Tom Mix plays a Pony Express rider who takes a job leading a wagon train—which is promptly massacred. His workplace evaluation is not going to be pretty. Bessie Eyton and Red Wing are on hand as the women who love Tom, incompetence and all.
Thrown into the Mix
Tom Mix remains one of the most famous western stars of silent cinema and his version of Riders of the Purple Sage was actually the first silent western I ever saw. (I haven’t reviewed it yet because it requires kid glove treatment due to its religious content—or lack thereof. I need to work myself up to it, is my point.) Mix was one of the flashy western stars with a hat big enough to have its own zip code. That particular style of cowboy is not quite to modern taste, for the most part.
I have to confess that my heart belongs entirely to William S. Hart and Harry Carey, who are generally reckoned to have grittier, darker brands than the stunt-happy Mix. I like my westerns with an edge and a philosophical bent or at least some really good glowering. (Though I’m not above enjoying a light-hearted western comedy when the mood strikes.) That being said, it’s never good to leave gaps in one’s cinematic knowledge so let’s take on In the Days of the Thundering Herd, early Mix feature film, and see if we can find something to love.
Quick note before starting the review: While the complete five-reel version of this western does survive, the home video editions are derived from a three-reel condensation released later in the silent era. Obviously, this means it would be unfair to complain about any choppiness as smoothness and background information were likely left on the cutting room floor. I will not be factoring these issues into my review. If you have seen the uncut five-reel version (should run approximately an hour, give or take) do let me know your thoughts.
Mix was already a seasoned veteran of the movies with dozens and dozens of shorts under his belt. However, this was a bigger, longer film than what had usually been on his resume in previous years. At this point, Mix’s hat was smaller and his britches were not bespangled. In fact, there’s quite a bit of grit to be found here.
Mix plays Tom, a Pony Express rider who has caught the eye of Sally (Bessie Eyton), one of the locals of a small, not-really-west town. Other people are waiting for the mail, she’s waiting for the male, as the title cards put it. Before these crazy kids can get married, Sally receives a letter from her parents that can basically be summed up in one word: GOLD!
The entire town decides to pack up and head to California, knees be-banjoed. Well, except for Sally’s brother, who is happy where he is and not particularly bitten by the gold bug. Considering the hardships of the Forty-Niners (I mean the prospectors, not the football team… or do I?), this comes off as pretty sensible. Nobody’s starving in the village and we all know that the people who get rich from gold rushes are the people selling eggs for $20 a dozen, not the prospectors.
But since Sally, who has already almost gotten herself trampled by buffalo, cannot possibly travel alone, Tom decides to take time off work and escort her to California. So off the wagon train goes but you know the trip won’t be easy because we have more reels of film to fill.
The wagon train is traveling through the territory of Chief Swift Wind (Wheeler Oakman) and his sister, Starlight (Red Wing), and they do not like settlers one little bit. They dislike them so much, in fact, that the warriors surround the wagon train and kill everyone except Tom and Sally, who are taken prisoner.
(Is it too soon to say “I told you so.” Because I told you so.)
Anyone who has ever seen a movie in their entire life can predict what happens next. Swift Wind falls for Sally (this is portrayed as creepy) while Starlight is in love with Tom (this is portrayed as noble and sincere). We could talk about the disturbing and damaging politics of “they want our women” and how it is used as a tool to whip up racial hatred down to this day but, you know what, I am not in the mood so we’re moving on. Just letting you know that I see what’s going on and I am giving my best side eye.
Basically, Tom and Sally have the combined IQ of a tapeworm and so much of the film is spent with them unsuccessfully trying to escape, getting recaptured, torture for Tom, Sally getting creeped over, rinse, repeat. Starlight continues to patiently try to help them but at a certain point, I think I would roll my eyes, hand them a Darwin Award and call it a day. Starlight is a nicer person than I am.
Well, an escape finally works and Tom and Sally take refuge with a band of buffalo hunters but you just know Swift Wind is going to have something to say about that and he does, surrounding the hunters and preparing for another massacre. There’s help over the ridge but someone has to ride for it. They need someone with experience riding hell for leather, someone who knows the value of the word “express” and a good pony so they send… Sally.
Yeah. Look, I am all for giving the heroine something to do besides look scared during the final confrontation but, I mean, we kind of established that Tom was something of a wonder on horseback what with his Pony Express experience and all so shouldn’t he… No? Okay.
Will Tom and Sally survive to marry and produce spectacularly stupid children? Watch In the Days of the Thundering Herd to find out!
Tom Mix had been grinding out shorts for the Selig Polyscope Company for years before making this picture but In the Days of the Thundering Herd was something of a prestige production. Selig arranged for part of the action to be filmed in Oklahoma on a ranch owned by Major G.W. Lillie, which was purported to have the largest herd of buffalo in existence. That would explain the odd and seemingly random buffalo incidents in the picture. “We paid to use these buffalo and, dammit, we are putting them on the screen!”
Major Lillie was also known as “Pawnee Bill” and was a veteran of the wild west shows that were so popular at the turn of the century. His ranch was something of a wild west show in itself and contemporary articles claim that it was home to over 700 people of Pawnee heritage. The actual film shows nothing like that number in any scene but both the buffalo and the Pawnee were heavily advertised in order to demonstrate the accuracy of the production.
About that alleged accuracy… Tom’s employment causes a bit of a problem for the story. For all its fame, the Pony Express only operated during a very brief window in 1860 and 1861 but plot synopses of the film state it was set in 1849, during the California Gold Rush. In fact, the California Gold Rush was in part responsible for the need to invent a mail service to the east in the first place. Further, Tom Mix was already in his mid-thirties and I am not sure his strapping six-footer frame would have been desirable for a company that preferred its riders young and its non-mail weight at a minimum. (The famous advertisement that stated “orphans preferred” has not been confirmed in contemporary publications.) In all fairness, “pony express” is in lowercase but I think this brings unneeded confusion and it never factors into the story. Tom could have been a designer and purveyor of lacy undergarments and there would have been no change to the story outside of the improvement. (Wodehouse fans: I know all about Eulalie.)
I don’t really enjoy picking at every single inaccuracy in a historical film but, come on, this was fairly recent history in 1914, I do have some standards.
This is a very dime western, pulpy picture. Basically, you name the western cliché and this film has it in spades. Stampede? Check. Native American woman sacrificing herself for the white hero? Check. The cavalry riding to the rescue? Yup. Gold rushes, wagon trains and lots of fringed leather.
Yeah, that’s an issue for me. Even this early in film history, the western was expanding into a smarter, more introspective genre. I cannot help but compare this picture unfavorably to William S. Hart’s 1914 western corker The Bargain. Directed by Reginald Barker, it was released within a few weeks of In the Days of the Thundering Herd. The Bargain had distinct and appealing characters, an interesting moral dilemma and was genuine fun. It also helped that Hart was a better actor than Mix hands down. For another apples to apples, Cecil B. DeMille’s 1914 film The Squaw Man (which also featured Red Feather) certainly had its issues with race but it avoided falling into “Natives bad, settlers good” clichés and managed to treat most of its Native American characters as competent and capable of emotions beyond lust and rage.
Red Wing had been born Lillian St. Cyr on the Winnebego reservation but, like many other native performers before and since, opted for a more colorful name with the title “Princess” sometimes featured before Red Wing. She was impressive in The Squaw Man but as this film demonstrates, she was often trapped in the “non-white character loves white character and that cannot end well” cliché that also frustrated Sessue Hayakawa.
Wheeler Oakman was something of a That Guy performer in the silent era, popping up in supporting and villainous roles throughout his career. He donned redface to portray Chief Swift Wind and the role is pretty much your typical generic villain. In fact, for all its claims of accuracy, In the Days of the Thundering Herd does absolutely nothing with the culture of the Pawnee and they are cookie cutter baddies. In contrast, Redskin (1929), which dealt with the American government’s attempts to eradicate Native American culture at Indian schools, showcased and celebrated Navajo and Pueblo culture. It could have been done. It can be done. (No, modern Hollywood has not learned its lesson.)
The “captured by natives” plot device was pretty popular (the other way around, not so much) and has even cropped up recently (to embarrassing results) but as far as the story of this film is concerned, it’s pretty generic. Tom and Sally could have fallen into the hands of Germanic barbarians, Chechen rebels orcish hoards or the occupation forces of Cardassia for all the difference it would make to the story. This problem is increased by the hands-off direction of Colin Campbell, who could give 1910s John Ford a run for his money in the whole sweeping vistas thing but couldn’t properly use a closeup to save his life. There is a remoteness to the film, we never really feel invested in the characters. (Campbell had similar issues in his twee production of Little Orphant Annie.) Again, I must bring up The Bargain, which is all about characters and their moral dilemmas and imminent peril. (Seriously, see The Bargain.)
Of course, matters are not helped that as an actor, Tom Mix was a great horseback rider. That was usually enough, especially for his adoring fans, and if that’s your cup of tea… well, enjoy yourself, I mean it. But I like more depth, more punch, more… IT? Mix looks good, is game for action and delivers but this film’s core is about suspense and trauma and neither Mix nor Bessie Eyton display the chops needed to make it work. Hart and Carey? This was absolutely their wheelhouse, especially Carey (I consider him to be the silent western star with the most raw acting talent and he knew how to use it). Red Wing was a better actress but this was a pretty nothing part and she had absolutely no help from either director or co-stars.
I know this was supposed to be an entertaining western but I am not the one who decided to go for the whole “in enemy hands” plot, now did I? I wanted to play with the buffalo and showcase Pawnee culture but would they listen? They did not.
(Oh, and here’s an interesting factoid: The Chicago censor board demanded that all shots of dead people “close to camera” and threats to burn Tom be excised from the picture. I am fairly certain that would have left us with a solid twenty minutes of nothing but buffalo milling about.)
Reviews of the time were enthusiastic for the excitement and sweep of the picture and it does look amazing. The print I saw was not in the best of shape but even through the rainstorm of scratches, I could see the quality of the cinematography (I could not locate a name for the cameraman) and the punchy action scenes. This picture looks fantastic but it has no soul.
By the way, similarly-titled films were released in 1925 and 1933 but they seem to have little in common with this picture other than “thundering herd” in the name and heroes called Tom.
So, I guess my verdict of this one is… s’okay? Not great. Not even good, really. It doesn’t have a new idea in its pretty little head but it looks great. The racism is on the high side of what was considered acceptable for westerns of the time, so you have been duly forewarned. There are no major mistakes when judged next to other 1914 westerns but there also isn’t much that sets it apart.
If you just love Tom Mix, you will probably enjoy seeing him younger and less glittery in this picture. If you’re more in the Hart/Carey corner, this picture is a more watchable Mix production. If you don’t like westerns, this isn’t the film to change your mind.
Where can I see it?
The version I saw was released on DVD by Alpha with a canned music score. It was cheap, though. If a proper transfer of the full five-reeler ever became available, I would be very glad to see it but I don’t really think it would change my mind.
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