The Covered Wagon (1923) Director: James Cruze
The Covered Wagon was the first great Western epic film. It was billed as the next big budget film, after Birth of a Nation. It was produced by Paramount Pictures.
The story was adopted from the novel by Emerson Hough. The plot begins in 1848 as a caravan of wagoners await their departure from Kansas as they travel west to Oregon. Jesse Wingate is the pioneer leading the main caravan, but soon the brash, young Will Banion joins the caravan. He falls for Molly Wingate, daughter of Jesse Wingate and fiance of Sam Woodhull, right-hand man to Jesse Wingate. They attempt to ford the rushing Kaw river, though Banion disagrees. This was a highly dangerous scene for the actors and two horses reportedly drowned during filming. Further up ahead, Woodhull’s wagon train is fatally attacked by Indians. Once across the river, they hunt for buffalo meat as food is scarce. Eventually, Molly rejects Woodhull for Banion, but she is injured by an arrow in an Indian attack. As the caravan proceeds, Banion has left for California in search of gold and distraught about a misunderstanding with Molly, however she sends men to find Banion in case he went to California while she remains with the Wingate group travelling to Oregon. One year later, Woodhull nearly catches up to Banion and tries to kill him for taking Molly away from him, but he fails and is killed. Banion leaves Oregon to reunite with Molly at their new pioneer home in Oregon.
The film was one of the biggest blockbusters of the silent era (the budget was a risky $782,000 in 1923). The film was shot in various locations: Palm Springs, CA, Utah, and Nevada. It required a cast of thousands, and also in the scenes where there appear thousands of buffalo, the director employed chains of mechanical buffalo, as the buffalo was hunted nearly to extinction by the time this film was made (in 1923). In addition to thousands of mechanical buffalo, authentic wagons were used from pioneer families who had the wagons as family heirlooms. In an earlier cut of the film, Director James Cruze appeared as an Indian, but he was later cut out of the film as he didn’t appear authentic.
The film is entertaining at parts and is a fun adventure following the pioneers across the country, however the film falls short of greatness and can be avoided for classic film lovers. It is important solely for its role in the history of cinema.