The latest invaluable release from the National Film Preservation Foundation, the three-disc boxed set “Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938,” deals not just with the evolution of the western but also with the idea of the West, as it was reflected and shaped in the early years of cinema.
The western is perhaps the most American of genres, a historic symbol of Hollywood supremacy and still among the most durable of narrative templates, as recent movies as different as “Meek’s Cutoff” and “True Grit” have shown. The striking thing about the films in this set is that they date from a period when the Old West was still a living reality, when tales of the frontier were recent history and had not yet fully hardened into myth.
Curated by the scholar Scott Simmon, whose wide-ranging selections are smartly sequenced with an eye on big-picture contexts, “Treasures 5" includes a handful of feature films: the Gold Rush-era romance “Salomy Jane” (1914); the hour or so that survives from Gregory La Cava’s sharp send-up of Wild West archetypes, “Womanhandled” (1925); and probably the best known work in the set, “Mantrap” (1926), a delightfully subversive vehicle for flapper star Clara Bow (she called it her favorite film), directed by Victor Fleming. But as with the previous “Treasures” sets, the real attractions are the bounty of shorts: narratives, documentaries, newsreels and travelogues, previously unavailable on home video and almost all unseen for decades. (All come with commentary tracks by scholars and experts.)
It’s no surprise that the landscape is the star of many of these films. By 1910, the film industry had started its westward migration — major companies were setting up West Coast outposts, drawn by the congenial weather that permitted year-round shooting and the documentary value of location photography. D.W. Griffith’s tale of filial vengeance “Over Silent Paths” (1910) emphasizes the vast desert landscape. The California redwoods tower over the heroine of “Salomy Jane.” And “The Sergeant” (1910) — long thought lost but recently discovered in the New Zealand Film Archive — shows off the waterfalls and vistas of Yosemite National Park.
Some of the most intriguing inclusions are educational or promotional films: the three-minute demonstration “How the Cowboy Makes His Lariat” (1917), for instance, and “Sunshine Gatherers” (1921), the Del Monte Co.'s “Prizmacolor” ode to the California climate and canned fruit. “We Can Take It” (1935) is a vivid advertisement for the New Deal’s environmental program the Civilian Conservation Corps, while “Romance of Water” (1931), a poetic bit of propaganda courtesy of the Los Angeles Department of Water & Power, advances the city’s point of view in the water wars of the early 20th century.
Among its many sub-themes, “Treasures 5" calls attention to the interrelated history of cinema and trains, twinned symbols of modernity since the Lumière brothers filmed a train entering a station in 1895. The earliest film here, “Sunset Limited” (1898), is a minute-long plug for the Southern Pacific Railroad, in which a pair of passenger trains bisect the frame in opposite directions.
Rail travel, so important to the development of the West, is a constant throughout the set. In the travelogue “Deschutes Driftwood” (1916), a rail-riding hobo serves as tour guide. “The Tourists” (1912), a comic short by Mack Sennett, spoofs the repackaging of the West and the native population as attractions for tourists aboard the Santa Fe Railway.
The treatment of race and ethnicity is notable in several instances. “The Better Man” (1912) plays with stereotypes by turning a Mexican bandit into the titular hero. Shot in producer Thomas Ince’s Inceville studio in Santa Monica, “Last of the Line” (1914), the story of an Indian chief’s son and his doomed encounter with white culture, imported Sioux from South Dakota for the film but muddied the race issue by casting Japanese American star Sessue Hayakawa as the chief’s son.
The documentary aspect of the early Westerns went beyond authentic settings. Two films in “Treasures 5" take on a slice of Oklahoma criminal history from opposing perspectives — that of frontier marshal Bill Tilghman, playing himself in “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw” (1915), and outlaw Al Jennings, who appears in his own rather more romantic recounting, “The Lady of the Dugout” (1918).
Another re-enactment film, “Ammunition Smuggling on the Mexican Border” (1914), bills itself as an “accurate reproduction” of a bloody incident that had transpired a few months earlier involving Texas lawmen and Mexican revolutionaries. Attuned to the mythmaking power of movies, sheriff Eugene Buck, who produced the film and appears in it (as do several of the participants), conceived of it as an elaboration of his testimony on the witness stand.
Decades before a John Ford western immortalized the phrase “print the legend,” the earliest films about the West already knew the importance of doing so.