The Covered Wagon (1923)

Directed by James Cruze
Written by Jack Cunningham

I felt as though my Westerns marathon had to open with The Great Train Robbery, since that is the film most popularly recognized as being the first narrative film in the genre. However, where to go to next was a bit of a puzzle. In tirelessly researching films for this marathon, I had to draw a line somewhere, or the marathon would be well over 1,000 film I imagine. At 332 (currently), the list is plenty long enough. With that in mind, James Cruze’s The Covered Wagon was a film which continually showed up in my research and proved to be a good choice for the first feature length film in the marathon. Not only does it fit nicely into the category of Western, for multiple reasons, but it is a compelling, swift, and rather epic film which covers a lot of ground despite being just 98 minutes in length.

As the title, The Covered Wagon, may suggest, the film is about a wagon train. In fact, it is about two separate wagon trains who meet together at Westport Landing (current day Kansas City) in order to set out West on the Oregon Trail. There is strength in numbers after all. Wingate (Charles Ogle) is the head of the train, while Will Banion (J. Warren Kerrigan), the leader of the second train, becomes the lieutenant for the combined effort. Banion soon falls for Wingate’s beautiful daughter, Molly (Lois Wilson), who is all but engaged to marry Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale). As the journey gets underway, the train faces dangers from all sides, including fording a river, attacks by Native Americans, parched terrain, dwindling food stocks and snowy passes. Tensions grow as Banion vies for Molly, while also running from a murky past and clashing with Woodhull, whose plans for the wagon train differ greatly from the instinctual Banion.

I loved that The Covered Wagon was the first feature length film in this marathon simply due to the fact that it checks a lot of boxes off in terms of the genre. Not only do we get pioneering characters travelling West, but there is tension/revenge, there are Indian attacks, there are hardships on the plains, wagons and horses and love triangles! The film also feels really big, especially for being so short compared to other noted epics of the genre. Director James Cruze is able to cover a lot of ground in a jam packed, short amount of time. Ultimately what fuels the film is the lead performance from J. Warren Kerrigan as Will Banion, a mysterious yet gallant character whose motivations and true values always seem to be in question. We even get an Errol Flynn-esque moment from Kerrigan, when he brashly and brazenly rides his horse into the river to prove his point about the crossing. Kerrigan certainly shows bravado here.

Along the way, the film does manage to sacrifice some plot and character development when Cruze wants to fit as much about the Oregon Trail into the film as possible. As a child of the 1990s, I did grow up playing the famed video game, The Oregon Trail, so in some respects it was fun to relive some of these aspects (only disease fails to make an appearance as a hardship in the film). But Cruze takes great care in presenting the harsh conditions as a character unto themselves. The struggle West isn’t compelling without these conditions, and they really help frame the tensions between Banion, Woodhull and Molly Wingate. I still would have liked to see a little more about Molly and Woodhull. Banion’s mysterious past enhances his character, so he was delivered almost pitch perfectly.

The Covered Wagon does present viewers with another question I will be very curious to explore throughout this marathon, which is what motivates these people to trek Westward in the first place? What are they running from? For Banion, can we assume it is his murky past? What about Woodhull and the Wingates? Cruze doesn’t offer answers, but in my experience these mysteries are often some of the most fun aspects of exploring these Western characters. The Covered Wagon does it well. As for the portrayal of Native Americans here, I think there is a fine line. They are shown attacking the white pioneers, though Cruze makes it apparent their land is being invaded by these white men. Cruze being part Ute Indian may help inform his portrayal as well, but I wonder how 1923 audiences viewed the film. There will certainly be more racist portrayals in later films.

Manifest Destiny was always one of the more confusing doctrines of American policy. Of course, westward expansion was likely inevitable, but I’m not sure I completely agree with how America went about expanding westward and how entitled they felt. The advancement of technology and civilization into more primitive Native American tribal lands will be a subject that rears its head many times during this marathon. The Covered Wagon is just one of the first, and it does so quite well. Rating this film as highly as I do has a lot to do with the films overall ambition in the story it tells, and how rooted it feels in the genre. I’m no historian, and I skipped a lot of smaller films in between The Great Train Robbery and this, but The Covered Wagon still feels like a very important entry in the genre.

***1/2 – Great

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