When his friend is put on trial for murder, it’s up to Pony Express rider Tom Mix to deliver vindicating evidence to the courthouse in time. A tidy little western from Mix’s salad days.
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the EYE Filmmuseum.
The Murder that Wasn’t
The Pony Express lasted for months, lost money and was quickly put out of business by the introduction of the transcontinental telegraph. Still, the mythology of the American West has never let the facts get in the way of a good story and Pony Express riders galloped up and down the silver screen. In fact, I’d be willing to wager that there were more riders on the silver screen than those who actually rode from Missouri to California for the company in the 1860s.
The cinematic impact is undeniable: your hero riding hell for leather to delivery a Very Important Letter in time. You get suspense, dynamic action and a chance to show off the riding skills of your cinematic cowboy. (Or those of his stuntman.)
And that’s where we arrive at Saved by the Pony Express, a 1911 Selig Polyscope production starring Tom Mix. While Mix is best known as the glitzy king of the cinematic rhinestone cowboys, he was a genuine champion rider and his early films, like this one, were pretty down to earth.
The film opens with a choreographed bit of riding as the local cowboys and cowgirls flirt on horseback. The story concerns two of them, Jim and Tom. Jim gets sore when Tom tries to steal his girl (literally, he grabs her bridle and rides off with her horse) and the men begin to fight. Their friends break them up and take Jim’s revolver just to be sure.
While he is alone in the cabin that houses the cowboys, Tom accidentally shoots himself with Jim’s revolver. As he dies, he manages to write a note stating that his death was an accident, which is awfully decent of him, but he places it on the bench beside him. When his friends discover his body, they knock over the bench to get to him and the note is lost.
Since Jim has a motive and it was his gun, he is arrested and put on trial for murder. However, when one of the cowboys cleans the cabin, he discovers Tom’s note. But his foot is injured! Who will ride to town and deliver this important evidence to Jim’s trial?
We need a miracle! We need a hero! We need famous rodeo rider Tom Mix!
And there he is! Identified in the title cards as the Express Rider, Mix grabs the note and rides to town, exhausting horses and leaping onto fresh ones as he goes. No tame horse at the ranch? It’s okay, he’ll just bust one of those bronchos! Is that the William Tell Overture playing? Well, it should be!
Will Mix make it in time to save Jim? You’re darn tooting but getting there is all the fun, right?
As you might have guessed from my synopsis, this film was made for one reason and one reason only: to see Tom Mix ride. As such, it is highly successful. Mix rides a variety of horses in the exciting manner you would expect from a rodeo veteran. Who doesn’t enjoy a good gallop to the rescue, after all?
This film is also of interest because it’s a chance to see the work of director Francis “Frank” Boggs. Boggs had been the principle director for the Selig Polyscope company at its Edendale, California headquarters but was murdered by a disgruntled ex-employee in October of 1911, just two months after the release of Saved by the Pony Express.
Frank Minnimatsu, the studio janitor, had been fired by Boggs. Minnimatsu shot and killed him in retaliation, wounding William Selig as well in the process. The killer was arrested, convicted and spent the rest of his life in prison. He never clarified his motives for the murder, beyond expressing a vague grudge against Boggs.
Not much of Boggs’ work survives, which is a pity because Saved by the Pony Express is interesting. The film’s setpiece is Tom Mix’s furious ride to get the note to the jury in time. Boggs cuts between Tom’s ride swapping and the jury room as the jurors debate.
In fact, the focus on the process of the trial is something that I have not seen that often from films of this period, which tend to stay in the courtroom for maximum histrionics. And then Boggs doesn’t just end the trial after the note is delivered. Instead, we are shown the jury formally finding the defendant not guilty. I like this because it balances out the “basically why this film was made” horseback scenes with a richer payoff. I am not 100% sure how accurate it all would have been in a legal sense but it makes for a richer motion picture. I am also a sucker for horses charging directly at the camera, which this picture has in abundance.
That’s not to say the film is perfect. The Moving Picture World review of the picture complained that the opening scene is confusing and it is difficult to tell which person in which in the swirl of riders. I had the same problem as Boggs seemed to have been enamored with the horseback minuet he had choreographed and failed to establish the characters until about a minute into the picture, an eternity in a little one-reeler. The reviewer also mused as to whether the old west would have really been so concerned about niceties of a formal acquittal once the note was delivered.
However, these are fairly small nitpicks and, really, the main attraction is seeing Tom Mix ride like crazy and that he does. It’s a fun little picture. A bit improbable, to be sure, but a good time should be had by all.
Where can I see it?
Stream from the Eye Filmmuseum’s YouTube channel. There are no English subs for this Dutch print but the story is easy to follow.
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I drive by the monument near the spot where Mix died in an auto accident several times a year and I can’t help but wonder if anyone stopping there knows who Mix was.
That’s the sad part: we’re slowly losing touch with our cinematic history.
Saw a YouTube post today by a reviewer who said he loved those “old movies” from the ’50’s, ’60’s and ’70’s. Wow. I saw those in theaters as first run.