The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 is the most mind-blowing historical event you’ve never heard of.
OK, that sounds like click bait, and maybe you have heard of it, but until I saw Cimarron, Wesley Ruggles’ 1931 Best Picture winner, just about the only thing I knew about the opening of the “Unassigned Lands” to white settlers was the term “Sooner.” The Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889 is not a pretty story. In the 1820s and 1830s, Indians who were ethnically cleansed from Georgia were relocated to what is now Oklahoma. After the Civil War, the Creeks, who sided with the Confederacy, were forced to cede what are now Canadian, Cleveland, Kingfisher, Logan, Oklahoma, Payne Counties to the federal government, 2 million acres of some of the best land west of the Mississippi for the bargain price of $325,362 dollars. On April 22, 1889, over 50,000 people lined up along the border to wait for the signal from the United States Army. All 2 million acres were thrown open to white settlement on a first come, first serve basis. Get to a piece of land first, and it was yours. It was one of the the greatest giveaways of “free stuff” in American history. It’s hard to imagine how anybody could mess up such a fascinating story but Cimarron, which is based on a best selling novel by Edna Ferber, certainly tries.
You had one job Wesley Ruggles, to tell the story of how those 50,000 white settlers waited patiently on the morning of April 22, 1899, fought one another like pit bulls for those beautiful 2 million acres of land stolen from the Indians after the starting gun sounded, and founded Guthrie a city of over 10,000 people, in one day. I am not exaggerating. You had one job, Wesley Ruggles. You had one job. How you have made this boring?
“At twelve o’clock on Monday, April 22d, the resident population of Guthrie was nothing; before sundown it was at least ten thousand. In that time streets had been laid out, town lots staked off, and steps taken toward the formation of a municipal government.”
I wouldn’t exactly call Cimarron a bad film. One of the first great blockbusters, it cost $1,433,000 to make, over a million dollars more than the United States government paid the Creek Indians for “Unassigned Lands” back in 1866. I’m not exactly sure how much $1,433,000 dollars is adjusted for inflation, but my guess is Ruggles spent most of it in the opening. Wesley Ruggles actually stages such an authentic looking reenactment of the events of April 22, 1889 that you can almost be forgiven if you think movie cameras had been invented a few decades earlier than they were and the scenes are historical footage, not a Hollywood movie. If by chance you come upon Cimarron on the Turner Classic Movie Channel by chance one sleepless night, the opening is well worth your time. But here’s a piece of advice you must take if you don’t want to spent the next hour and a half bored out of your skull.
Turn the movie off after 45 minutes.
Take my word for it, you absolutely must turn this movie off after 45 minutes. The opening of Cimarron is glorious. The rest of it is a dull, muddled, liberal soap opera, the model for so many movies that came after it you’ve already seen it 1000 times before. It’s basically Giant – also based on a novel by Edna Ferber – with Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor, but without James Dean. Ferber and Ruggles, to their credit, hate racism, antisemitism and sexism. Cimarron, a pre-code movie, is surprisingly feminist. The hero’s wife becomes the very first female member of the House of Representatives. The hero, who can’t quite get over his wild and crazy cowboy ways, dies a homeless beggar. Ruggles and Ferber even make a few perfunctory statements about how unfair it was to steal all the land – and the oil underneath – from the Indians. Cimarron is no Birth of a Nation. Then again, it’s no Birth of a Nation. As politically correct as it is – politically correct for 1929 — it just doesn’t work as a movie. A screenplay written by confused liberals unsure about what kind of story they want to tell – do they think founding Oklahoma was a good thing or not? – makes for a dull, unengaging, cinematic experience.
It also guarantees that tomorrow I’m going down to the public library and check out every book about the Oklahoma Land Rush I can find.