Wagon Tracks Blu-ray Review

Tracking Through History

William S. Hart leads this early silent western as Buckskin Hamlilton, as western a name as ever given in a western. Catapulted into action by murder and the mid-1800s gold rush, Wagon Tracks has plenty of spirit, a fascinating silent document with an improbably clean hero at center.

Sharp but familiar under a contemporary lens, Wagon Tracks is lightly plodding if nicely dressed by the eye-catching locations. Hart’s performance wavers from friendly frontiersman to vengeful brother, if never less than the selfless leader of his caravan. His support, including Jane Novak as the terrified damsel and sniveling villain Robert McKim, set up characters which are as familiar to history as they are to the genre now.

Hart’s success sharpens the piece, the earliest of screen cowboys, here showcasing a silent “it” factor

Only six or so of the cast factor into Wagon Tracks, leaving the material lean and airy. Hart’s frequent director Lambert Hillyer produces a workmanlike output, giving Hart a bevy of star-worthy close-ups and soaking Wagon Tracks in the desert sun’s visible heat.

The period’s westerns hold a magnetic authenticity, Wagon Tracks included. Aimed at a potential audience who lived through the type of events in question, the ebbs and flows feel nostalgically genuine, capped with a definitive bias toward stereotypes. Not only of the travelers, but Indians too, leveling the culture with a typical violent slant and rather embarrassing tribal dance. Those depictions remain part of American history, and Wagon Tracks preserves that dire prejudice through generations.

Luckily, Wagon Tracks pushes on, preserving a look at naturally empty desert scenery while doling out a good versus evil fable with enough intrigue to carry the brisk runtime. Hart’s success sharpens the piece, the earliest of screen cowboys, here showcasing a silent “it” factor. Tough, fair, and entirely gifted with leading man appeal. Surrounding him with a splendidly dated, old-timey tough guy masculinity works, jettisoning depth for routine storytelling which comes across as comfortable entertainment (even if it’s not all innocent fun).

Video

Despite heavy warping in the third act (the print acting as if a flag in the wind), Olive’s work on Wagon Tracks comes with sensational, high-resolution results. Tremendous detail captures texture in the landscape, in the costumes, and even in close. Presented without digital manipulation, the near 100-year old film stock looks natural, precise, and wonderful.

Time takes its toll. Damage fluctuates between expected scratches, heavy tearing, and discoloration to the dyes. Wagon Tracks uses blues, oranges, yellows, and greens to tell its story. Certain parts of the image do fade when in motion, if briefly.

Stunning contrast covers many of these flaws, no matter their severity. Although black levels do lack full intensity come nightfall, superlative highlights maintain a dense, depth-laden image. The heavy sun holds nothing back. Compression breathes freely. Without extras taking up space and a slim runtime, grain structure rolls naturally across the screen, with no digital noise.

Audio

Even after a decade of writing home media reviews, the irony of scoring audio on a silent film still draws a snicker personally. Here the accompaniment is a newly composed, chipper piano theme from Andrew Earle Simpson. It’s clean, nicely rendered in stereo by DTS-HD, and simple as the film demands.

Extras

Absolutely nothing outside of a menu.

Full disclosure: This Blu-ray was provided to us for review. This has not affected the editorial process. For information on how we handle review material, please visit our about us page to learn more.

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