The Covered Wagon (1923) Review

The Covered Wagon (1923) Director: James Cruze

★★★☆☆

The Covered Wagon is often regarded as the first great epic Western film. It was billed as the next big budget film after Birth of a Nation. The Covered Wagon was produced by Paramount Pictures. The Covered Wagon is entertaining at parts with some truly beautiful scenes of the American countryside. In all, it is a fun adventure following the pioneers across the country, however in my view the film ultimately falls short in certain respects. The Covered Wagon is important solely for its place in the history of cinema.

The story was adopted from the 1922 novel of the same name by the American Western writer, Emerson Hough. The plot begins in 1848 as a caravan of wagoners await departure from Kansas to travel west to Oregon. Jesse Wingate is the pioneer leading 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 Sam Woodhull, right-hand man to Jesse Wingate. They attempt to ford the rushing Kaw river, though Banion disagrees with 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 to eat. Eventually, Molly rejects Woodhull for Banion, but she is injured by an 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 nearly 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.

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 thousands of buffalo appear, the director employed chains of mechanical buffalo, as by this point the buffalo was hunted to near extinction. 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.

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 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.