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THE COVERED WAGON (1923) blu-ray review

February 27, 2018

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written by: Jack Cunningham (screenplay) and Emerson Hough (novel)
produced by: Jesse L. Lasky
directed by: James Cruze
rated: unrated
runtime: 98 min.
U.S. release date: March 16, 1923
blu-ray release date: February 20, 2018

 

“The Covered Wagon” feels like a discovery from a time capsule, capturing both early pioneer life in America, as well as what’s considered the first epic Western and one of the biggest blockbusters of the silent era. When you consider this was epic filmmaking in the early 1900s, the work here from director James Cruze and his frequent collaborator, cinematographer Karl Brown (both of whom made hundreds of films), is impressive when you step back and consider all that went into filming a story that follows such a dramatic journey. It’s crazy to think that back in 1923, Paramount Pictures was willing to take a gamble on such a major production (a budget of $782, 000 was huge back then), yet now they can’t seem to figure out what to do with the likes of “mother!” and “Annihilation”. 

The story follows a caravan of covered wagons in 1848 driven by hearty pioneers traveling through the Old West to Oregon. They await the Spring “jump off” point at West Landing, which is now Kansas City, where they must summon the strength and fortitude to steer their families and possessions to a better life. They will brave harsh elements such as a mile-wide river, prairie fire, heavy snowfall, a buffalo stampede, hunger, and Indian attacks, all with a dream of claiming land.

 

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Some will inevitably die along the perilous journey, but during this time a love triangle forms (and you thought Michael Bay’s”Pearl Harbor” plot was original), as Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson) must choose between the brutish Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale, Sr.) and the dashing Will Banion (J. Warren Kerrigan), both of whom are broadly cast as villain and hero, respectively. Molly is set to marry Sam, who’s out to discredit Will and in doing so succeeds in having Will and his wagons banished from the train and head off to the California gold fields. By that point, Molly has fallen in love with Will and sends Jackson (Ernest Torrence) off to find him. The characters here  are entertaining to follow and, at times, quite comical (intentional or not), but this is a story where the setting and journey is far much interesting than whoever we root for.

Prolific screenwriter Jack Cunningham (“The Black Pirate” and “The Iron Mask”)  adapted the popular 1922 novel by the same name written by Emerson Hough, who was paid $8500 for his book’s transition to the big screen. The story also includes certain historic figures that show up along the trail, such as mountain man Jim Bridger, played by Tully Marshall (a role Leonardo DiCaprio won an Oscar for in “The Revenant”) and another frontiersman Kit Carson, played by Guy Oliver. Both actors played in hundreds of silent films and went on to portray hundreds of characters in talkies.

The film was shot in various locations, including Palm Springs, California and several places in Nevada and Utah and its look offers breathtaking cinematography with widescreen scenery that accentuates the environment’s epic grandeur. It’s important to consider that if a film like this was made today it would incorporate the use of CGI to enhance the locations used, but Cruze and Brown could only rely on cameras of the day and the right weather conditions to get the appropriate lighting and conditions for each frame.

 

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“The Covered Wagon” required a cast of thousands, filling up the screen with many extras, most of whom owned their own covered wagons which contributed to the authenticity of the story Cruze was bringing to life. The covered wagons gathered by Paramount from all over the Southwest were not replicas, but the real wagons that had brought the pioneers west. They were cherished heirlooms of the families who owned them. The producers offered the owners two dollars a day and feed for their stock if they would bring the wagons for the movie. The extras seen on film were families who were perfectly at home driving the wagons and living out of them during the production of the film. Cruze managed to elicit effective performances from his cast, but what stands out more than anything are the long line of wagons.

Another impressive aspect of the film are the scenes shot during the dramatic buffalo hunt and stampede, which were filmed on Antelope Island in Great Salt Lake, Utah. Yes, real buffalos and bison were used. During these scenes, seven bison from the Antelope Island Bison Herd were shot and killed. All the action sequences are well-staged and offer character development while propelling the story forward.

“The Covered Wagon” was an enormous box-office success in 1923 and became one of the major milestones in the history of the Western.  It is considered to be one of the first epic films after D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation”, definitely the first big Western. In his 1983 book Classics of the Silent Cinema, radio and TV host Joe Franklin claimed this film was “the first American epic not directed by Griffith”. In the 1980 documentary “Hollywood: A Celebration of American Silent Cinema”, Jesse L. Laskey Jr. maintained that the goal of director James Cruze was, “… to elevate the Western, which had always been sort of a potboiler kind of film, to the status of an epic”.

Kino Lorber just released “The Covered Wagon” on blu-ray with reversible blu-ray art and bonus materials that include a Wurlitzer organ score by Gaylord Carter, audio commentary by film historian Toby Roan, booklet essay by film scholar Matt Hauske, and the one-reel 1932 spoof, “The Pie-Covered Wagon,” starring Shirley Temple. At times, the easy-going commentary by film historian Toby Roan is like sitting in on a community college film class. There are also moments where he is literally reading from Wikipedia, but he’s an affable host and clearly enthusiastic about what he’s talking about.

 

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RATING: ***1/2

 

 

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