Before talkies, westerns were all tumbleweeds, train robberies, and lost treasures.
For an art form that disappeared nearly100 years ago, it’s remarkable how silent films have retained a loyal following among movie buffs. They still air almost every Sunday night on Turner Classic Movies, and continue to find new audiences with restored editions on DVD and Blu-ray.
Westerns were there from the very beginning. The Great Train Robbery was released in 1903, just nine years after the invention of the technology that made moving pictures possible. With just 14 scenes, a budget of $150, and a running time of 12 minutes, The Great Train Robbery was one of the first movies to establish the rules of cinematic storytelling, such as editing individual shots and scenes together to advance the story, and crosscuts to present two different events happening simultaneously. The film was a huge success and played continuously for years in the first movie theaters.
The first talking feature, The Jazz Singer, came out in 1927 and the game changed forever. By then, almost 11,000 silent feature movies had been produced in America (fewer than 3,000 features exist in some complete form today), about 900 of them westerns.
As the novelty of moving pictures evolved into feature films, westerns remained one of the most popular genres. Here are seven classics from the silent era that can still captivate a modern audience.
The Battle of Elderbush Gulch (1913)
At just under 30 minutes this is the shortest film on the list, but it must be included because of the talent involved in its production. Mae Marsh and Lillian Gish play sisters living on the frontier. The director was D.W. Griffith, one of the titans of early cinema and the first filmmaker to craft exciting action sequences, such as the scenes where the sisters and their fellow settlers are rescued from an Indian attack by the U.S. Cavalry.
The Squaw Man (1914)
Several sources list this frontier drama as the first feature-length film made in Hollywood. It returned $245,000 on a $15,000 investment and launched the careers of director Cecil B. DeMille, Jesse L. Lasky (later a cofounder of Paramount Pictures), and Samuel Goldwyn (the ‘G’ in MGM). The actress playing an Indian maiden who falls for an English nobleman was billed as Red Wing, and she was the first Native American movie star.
The Covered Wagon (1923)
The first “epic” western, The Covered Wagon assembled a cast of more than 1,500; one Utah newspaper account of the time reported that the film sought “1,000 white men and women; 600 Indians; 150 yoke of cattle; 300 covered wagons and 900 horses and mules,” with 100 actors and 50 crew coming in from Hollywood besides. Look closely at the faces of the pioneers as they set out on their perilous journey west. Years earlier many of them had actually been part of an actual wagon train taking them to a new life. The film was so successful that Will Rogers filmed a parody version called Two Wagons — Both Covered, in which the pioneers reach California and are greeted by real estate developers.
Considered the first big-budget epic western, 1923’s The Covered Wagon tells the story of pioneers traveling from Kansas to Oregon; it used real wagons that had journeyed west and employed the people who owned them as extras.
The Iron Horse (1924)
No director is more closely associated with classic westerns than John Ford. This was his first feature-length western hit, a nearly 2½-hour magnum opus about the building of the transcontinental railroad. According to silent-film historian David Kiehn of the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum in Fremont, California, the first filming took place in Mexico for the cattle drive, with more in New Mexico. “A scene was filmed south of Santa Clarita, California, at Beal’s Cut, an old pass through the mountains. The bulk of the filming was done near Dodge, Nevada, for a month, and a scene [was shot] in Wadsworth, Nevada. The train being hauled through the snow was done in Truckee, California. …[There were] 300 cast and crew, 300 Paiute Indians, 30 Chinese (some Paiutes doubled as Chinese), and 500 people for the Golden Spike scene.”
This landmark film stars one of the screen’s first western heroes, William S. Hart. Some in the film industry considered Hart a has-been after his preceding pictures had flopped, and studios were tired of his insistence on presenting an authentic look at the West and its cowboys. By then audiences seemed to prefer flashier western stars like Tom Mix. But United Artists convinced him to return for one more picture, Tumbleweeds. It tells the story of the closing of the frontier and served as an ideal elegy for its star. The thrilling land-rush scene on Oklahoma’s Cherokee Strip would even thrill kids raised on Star Wars sequels and Marvel superheroes.
The Devil Horse (1926)
Before Silver, Trigger, and Champion, there was Rex the Wonder Horse, a black Morgan stallion that became a big box-office draw in the silent era. Supposedly the spirited horse had killed one of his handlers — was it true, or a studio story to boost publicity? Either way, audiences loved watching this feisty four-legged hero chase and corner bad guys and even stomp a few into their just deserts. The Devil Horse also stars Yakima Canutt, the famed rodeo cowboy turned stuntman who doubled John Wayne in Stagecoach.
The Winning of Barbara Worth (1926)
A list of Gary Cooper’s iconic western roles should include this film right alongside The Virginian and High Noon. Though he came to the cast as a replacement for Monte Blue, critics thought Cooper — as local cowboy Abe Lee vying for the love of Barbara — stole the picture from stars Ronald Colman and Vilma Bánky, then considered the movies’ most romantic couple. It is best remembered now for a still-impressive special effects sequence in which a bursting dam unleashes a torrent of water that floods a small town.
The 1926 silent western The Winning of Barbara Worth starred Gary Cooper (left) in his first important film role, alongside Vilma Bánky and Ronald Colman.
Photography: Images courtesy Wiki Commons
From our January 2021 issue.