as The Sergeant  is mainly fiction but also an early travelogue; a film such as Deschutes Driftwood  is mainly a travelogue but also fiction. For audiences accustomed to the rules of “classic” 1950s westerns, the Treasures 5 films have a remarkable ease and freedom from convention. With the West’s younger days still fresh in filmmakers’ memories, early movies are filled with effortless everyday details — in dress, gesture, props, buildings, and daily work — that would be impossible to re-create today.
C&I: Do you have any favorites?
Simmon: The one indisputable master- piece in the collection is the 1926 Paramount feature Mantrap, starring the charming Clara Bow and directed by Victor Fleming, who is best known as the director of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz. If one wants to sample just how much sophisticated amusement silent film can convey, start with Mantrap.
But I also have a real fondness for the films made by real-life participants in Western history — such as Lady of the Dug-Out , produced by, cowritten by, and starring the Oklahoma bank-and-train robber Al Jennings. Even more astonishing to me is the completely forgotten 41-minute film from 1914 titled Ammunition Smuggling on the Mexican Border, produced by and starring a small-town Texas sheriff, Eugene Buck. He reenacts an incident from only a couple months earlier in which he was kidnapped by Mexican revolutionaries and his deputy was murdered, with most of the posse playing their own roles. I love that we can bring back to new viewers such films that capture the West in ways that have been lost or forgotten.
For more information, visit www.filmpreservation.org.