Covered Wagon, The (1923)

“Day after day, week after week of grinding toil to cover twelve pitiful miles a day.”

Synopsis:
In 1848, two men (Charles Ogle and J. Warren Kerrigan) lead a pair of lengthy wagon trains towards Oregon while Ogle’s daughter (Lois Wilson) struggles between loyalty to her fiance (Alan Hale) and her growing interest in Kerrigan, whose checkered history causes her concern.

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Review:
Director James Cruze helmed this remarkably authentic recreation of the westward movement in American history, which distinguishes itself almost immediately as a film worthy of our attention. Within ten minutes of its narrative, we see a group of (real) Native Americans standing around a plow, followed by this intertitle:

The Pale face again crosses the River of Misty Water — always advancing towards the setting sun. With him he brings this monster weapon that will bury the buffalo — uproot the forest – and level the mountain. The Pale Face who comes with this evil medicine must be slain — or the Red Man perishes!

While the remainder of the movie focuses exclusively on the travails of the White settlers, we can’t help feeling gratitude to Cruze (and screenwriter Jack Cunningham) for bothering to show the Indians’ perspective on events as well. Meanwhile, several powerful scenes — most notably a lengthy depiction of wagon trains crossing a river — are simply astonishing in their level of realism; we feel we’re actually watching a documentary portrayal of this pivotal period in American history. (Interestingly, the dramatic buffalo hunt scene was, given the scarcity of herds, only partially “real”, with extensive use of small lead castings — but you’d never know.) The romantic storyline itself leaves much to be desired, and is best simply ignored.

Note: In an interesting bit of trivia: Dorothy Arzner appears to have edited this film.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • A remarkably authentic recreation of the journey undertaken by westward-bound pioneers


  • A refreshing (albeit too short) glimpse of the Native American perspective on “westward expansion”

Must See?
Yes, for its historical relevance as the first “epic” western. Listed as a film with Historical Importance in the back of Peary’s book.

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