The Covered Wagon (1923) Review

The Covered Wagon (1923) Director: James Cruze

★★★☆☆

Billed by Paramount as the next big budget film after D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), The Covered Wagon is often regarded as the first great epic Western film. I am a sucker for a film that captures the true beauty of the American countryside, and in this respect few films can compete with Westerns. In all, The Covered Wagon is a fun adventure following a band of pioneers across the country, however in my view the film ultimately falls short in certain respects.

The story was adopted from the 1922 novel of the same name by the American Western writer, Emerson Hough. We begin in 1848 as a caravan of wagoners await departure from Kansas to travel westward to Oregon. Jesse Wingate is leads the main caravan, but soon the brash, young Will Banion (played by J. Warren Kerrigan) joins the caravan. He falls for Molly Wingate (played Lois Wilson), daughter of Jesse Wingate and fiance of Jesse Wingate’s right-hand man, Sam Woodhull. They attempt to ford the rushing Kaw river, though Banion disputes this decision. In fact, this was a highly dangerous scene for the actors, reportedly two horses drowned during filming.

Further ahead, Woodhull’s wagon train is fatally attacked by Indians. Once across the river, they hunt for buffalo meat. Eventually, Molly rejects Woodhull for Banion, but she is injured by a stray arrow in an Indian attack. As the caravan proceeds, Banion leaves for California in search of gold, distraught about a misunderstanding with Molly, however she sends men to find Banion while she remains with the Wingate group traveling to Oregon. One year later, Woodhull catches up to Banion and tries to kill him for taking Molly away, but he fails and is killed. Banion leaves Oregon to reunite with Molly at their new pioneer home in Oregon.

Appropriately, a Western was one of the biggest blockbusters of the silent era (the budget was a risky $782,000 in 1923). It was shot in various locations: Palm Springs, CA; Utah; and Nevada, and it required a cast of thousands. In the scenes where thousands of buffalo appear, the director employed chains of mechanical buffalo –sadly by this point in time the buffalo had been nearly hunted to extinction. However aside from mechanical buffalo, at least authentic wagons were used from real pioneer families, these family heirlooms were borrowed on behalf of the production crew. 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 following are a few notes I gathered upon watching this film: J. Warren Kerrigan was a silent film actor who starred in several early films, most notably The Covered Wagon and Captain Blood (the 1924 version). He was perhaps better known for his off-screen controversies –making unfortunate comments about “lesser valuable” people being sent to war, and controversially living with his gay partner (fellow actor James Carroll Vincent) at his mother’s home from 1914-1947 until his death. The other star, Lois Wilson, was a former Miss Alabama beauty pageant star who appeared in many now lost films from the 1920s-1940s. She never married.

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