William S. Hart was one of the preeminent stars of the silent film era, well-loved for his portrayals of stoic, strong-jawed Wild West heroes. His relative obscurity today isn’t helped by a lack of representation on home video; most, if not all, extant DVD releases of his films are Alpha Video public-domain cheapies.
But here comes Olive Films, riding in heroically on horseback with the first Blu-ray release of a Hart film, 1919’s Wagon Tracks, sourced from an original 35mm nitrate print from the Library of Congress. It’s a good choice. Far from an anonymous run-of-the-mill oater, Wagon Tracks is more melodrama and morality play than western, and director Lambert Hillyer is eager to amp up the emotions with lingering close-ups on his actor’s faces, particularly Hart, who isn’t terribly expressive but has an inherent weary quality that makes this material work.
Hart stars as Buckskin Hamilton, a desert guide leading voyages on the treacherous Santa Fe Trail in 1850. He’s set to meet his younger brother on a ship carrying his next expedition, but he learns his brother was murdered onboard after a card game with cheating gambler David Washburn (Robert McKim) went south. Along with his associate Guy Merton (42nd Street director Lloyd Bacon), David has convinced his sister Jane (Jane Novak) that she pulled the fatal trigger.
Buckskin can’t quite believe that Jane is the culprit, and as he leads the group through vast desert landscapes, he becomes assured of the truth that either David or Guy killed his brother. Buckskin the character has no apparent qualms about acting as judge, jury, and executioner, dragging the pair of men away from the convoy to torture out a confession, but Hart the actor wears the weight of the decision on his weathered face.
When it’s examining the interior life of its characters — Buckskin nursing an attraction toward Jane while simultaneously feeling the need for vengeance or Jane’s distraught assumption of her own guilt — Wagon Tracks is on strong ground. Its action sequences are noticeably creakier, particularly the climactic conflict with a Native American tribe, where Hillyer abuses a shot of the natives doing a war dance around a fire, crosscut over and over with the actions of the wagon train.
Wagon Tracks is presented in a 1080p, 1.33:1 transfer that has some impressive moments — mostly those close-ups, which present a healthy level of fine detail and clarity. Almost the entire film is digitally tinted, which results in a mixed bag, especially with some seemingly oversaturated nighttime blues. Damage, though heavy at points, has been attenuated nicely. Accompanying the film is a newly recorded piano score from Andrew Earle Simpson, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo. There are no extras on the disc.