30 Great Westerns
The Covered Wagon

A wagon train heads for Oregon in The Covered Wagon.

The Covered Wagon (1923) was the first truly epic scale Western. Before it arrived in 1923, the series Western reigned supreme, with stars such as Broncho Billy and Tom Mix attracting huge followings. However when The Covered Wagon arrived, Hollywood studios began to consider the Western more seriously. The Covered Wagon did indeed contain many of the elements of the series Western--such as Indian attacks and shoot outs--but it also took place on a large scale, with a huge assembly of over 400 covered wagons fording rivers and braving snow storms. This celebration of America's pioneering spirit became hugely successful at the box-office and several epic Westerns followed in its wake, including John Ford's arguably superior The Iron Horse.

The Covered Wagon tells the tale of a wagon train that leaves Westport Landing (Kansas City) in 1848 on a 2,000 mile trek to Oregon. The settlers are farmers looking for good crop land. Along the way, they face starvation, severe weather, and the constant threat of Indian attack. Eventually, the settlers become divided when word of a gold strike arrives. Half the settlers abandon their plows and leave for California. The others continue to Oregon.

The movie places great importance on the plow, so the sight of plows abandoned beside the trail is shocking, especially after the settlers have struggled their way for over a thousand miles. In one of the first camera shots in the movie, Jesse Wingate (Charles Ogle), the leader of the wagon train, grips the handles of his plow as it sits beside his wagon and he eagerly talks about tilling the Oregon soil. But director James Cruze soon cuts away: "Far out on the westward trail stands another plow that bravely started for Oregon," says the title card. Indians crowd around a plow. They call it a "monster weapon" and say it "will bury the buffalo, uproot the forest, and level the mountain."

Adapted by Jack Cunningham from a novel by Emerson Hough, The Covered Wagon isn't a particularly complicated movie, but it helps us to understand the threat that the plow posed to the Indians' way of life. When an Indian warrior says the paleface "must be slain -- or the Red Man perishes," the movie establishes empathy for the Indians. Unfortunately, the movie soon drops this angle almost entirely. When the Indians do indeed attack, the camera places its sympathies completely with the settlers. But every time we subsequently see a plow, it carries a double meaning: it represents civilization, and it represents death.

Interspersed with the epic scenes are conventional romantic scenes: Sam Woodhull (Alan Hale) intends to marry Molly Wingate (Lois Wilson), but after Will Banion's wagons from Liberty, Missouri arrive and join the expedition, Molly soon begins to prefer Banion (J. Warren Kerrigan). The two men struggle for control of the wagon train. Banion typically lets Woodhull have his way. He sees himself as an outsider, for he was charged with stealing horses and kicked out of the army. Not until the true story is revealed and he is exonerated can he take his place within civilization.

James Cruze wasn't a particularly imaginative director. His camera placements are always static, but instead of distancing us from the action, the static camera imparts a documentary-like realism. Particularly impressive scenes include a buffalo hunt and a river crossing. Both scenes look so realistic you might forget you're watching a movie.

--by Gary Johnson